Berlioz
The Trojans at Carthage [Part Two of The Trojans; sung in English]

Dido – Susan Parry
Aeneas – John Daszak
Anna – Anna Burford
Ascanius – Victoria Simmonds
Pantheus – Iain Paterson
Narbal – Clive Bayley
Iopas – Colin Lee
Hylas – Christopher Saunders
Trojan Sentry – Toby Stafford-Allen
Trojan Sentry – Graeme Danby
Mercury – Barry Martin

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Paul Daniel

Richard Jones – director
John Macfarlane – designer
Wolfgang Göbbel – lighting
Philippe Giraudeau – choreographer
It was interesting to re-read the extracts from Berlioz’s Memoirs – reprinted in ENO’s programme book – concerning his trials and tribulations over the truncated premiere in 1863 of the Carthaginian acts from The Trojans. Not that this new production by English National Opera was at all unfaithful to the music as written; only that the often low-key nature of the evening made this second half of the opera as much of a non-event as it may well have seemed to Parisian audiences 140 years ago.
After his half-hearted laminating of aspects of 9/11 and events in Iraq onto the mise en scène of The Capture of Troy (i.e. Acts One and Two of the opera) earlier this year, Richard Jones plays relatively safe with the follow-up. Indeed, the sparseness of decor in the first two acts can’t have been far removed from the basic staging and painted backdrops prevalent in the Sadler’s Wells era. Whether this was down to budgetary considerations, or an attempt to suggest a new beginning and a new perspective at this juncture in the opera, is uncertain.
And there were elements that worked well. Philippe Giraudeau’s choreographed sequence as the Carthaginians celebrate their economic success, a model of the city being tentatively assembled then rapidly dismantled, is a diverting complement to Berlioz’s music. As John Macfarlane apparently sees it, the interior of (presumably) Dido’s palace – a parallel to the citadel in the Trojan acts – is a curious conflation of stately home and natural history collection, though suited to the intimacy of much of Act Two. Most impressively, the textured backdrops which descend during the course of the love duet place the responses of Dido and Aeneas at a remove – abstracting the expressive potency of some of Berlioz’s most affecting music as surely as they heighten its emotional intensity.
Yet there are major failings. The tentative staging seemed to induce an absence of tension over Act One. In the context of the five-act opera, this is necessarily on a lower level following the destruction of Troy; left to fend for itself, it felt little more than a conflation of French grand-opera clichés – enjoyable but unmemorable. The ’Royal Hunt and Storm’ interlude at the start of Act Two was prosaic – the lovers descending via a trapdoor to effect their consummation – while the ensuing victory dances did not seem so far removed from the Music and Movement routines beloved of primary schools a generation ago.
The iron-clad battleship in which the Trojan fleet sets sail in the first scene of Act Three was presumably designed as a parallel to the wooden horse of the Trojan acts: impressive visually, it imposes an unwarranted lengthy pause before the opera could continue – breaking up the flow of Berlioz’s dramatic thinking. The final scene saw Dido’s suicide in front of a Carthaginian populace whose procession was bereft of context or setting. As Ascanius emerges triumphant on Pantheus’s shoulders, the coming of Rome is heralded with cheery optimism but no real sense of vision.
Vocally, the cast was generally impressive. As Dido, Susan Parry shouldered the responsibility of her part with gravitas and a well-judged transition from detached ruler to desperate lover. Her soul- bearing in the final act was carried through with absolute control over vocal line, and an accuracy that met Berlioz’s strenuous demands head on. John Daszak’s Aeneas could not quite surmount the latter. Sympathetic as a soldier torn between the call of duty and the prompting of the heart, the exacting tessitura frequently overwhelmed him (as it has most tenors of the modern era) – not least in the culminating stanzas of the love scene. Yet the sense of oneness with Parry here and in their climactic confrontation was always in evidence, ensuring that the spirit of Berlioz’s drama was palpably and often movingly conveyed.
As to the secondary roles, Victoria Simmonds was a lively Ascanius, Iain Paterson a thoughtful Pantheus. Clive Bayley impressed in his foreboding as Narbal, while Colin Lee’s relaxed Iopas was fully in keeping with the part. Christopher Saunders’s Hylas rendered his affecting cameo with mellifluous ease, while Toby Stafford-Allen and Graeme Danby were subtly amusing as the travel-weary sentries. If she evinced almost too much depth of character as Anna, Anna Burford’s rich-toned mezzo was impressive both in itself and in its delineation of character.
In an opera where much of the drama is articulated through the orchestra, the conductor needs to be demonstrably in charge of proceedings. Unfailingly musical as always, this was far from Paul Daniel’s finest achievement. Ebb and flow of tension, which Berlioz carried over revitalised from the ’lyric tragedy’ tradition, was fitful in the first two acts. Opening atmospherically, the ’Royal Hunt and Storm’ conveyed little exhilaration, and with poor co-ordination between the offstage brass contingent. Londoners may have been spoiled by the galvanic presence of Sir Colin Davis in this work over the last decade, but Daniel’s experience in the opera house is such that he should have been able to secure a more dynamic orchestral response in the culminating stages of Act Three – reinforcing the efforts of Parry and Daszak as the opera drew to its triumphal yet fateful close.
So, a presentation which only intermittently does justice to the power and pathos of Berlioz’s most ambitious, all-embracing conception. More might have been expected in his bicentenary year – but, with a complete staging planned for the opening of the refurbished Coliseum in the autumn of 2004, maybe Messrs Jones and Daniel can yet refocus the production to make the opera the inspiring dramatic masterpiece it undoubtedly is.

 

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