MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Guest Review: Les Troyens in Paris

Tom Luce contributes the following report on the much-discussed Paris Opera production of Berlioz’s operatic masterpiece as staged by Dmitri Tcherniakov:

The new production at the Opéra Bastille of Berlioz’s great Virgil-inspired account of the Trojan War and Aeneas’s dalliance with Dido the Carthaginian Queen is the fourth the city has seen in the last 30 years. The 1990 production, which was staged by Pierre Luigi Pizi, celebrated the opening of the new Bastille opera house. A fine production by Yannis Kokkos under John Eliot Gardner’s musical direction was given at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 2003. Herbert Warnicke’s Salzburg version was repeated at the Paris Opera in 2006, with Sylvain Cambreling conducting.

The Russian Dmitri Tcherniakov staged this new production, with the company’s music director Philippe Jordan on the podium, which marks the 350th anniversary of the Paris Opera, the 30th of its home at the Bastille, and the 150th of the composer’s death.

The staging has excited controversy and the singing and playing admiration. Tcherniakov gives the work contemporary settings. The first part — the conquest of Troy by the Greeks after the Trojans thought they had won — takes place in a modern, badly war-damaged environment suggesting recent Balkan or Middle Eastern conflicts. This was generally effective and provided a convincing setting for a stunning vocal and dramatic performance by Stéphanie d’Oustrac as the unbelieved prophetess of doom Cassandra (graduating from the part of Ascanius, which she had sung in the John Eliot Gardner performances). Stéphane Degout as her lover Chorebus contributed another outstanding performance amongst a generally fine cast matched by formidable singing and acting from the chorus.

Some features of Tcherniakov’s interpretation were more questionable. King Priam of Troy and his family are shown on a separate corner of the stage in a protected regal environment and introduced one by one in a dumbshow before the real opera begins. A video suggests that Cassandra’s contrarian attitude stems not from a power of prophecy but rebellion against her father the King because he sexually abused her as a child. Aeneas is portrayed as being secretly in league with the attacking Greeks. These notions might be intriguing if found in a fantasising modern playwright’s revisionist interpretation of the Trojan legend, but they have no basis in or consistency with either Virgil’s or Berlioz’s versions. Overall, however, they were not important or obtrusive enough to undermine the power and vividness of Tcherniakov’s presentation of the first two acts of the opera and the conviction with which the performers conveyed it.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of his directorial intrusions into the three Carthage acts. These are not set as Berlioz specified — in Dido’s Royal Park, then a forest, and, finally, the Trojans’ camp near the port from which they leave for Rome — but occur throughout in the communal meeting hall of a “Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Traumatised War Victims.” The cast initially does not take the parts attributed to them by Berlioz but are all either residents or care staff who, in supposedly therapeutic amateur dramatics, act out the roles of Dido, Aeneas, of Carthaginians and Trojans, etc.

All of the scenes are accompanied by normal features of a modern-care clinic — stretching classes and a television set constantly showing up-to-date news programmes which, in the 6 February performance I saw included (fortunately silent) pictures of President Trump delivering the State of the Union address and a headline announcing “Renegotiation du Brexit.” Some of the time there was a ping-pong game.

Of course both Trojans and Carthaginians were refugees from brutal conflicts. Yet so narrowly enclosing Berlioz’s profound and complex vision of their sufferings and heroism could not fail to undermine it. It is hard to see how Iopas’s beautiful song to the fertility of the land or the wonderful quintet “Tout conspire a vaincre mes remords …” — in which Dido shifts from loyalty to the memory of her murdered spouse to love of Aeneas — could possibly be enhanced by such distracting goings-on.

There were also cuts. None of the ballet music in the Carthage acts was performed. We did get the “Combat de Ceste” in the first Troy act but, weirdly for such exuberant music, it accompanied not a celebratory dance by the Trojan wrestling squad but the whole Trojan community in a protracted stance of frozen grief for their dead war heroes.

Leaving out the ballet episodes is not without precedent; to my recollection they were all omitted from the 2006 Wernicke staging. Though superb music, they can admittedly present a staging problem ––for example, the three ballets of sailors, builders, and farmers illustrating Dido’s pride in the achievements of the young Carthaginian state can sometimes rather improbably suggest that she had contracted out the development of its infrastructure to a ballet company. Skillful staging can overcome such risks, as was shown by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser in 1987 for the Lyons Berlioz Festival, which in this and other respects demonstrated how imaginative innovation can refresh and enhance without undermining the composer’s vision.

Still more serious was the omission of the Shakespearian scene in which two Trojan soldiers in the final act moan about being forced to leave their obliging Carthaginian lovers for a tiresome expedition to Italy which they will probably fail to survive. The amateur actors in the care-home would have had fun impersonating them, and, along with the ballet episodes, they illustrate Berlioz’s greater interest in and empathy for the Trojan and Carthaginian communities than can be found in Virgil, who concentrates more on gods and heroes.

Unlike on opening night, when Dmitiri Tcherniakov’s presence during the bows apparently elicited some loud hostility, the performance of 6 February was greeted with great and unadulterated acclaim by its audience. This was deservedly directed at the performers, who collectively gave a very fine account of the opera. In their hugely challenging roles, Ekaterina Semenchuk rose to great heights in Dido’s final scenes and Brandon Jovanovich convincingly delivered the rather brutal vision of Aeneas the staging seemed to demand. There was much excellent quality and scarcely any weakness in the rest of the large cast.

The chorus were rightly greeted with enormous enthusiasm, along with their chorus masters Jose Luis Basso and Alessandro di Stefano. No opera has a more important role for chorus. Their singing was throughout at a level very rarely encountered, as was their acting, for which presumably Tcherniakov and those working with him should be given credit — whatever view is taken of his overall staging concept.

Equal enthusiasm deservedly greeted the splendid orchestra and Philippe Jordan for their thrilling musical rendition of Berlioz’s still-astonishing score.

This is the ninth production of the opera I have been privileged to see. It was a mixed evening, but I am glad not to have missed it.
–Tom Luce

Filed under: Berlioz, reviews

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