The Trojans

The Trojans [“The Capture of Troy” & “The Trojans at Carthage”; Libretto by the composer, after Virgil, sung in Hugh Macdonald’s English translation]

Pantheus – Mark Richardson
Cassandra/Ghost of Cassandra – Susan Bickley
Chorebus/Ghost of Chorebus – Robert Poulton
Ascanius – Anne Marie Gibbons
Hecuba – Carole Wilson
Aeneas – John Daszak
Priam – Gerard O’Connor
Andromache – Naomi Wattis
Astyanax – Daniel Opie
Helenus/Iopas – Christopher Gillett
Ghost of Hector – Brindley Sherratt
Polyxena – Fiona Canfield
A Greek Captain – Simon Kirkbride
Dido – Sarah Connolly
Anna – Anna Burford
Narbal – Clive Bayley
Hylas – Mark Padmore
Trojan Sentries – Roland Wood & Henry Waddington

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Paul Daniel

Richard Jones – director
Stewart Laing – designer (Acts I & II)
John Macfarlane – designer (Acts III to V)
Wolfgang Göbbel – lighting
Philippe Giraudeau – choreographer

Reviewed by: Robert Hugill

Reviewed: 24 September, 2004
Venue: Coliseum, London

The invaluable potency of myth is that it resonates in all societies. So in performance a producer must decide whether to play the myth in a non-specific setting, allowing each member of the audience to make his or her own connections; or to point up the myth’s relevance by giving it a detailed background.

For the first complete performance of Berlioz’s The Trojans at the Coliseum, producer Richard Jones chose the latter course. This was no surprise, the opera had appeared in two separate parts last season, but is now performed as Berlioz intended. Most of the cast repeated their roles from last season; so the biggest question was how the two halves production melded into a whole.

For the Trojan acts, Jones and designer Stuart Laing firmly identified Troy with the USA in the ‘60s, including film footage of Hector and Andromache paralleling the Kennedys. State security men were ubiquitous, even giving Cassandra a shot to calm her down during her long opening scene. The cast responded brilliantly to Jones’s conception; no matter how much you might have wanted a more non-specific setting you could not help but be drawn in by the fine performances.

Those repeating their portrayals have had time to grow into their roles. But Susan Bickley’s Cassandra, though a compelling stage performance, remains half a size too small for the house. Sensibly, Bickley did not strain her tone and her vocal line remained elegant and focused throughout even though she lost volume at times. This is a crucial point: Cassandra must tower over proceedings. Whilst she was alone, at the opening, Bickley was stunning, but in the final (suicide) scene of Act Two she failed to dominate.

As her lover, Chorebus, Robert Poulton fatally lacked the suavity and style needed for Berlioz. His lack of line when singing meant that the important duet between Cassandra and Chorebus went for far less than ideal.

Jones effectively staged each scene of his American/Trojan drama but there were annoying pauses in between. This seemed to compromise the flow of Paul Daniel’s shaping of the music and first two acts had moments where tension dropped and they lacked the cumulative power which can make the group suicide at the end of Act Two so overwhelming. Some individual moments were moving and stunning; even though I knew what was coming, the appearance of Hector’s gore-covered ghost Aeneas’s study remains a powerful theatrical moment.

For Acts Three to Five, set in Carthage, Jones uses a different designer, John Macfarlane, who gave the production a gloriously vivid Mediterranean feel, which moves from the specific to the general; where Troy was convincingly identified with the USA, there was no such parallel with Carthage. Macfarlane’s sets and costumes evoked no specific place. The Trojans retained casual clothes, so that some sort of continuity was created.

The Carthaginian acts of the opera are rather more traditional in shape and seemed to respond better to Jones’s treatment. It helped that the Dido of Sarah Connolly dominated proceedings. This was Connolly’s debut in the production and hers is a Dido one wants to hear again. Tall and elegant of figure, she imbued Dido’s music with a sense of command and also a wonderful elegance. Her final scenes were heartbreaking; immeasurably helped by Connolly’s understanding of the classical undertow of Berlioz’s music – she worked with the music’s line.

Style means a great deal in the performance of Berlioz; his music looks both backward and forwards and performers must understand how indebted he is to Spontini and Gluck. It is not enough to sing the music like early Wagner or Verdi. Not every member of the cast seemed to appreciate this. I am not entirely certain how sympathetic a Berlioz performer John Daszak might be. His weak-willed Aeneas was suitably buffeted by fate, but Daszak did not seem to be in the best of voice. Last season, singing the role split into two separate productions, Aeneas seemed quite a stretch for Daszak. Now, singing the role in one evening he doesn’t seem to have grown into it sufficiently. There were lovely moments, notably in the love duet where Jones leaves the lovers alone, just surrounded by the stars – one of the production’s most memorable scenes. But when called upon to give more, Daszak’s tone, never completely ingratiating at the best of times, became rather too steely. I do hope that he settles into the role and that taking such a taxing part is not going to be a cause for regret.

The smaller roles were very well taken. Anna Burford’s Anna made one wish that Berlioz had written more for her to sing. Christopher Gillett was an effective if muscular Iopas, and Mark Padmore brought his customary beauty of tone to Hylas’s song. Clive Bayley repeated his gruff Narbal. He succeeded in disguising how under-written this role can be, whilst never over-elaborating what Berlioz wrote. Anne Marie Gibbons made a fine Ascanius, not only for her vocal contributions but because she makes a wonderfully believable floppy-haired teenage boy.

Though Jones’s approach emphasised the separation between the Trojan and Carthaginian acts, in the end this production does work. I have quibbles about details and some of Jones’s tics became a little annoying: his handling of the chorus (repeatedly flooding the stage); the fiddling about with flags (Trojan or Carthaginian); and the compression of some scenes into tiny spaces, thus emphasising dramatic power at the expense of the grandeur Berlioz invests in the music.

Despite all this, there is no denying that this is a stunning achievement by all concerned. In the end Jones’s carefully thought-through production develops a coherence and integrity all of its own. It helps that both he and Paul Daniel enabled the cast to give some stunning performances.

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