Berlioz
The Capture of Troy [Part One of The Trojans; sung in English]

Cassandra – Susan Bickley
Chorebus – Robert Poulton
Aeneas – John Daszak
Ghost of Hector – Pavlo Hunka
Priam – Gerard O’Connor
Pantheus – Iain Paterson
Ascanius – Victoria Simmonds
Hecuba – Carole Wilson
Helenus – Colin Lee
Greek Captain – Barry Martin
Andromache – Leah Muller
Astyanax – Daniel Opie
Polyxena – Fiona Canfield

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Paul Daniel

Richard Jones – director
Stewart Laing – designer
Wolfgang Göbbel – lighting
Staging The Trojans must present something of a conundrum: how to convey the relevance of this most classical of fable while honouring its timelessness. On the basis of this staging of the first two acts of Berlioz’s masterwork, it can be said that Richard Jones has captured, albeit fitfully, the first quality while allowing the latter to elude him completely.
Of course, the implications of ’9/11’ could scarcely be avoided in a drama in which conflict and chaos are always apparent. Yet the manner in which Jones has laminated graphic images onto the Virgilian narrative suggests, at best, a narrowing conceptual focus on a situation of developing psychological complexity; at worst, a response somewhere between conceited and naïve. Those bound up with the capture of Troy emerge not as persons made real by their actions and responses, but as ciphers reduced to enacting commonplace situations of the present age.
Thus Cassandra, whose prophecies of doom and destruction range across the ’Trojan’ acts, becomes a middle-aged sociopath needing restraint from her menopausal excesses. Chorebus, her betrothed, is a careerist with no desire to question, let alone undermine, the social status quo. Hector is remembered as a JFK-like statesman with Andromache his Jackie-O consort; Priam a benevolent sugar-daddy, keen to boost his popular rating. The allusions to ’Ground Zero’ and Weapons of Mass Destruction as Troy falls might have implied an inherent topicality through the ages, but instead suggest an all-too-obvious reaching for visual archetypes.
Despite these limitations – and the onstage appearance of a ’real’ wooden horse was a welcome feature – the musical component of this production is always, and often more than, dependable. Susan Bickley’s Cassandra is less commanding or implacable than previous assumptions, but sung with a telling humanity and compassion in the face of the inevitable. That she dominates both scenic and musical action is a tribute to her powers of vocal-acting, and in accord with the female centres of influence that Berlioz sets up in each ’half’ of his opera.
Otherwise, Robert Poulton makes a properly gullible Chorebus, Gerard O’Connor a well-meaning but witless Priam and Pavlo Hunka a vividly-defined Ghost of Hector – in itself a compensation for the visual fudge. As Aeneas, John Daszak has taken on perhaps the most crucifying tenor part in the repertoire: if sometimes strained in the upper register, the musicality of his response suggests an empathy which should find fulfilment in the ’Carthagenian’ acts to come.
Given the impact of Sir Colin Davis’s concert performances of the opera over the last decade, it would be easy to criticise Paul Daniel’s conducting as tentative or under-powered. In fact, he finds a very plausible balance between characterising incidental detail and the broad sweep, which carries over from the discursiveness of the first act to the visceral brevity of its successor. Playing was rarely less than secure, with such crucial points as the clarinet solo that embodies Andromache’s grief persuasively rendered, though offstage contributions need greater immediacy if Berlioz’s spatial dynamism is to be given its due. The currently under-threat ENO chorus sang lustily and with vigour; those representing the doomed Trojan woman can hardly be blamed for a certain self-effacement when given the appearance of peace protestors.
No, this isn’t yet The Trojans for the 21st century – any more than it avoids confusing the topical with the trivial. But if Jones can bring greater conceptual clarity to his portrayal of ’The Trojans at Carthage’, and Daniel tighten his already apparent grip on the musical drama, this could still be a production which embodies rather than merely regurgitates the spirit of its time.

 

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