With its tale of love, duty, destiny, and the rise and fall of empires, Berlioz’s ‘Les Troyens’ was well-selected as Covent Garden’s contribution to Olympic year.
The music reflects Berlioz’s devotion to the people and places of the Virgil poem which is his subject. Director David McVicar has approached his opera with similar reverence, creating – with designer Es Devlin - a production which honours the savage beauty of Berlioz’s conception.
‘Les Troyens’ is often seen as a problematic work, and not just because of its length. Berlioz did not live to see its premiere, and it was last performed at Covent Garden forty years ago. Its music may never attain Wagnerian heights, but at its best it has a sustained magnificence, and sometimes the plangent expressiveness of Berlioz’s hero Christoph Willibald von Gluck.
With ‘Les Troyens’ the problem lies in the interludes: Act Four may culminate in a magical sequence – a quintet followed by a septet followed by a duet, all ravishing – but much of its first half consists of dullish dances. Some of these get naff choreography, but otherwise McVicar uses his dancers and acrobats to reinforce the solidity of his production, where antiquity is viewed through a 19th-century Parisian lens. The people of Troy emerge from what looks like a gas-holder, but we know that – like the giant horse it harbours – this will open to reveal all kinds of secrets, and the most beautiful of these is the city of Carthage presented as a sun-drenched hive of activity, while the horse itself is a splendidly imaginative creation.
Musically the show is top-notch, with the chorus on coruscating form, Antonio Pappano bringing out the instrumental colour with exemplary clarity, and a line-up of soloists led by three outstanding voices. Anna Caterina Antonacci incarnates prophet-of-doom Cassandra with a clear-eyed and commanding urgency. Eva-Maria Westbroek’s full-toned Dido is ideally complemented by Bryan Hymel’s Aeneas in their exalted duet ‘Par une telle nuit’. And when Hymel lets rip in his long wrestle with his conscience before deserting her, the ringing purity of his tone melts the heart. Other delights include Ed Lyon’s exquisitely-sung Phrygian sailor, plus a succession of brilliant coups de theatre thanks to the synergy between McVicar’s pageantry and Wolfgang Goebbel’s lighting, which at times creates effects worthy of Gericault. A fabulous evening.