Prom 11: Berlioz’s The Trojans – Royal Opera/Pappano

Les Troyens – Opera in five acts to a libretto by the composer based on Books I, II and IV of the Aeneid by Virgil [Sung in French; English translation provided with programme]

Cassandra [Cassandre] – Anna Caterina Antonacci
Coroebus [Chorèbe] – Fabio Capitanucci
Aeneas [Enée] – Bryan Hymel
Dido [Didon] – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Narbal – Brindley Sherratt
Anna – Hanna Hipp
Ascagne – Barbara Senator
Priam – Robert Lloyd
Hécube – Pamela Helen Stephen
Ghost of Hector – Jihoon Kim
Panthée – Ashley Holland
Hélénus – Ji Hyun Kim
Greek Captain – Lukas Jakobski
Trojan Soldier – Daniel Grice
Iopas – Ji-Min Park
First Soldier – Adrian Clarke
Second Soldier – Jeremy White
Hylas – Ed Lyon

Royal Opera Chorus

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 22 July, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Eva-Maria Westbroek and Bryan Hymel as Dido and Aeneas in Berlioz's The Trojans at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouOn consecutive Sundays, BBC Proms audiences have been treated to two of France’s greatest operas in unforgettable concert performances. While Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande was a memorable event, this performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens by forces from the recent Royal Opera production – all five-and-a-bit hours of it – was a thing of wonder.

Lasting impressions dance around the mind, many of them triggered by the experience of hearing this score twice in short order – first with, then without, the epic visual distractions of David McVicar’s staging. Do the eyes have it? Emphatically not. At every point of musical comparison the Royal Albert Hall experience carried the day. The Royal Opera Chorus, liberated from Es Devlin’s busy designs, achieved moments of magnificence under Antonio Pappano’s precise direction, while the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House set about Berlioz’s orchestration with the joy and freedom of a pit pony out for a run in an open field.

Besides, the soundworld of Les Troyens is as vivid as any staging. At the ‘Entry of the Sailors’ in Act Three its orchestral colours seem to anticipate the ballets of Tchaikovsky, yet the bucolic scent of the melody that ensues is wholly Gallic. Pappano drew out all these felicities and allusions, along with many more, with a clarity that had not always been apparent when he and his players were confined below decks in the Royal Opera House.

Les troyens, The Royal Opera, June 2012. Photograph: Bill CooperThe singers too performed with immense vitality and (rare word for this venue) immediacy. With not a score in sight (unsurprisingly) they were left to their own devices, reliant solely on Berlioz’s notes and their own lived-in characterisations. Without exception, the sense of dramatic engagement was searing. From Adrian Clarke and Jeremy White’s pair of Trojan Sentries to Jihoon Kim’s ghostly Hector and the scene-stealing thrill of Ed Lyon’s rapt Hylas (singing from the organ console rather than the crow’s nest), standards were exceptional.

A few doubts persisted. The chorus of Trojan women sounded surprisingly unconcerned that they would soon be stabbing and defenestrating themselves, Fabio Capitanucci as Chorebus still struggled with the French (the delicate vowels of “vierge adorée!” foxed him completely) and Eva-Maria Westbroek, while a Dido of formidable power and commitment, retained her tendency to coarsen vocally whenever her character was suffering under the pressure of passion – which was most of the time. As at Covent Garden, Westbroek was at her best during the tender duets she shared with Hanna Hipp as her sister, Anna. (Hipp’s own finest moment was another duet, this time with Brindley Sherratt early in Act Four where a splendidly gruff Narbal proves his credentials as a political operator.)

Anna Caterina Antonacci. Photograph: Serge Derossi/NaiveWhat a score this is! There is scarcely a dull patch throughout the mammoth running-time, and while the dramatic impetus may flag in places the musical inspiration never does. Act Four, which Pappano rendered with breathtaking sensitivity, is little more than an hour-long interlude prefaced by the ‘Royal Hunt and Storm’ during which the action stops to smell the roses; but its blooms are among the most fragrant that Berlioz ever produced. Beauty heaps on beauty as the courtly entertainment, an exquisite set of orchestral dances, gives way to the haunting ‘Song of Iopas’ (delivered with ringing fervour by Ji-Min Park), following which an ecstatic septet and chorus heralds the great love-duet for Dido and Aeneas, “Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie!”.

Westbroek as Didi, Hymel as Aeneas & Senator as Ascanius (Les troyens, The Royal Opera, June 2012). Photograph: Bill CooperPart One of Les Troyens is dominated by the visionary personage of Cassandra. Anna Caterina Antonacci was electric in what has become her signature role. In dispensing with the earth-clawing indignities of McVicar’s staging, the Italian mezzo was able to reconnect with the depths that she conveyed with such disturbing stillness in Yannis Kokkos’s Châtelet production. Interior moments such as her ppp utterance of “Chorèbe” contrasted brilliantly with the spat venom of “lâche menace / troupe rapace” as she confronted the murderous Greek soldiers.

The young American Heldentenor Bryan Hymel has come of age with his portrayal of Aeneas, at least as far as UK audiences are concerned. His great ‘should I stay or should I go?’ aria in Act Five, “Inutiles regrets!”, was heroic singing at its absolute best and probably the vocal highlight of the evening. Sturdy, handsome and imposing, Hymel is rising fast to the top of his tree and it will be fascinating to watch his career develop from here. A certain Jonas Kaufmann had originally been scheduled for this run of Les Troyens, but his absence is long forgotten. The Trojans have a new leader now.

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