The fact that Berlioz’s Les Troyens had been last performed in Berlin in 1930 with Frida Leider in the role of Dido (that must have been really something!) is no surprise. Other than the Metropolitan Opera’s fondness for it during the 1970’s and 80’s* or the occasional performance in France, this gigantic opera has been rarely staged full stop. However, the new century seems to have brought a change in this – last year, the Dutch Opera staged it with an international cast and almost one year later the Deutsche Oper has decided to give it its first production (F. Leider sang it at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden). Although the venture is praiseworthy in itself, I guess that, if you truly decide to undertake a difficult task, you should be above its difficulty level.
When I saw Pierre Audi’s production in Amsterdam, I found it unmemorable, but I was wrong, for I couldn’t help missing it while watching David Pountney’s awkward, inefficient and often quite ugly production. To be honest, I could live with the lackluster La Prise de Troie (and I confess I liked the literally larger-than-life Trojan horse), even if I still need to be enlightened about the reason why it was deemed important that Cassandre should die surrounded by rusty iron bed structures. When it comes to Les Troyens à Carthage, it is difficult to overlook the oceans of bad taste displayed before the audience’s eyes: plastic curtains, furniture reduced to cushions, unbelievably tacky yellow/green costumes and the less we speak of Renato Zanella’s choreography the better (suffice it to say that if you need to explain to your children how babies are made, you just have to show them the ballet invented for the Royal Hunt and Storm). To make things worse, sets and costumes have been sloppily made (the “starry night projection” for Nuit d’Ivresse is frankly amateurish) and there are moments when the words “school pantomime” run through one’s thoughts. I am not sure either about the idea of showing Cassandre’s in the last scene singing Anna’s text for Didon.
As usual, one can always close his or her eyes and bask in the glorious sounds of the Deutsche Oper Orchestra, in truly great shape this evening. But I wonder how long one would take to notice that beautiful sounds alone do not say everything in a score like Berlioz’s Les Troyens. Conductor Donald Runnicles explains that it is unthinkable to perform the opera without cuts and mercilessly made excisions, of all things, in Chorèbe and Cassandre’s duet, not to mention that the role of Anna is reduced to comprimario. Not only the cuts in the part of Cassandra were an offense to the distinguished guest soloist, but they did not prevent the conductor to make the opera shorter. In Amsterdam, I can recall even an addition, the rarely recorded (let alone performed) episode with Sinon, the Greek spy, and the whole performance was roughly 30 minutes shorter than this evening’s. It is no coincidence that Amsterdam featured the great Berliozian conductor John Nelson, while the Deutsche Oper had good old Runnicles trying to make a Götterdämmerung out of it. The opening scene promised calamity: the chorus and the orchestra could not match to save their lives and it all sounded like chaotic noise. The Trojan part of the opera worked properly in bombastic moments, such as the end of Act II’s first tableau, but most of the rest hanged fire. However, the Carthaginian acts dragged and one could not help but noticing that Berlioz is one of those composers who need an expert to make it work: “…this music does not have the great organic momentum of a Wagner opera (…) it is not obvious that this piece is going to work: conductor and director always have to give it a push from time to time”. These are not my words, but Mr. Pountney’s. In Amsterdam, the pushes have been so masterly given that I could not even notice them – the score simply sounded consequent, intense and, by the end, quite gripping. It should be noted that John Nelson did not have an orchestra as impressive as the Deutsche Oper’s back then.
If you were at the Bismarckstraße opera house this evening, you would understand why everybody calls for Italy so often during this opera, for the Italian singers lent this performance its distinction. Although Anna Caterina Antonacci is not the dramatic soprano one would expect to find in this role, her voice is full and penetrating enough for it. And she sings in impeccable French, crystalline diction and admirable purpose. A committed stage actress, she did not allow a costume that made it difficult for her to move freely (apparently, nobody noticed it is too long for her) stand between her and dramatic engagement. She was ideally partnered by Markus Brück’s Chorèbe, who is at home in French music as he has proven to be both in German and Italian repertoires. His small contribution as a drunk Trojan soldier in the last act was also funny and idiomatic. However, it is Daniela Barcellona’s regally sung Didon who had the audience at her feet. The Italian mezzo’s luscious, spacious voice filled Berlioz’s music with classical poise and no lack of passion. At times, the name of Tatiana Troyanos came to my mind (and I mean it as the highest imaginable compliment). In the closing scene, she even allowed herself to use her strong chest register to depict the dying queen’s despair. It is only a pity that her French is not truly clear. In any case, a truly great performance that makes me think that Ms. Barcellona, who also looked gracious enough in this role, should be far more famous than she is.
Ian Storey’s Énée is controversial, but I would say that, if one has in mind that he is the wrong kind of tenor for this role, he has given a very decent performance. His voice is, as always, on the baritonal side and his middle register is a bit unfocused, but his ascent to his high notes are impressively powerful and warm-toned. The problem is that one can see that these high notes require lots of energy from him. While he can still cope with that demand, the results are undeniably exciting, but when he begins to tire, his singing cannot help but sounding efforful. It must be noted that he is a finer interpreter than he gets credits for and works hard for refinement in scenes like Nuits d’Ivresse. Finally, I must put in a word for Heidi Stober’s Ascagne, probably the best I have ever heard.
* In 2003, the Met launched a new production, in which Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sang the role of Didon, recently released on CD.