Where to start? This is a massive evening, 5 acts, 5.5 hours long, huge cast, huge chorus, huge sets, huge score. I do very much like Berlioz, the good bits are just so good, but he is so maddeningly inconsistent, and Les Troyens, a piece which should be his magnum opus, puts his defects as well as his strengths into stark profile. As an orchestrator he is of course superb, one of the most original and successful of all composers in this regard. Harmonically too he is an innovator, but more accidentally here - there's a strong feeling that he is working things out empirically chord to chord, piece to piece, which makes for some fantastic and fantastically odd moments, but it also can prevent him building in the larger range, and when he chooses to use such enormous canvases as he does in Les Troyens, this becomes problematic. The vocal writing is not what one might call glamorous - no chances to show boat for the principals, though it is all very demanding.
McVicar's production does its best to sort through this gigantically chaotic piece and like the score, succeeds in places and is found wanting elsewhere. Staging wise, the first half, comprising Acts I and II, which depicts the fall of Troy to the Greeks, was most successful. At the outset of the opera we are presented with the curving outer wall of the now no longer besieged Troy, the chorus singing joyously about the Greeks mysterious retreat. Cassandra of course is less than convinced. McVicar has chosen to update this to the early half of the 19th century, a period he seems to love. I'm not sure if he has a particular war in mind that he was translating it to, but it basically worked. Early reports suggested that he was doing one of those horrible mixing of all cultures thing again, like the disastrous Aida, but if this was the original intention, there was very little sign of that here - aside from odd anachronisms created by the updating (pagan rituals and gods in Christian times) it was basically all from this period.
The Trojan horse when it came was absolutely magnificent - only the head was seen on stage, beautifully lit, descending slowly on the audience, and moving with so many degrees of freedom that it seemed like a living horse, rather than a wooden one. In fact it was made of lots of welded together Greek arms - cannons and muskets and the like, a nice touch that added to the idea of it as a peace offering (but also simultaneously as a massive warning of the threat it contains). At the end of Act 2, its mane becomes a flaming wall of fire, and it breathes fire. It's difficult to describe how awesome the sight of it is, and its basically worth the price of admission for this alone.
As Cassandra, Anna Caterina Antonacci is quite splendid and she received the biggest ovations at the end of the night. The intensity of her delivery is thrilling, though I did think that she was given a bit too much scene chewing to do by McVicar - I wishes all her actions had been a bit less OTT, or perhaps it would have been better to have her completely batshit insane, and really extreme. She's 51 now so naturally the voice is no longer quite what it once was, in terms of beauty or flexibility or volume, but its still very in tune, basically does what she wants it too, and she's expressive and very much gets the point across, so one never wishes for something else from her. Fabio Capitanucci is her fiancé Coroebus and is presented as an insensitive, pompous idiot, barely looking at her, let alone listening to her dire warnings - McVicar seems to have drawn a blank as to why on earth these two characters are courting - so different are they in every way, and they don't seem at all comfortable on stage as a couple. He sings well, though there are even less glory moments for him than the other leads.
One of the most affecting scenes was the royal pageant in Act I, which culminates in the presentation of the horse. Hecuba is superbly acted by Pamela Helen Stephen, maybe the best acting I've seen on the ROH stage this year - such dignity, subtlety and commanding presence. It's a tiny role and barely a singing part - I don't think there even are any solo lines for her and initially I thought they had just hired an actress who was mouthing the choruses. Truly spell binding - if only all opera acting could be this good! The slightly bigger role of her husband King Priam was also superbly acted by Robert Lloyd, here portrayed as ancient and verging on infirm, getting by on pure grit and ineluctable authority.
This sort of genius in small moments characterised the whole evening. Many of the small roles were wonderfully taken by Jette Parker Young Artists - Jihoon Kim made a very good Ghost of Hector and Barbara Senator a very good Asanius (and doesn't she look like Nina Stemme here!). Even better were Ji-Min Park as a slightly breathy, but very beautiful sounding Iopas, Hanna Hipp who sounded magnificently rich and dark in the larger role of Anna, Dido's sister, and also veteran Brindley Sherratt in wonderfully booming voice as Narbal. Not a single cast member in fact was found wanting.
Acts III to V chart rockier ground dramatically, though the most beautiful music is to be found here. I wasn't very keen Es Devlin's sets here, which were a sort of cartoony false perspective Carthage, with a central disc with a tiny buildings on it which Dido strolled around. Despite everyone wearing brightly coloured and boldly patterned African garb (though I fear there may have been other cultures mixed in there), there was of course only one black face to be seen on a stage of over 100 people, which gave everything a rather surreal look that didn't seem to match to any recognisable culture. Took me a while to realise that that was why it looked so weird.
The music of Act III is mostly on the less inspired side, notably excepting a surprising dance for girl peasants in the middle which is exquisitely scored and has a very beautiful melody. As Dido, Eva-Maria Westbroek is a much more glamorous voice than Antonacci, but she seemed lost as Didon dramatically. Didon is the "people's princess", but for McVicar that means touching the crowd like a pop musician, hollywood smiles, and hugging children. There's not one hint of nobility in this characterisation of Dido (I place the blame at McVicar's feet), and it's not until her Act 5 monologue that a compelling three dimensional character emerges. She sings very well though, best of all in this monologue, unleashing a time stopping pianissimo on the final note. I wasn't all that moved however. For me there's a slight loss of lustre compared to a few years ago and I hear the beginning of spreading on her top notes. Still this is very nice singing.
Little happens in Act IV, but it's a string of pure delights musically. First the Hunt and Storm Ballet which is simply one of the best pieces of ballet music between Rameau and Tchaikovsky. Then Narbal's aria, another wonderful ballet sequence, Iopas' aria, Aeneas' tale and then to even more wonderful things: the ravishingly beautiful septet which is probably the most beautiful number in the whole opera, and then the almost as lovely but slightly prolix duet for the lovers. This is basically number opera, in stark contrast to some of the earlier acts which seems to aiming at somewhat larger dramatic units and scenas. This wild eclecticism of style is one of the reasons why Les Troyens remains problematic, but it also where many of its charms lie.
As a side note, the dancers all had modern hair, with a couple of the men having cool hipster haircuts. This sort of thing maddens me - when it just clearly hasn't been thought about. Antonacci had contemporary hair too, possibly excusable because she's a wild woman/prophetess, so we'll forgive that, but the dancers really annoyed me. Also, dancers make the worst actors ever - they are trained to always extend to the maximum, expand gestures to exaggeration, and the result is pure irritation and unbelievability. Maybe I'm the only one who thinks this.
Act V revealed Bryan Hymel to be perhaps the star of the show as Aeneas. (Maybe?) He has a bad rep in London after singing a Don Jose a few years back that seems to have been universally slated. He was magnificent however in the ROH Rusalka earlier this year, and he is again very good here. Stepping into Kaufmann's shoe's is never going to be an easy task, but Hymel is so different and so excellent that I only occasionally got pangs of regret about Kaufmann's absence. Enée is a famously ungrateful role in that it is a shockingly difficult sing, but has few glory moments compared to the women in this opera. But Hymel really made something of it here, never sounding overtaxed, and his top notes are a treat. Really magnificent singing this, and he's only 33 so he's only going to get better. Maybe I am overstating things, but he's definitely someone I'll be watching from now on.
There's way too much to mention in this production to go into more than cursory detail, but overall the good significantly outweighs the bad - definitely try and see it, if only for the reason that its so rarely done, and also to see that beautiful horse apart from anything! It's not a stunning evening of drama and it only just about coheres, but again like the score, this production presents a series of wonderful scenes which are hugely enjoyable taken on their own.
Antonio Pappano is in the pit with the ROH orchestra and he clearly believes in the score passionately. Plenty of wonderful moments and as always he's just so good at supporting the singers. The ROH Chorus were on fine form too. Too tired to write any more now!
This is a four way co production between the ROH, Vienna State Opera, La Scala and San Francisco opera, so it is definitionally coming to an opera house near you soon.