United Kingdom Prom 11: Berlioz, The Trojans (Les Troyens): soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera, Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 22.7.2012. (JPr)
Bryan Hymel: tenor (Aeneas)
Fabio Capitanucci: baritone (Chorebus)
Ashley Holland: baritone (Panthus)
Brindley Sherratt: bass (Narbal)
Ji-Min Park: tenor (Iopas)
Barbara Senator: mezzo-soprano (Ascanius)
Anna Caterina: Antonacci soprano (Cassandra)
Eva Maria Westbroek: soprano (Dido)
Hanna Hipp: mezzo-soprano (Anna)
Ed Lyon: tenor (Hylas)
Robert Lloyd: bass (Priam)
Lukas Jakobski: bass (Greek Captain)
Jihoon Kim: bass (Ghost of Hector)
Ji Hyun Kim: tenor (Helenus)
Pamela Helen: Stephen mezzo-soprano (Hecuba)
Contrary to Cassandra’s warning the Trojans open their doors to the alleged gift of the gods – the famous wooden horse. The concealed Greeks burn down Troy and only a few Trojans survive. Leaving the women to their fate, Aeneas flees with the men to set up a prophesied new realm – the future Roman Empire. On their journey, the men end up in Carthage. There, they help the Carthaginians fight off the attack of King Iarbas. Aeneas and Queen Dido fall in love. But Aeneas follows his destiny, leaving Carthage and its queen. Dido commits suicide. In a vision, she sees the havoc the descendants of Aeneas will wreak on Carthage but she names her avenger as Hannibal.
Berlioz completed Les Troyens in 1858 and when performed without cuts as apparently is the norm, there is over four hours of music. The grand five-act opera is based on the fall of Troy and establishment of Rome and was originally split into two parts because originally it could not be performed in its entirety because of its length; the composer was compliant in this. It was not heard as Berlioz intended until it was performed at Covent Garden in 1957. It was composed to Berlioz’s own text culled from Virgil’s Aeneid and as suggested above, actually divides neatly into Part 1, The Capture of Troy (Acts I and II) and Part 2, The Trojans at Carthage (Acts III to V). It is all very unwieldy, needing that Trojan horse, a pantomime, ballets, a hunt, spectral apparitions, massive crowd (chorus) scenes and quieter, more intimate ones. Concert performances diminish any such problems since they focus attention almost completely on the music. Les Troyens can be a director’s nightmare demanding an eye-catching setting for Berlioz’s languidly ravishing and only intermittently dramatic music. I cannot comment on what Sir David McVicar did for his recent production for the Royal Opera but the forces involved in those performances were brought to this BBC Prom for one of the best opera evenings I can remember at the Royal Albert Hall.
It worked well because the chorus and soloists sang without scores and often interacted with others on the platform as I suspect they might have done in the opera house. Most importantly there was a whole-hearted commitment to bringing the evening to life that also embraced the orchestra and the magnificent chorus. This was only the second time I have heard this work and can only compare it to a staging at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in December 2010. There the dramatic pace seemed to stall as the evening progressed and everything got slower and slower as the intensity of the Trojan scenes gave way to a more sensuous ambiance in Carthage. I believed at the time that was Berlioz’s fault because Aeneas’s sojourn in Carthage is just a vehicle for his loving and leaving Dido. Here however it was exactly the reverse and the concert only really took off beginning with Act III.
Wagner admired Berlioz but, if we are honest, compared to his works Les Troyens is little more than a dramatic cantata. For Wagner’s operatic characters their every pronouncement is often open to psychological exploration and reinterpretation, yet those of Berlioz have no inner reality – we are basically dealing with statues of historical figures that have come to life.
Apart from typically incandescent moments from the chorus, Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra has the first two acts basically to herself. She looked wonderful in a stunning evening gown that almost distracted me from the fact that however beautifully she sang I saw little change of expression in her face or voice and felt no sense of portent in her pronouncement. In Berlin Petra Lang was more fiery and tragic and I wonder who was right in their interpretation. Fabio Capitanucci sang well as the devoted Chorebus who Cassandra will not live long enough to marry but he too did not seem as at ease on the concert platform as some of his colleagues did later in the opera.
The outstanding performance of the evening was from Eva-Maria Westbroek as Dido who ignored the fact that it was just a concert platform to sing while sitting and kneeling, then hug or kiss her colleagues, and otherwise engage with the chorus and the Prommers – simply doing everything possible to live her role and make her audience believe she was Queen of Carthage. Her formidable voice was loving, ardent, impetuous and vehement by turns and an ideal match for anything Antonio Pappano, his outstanding orchestra and chorus could throw at her. During Act III the celebrating Carthaginians sing the praises of Dido, their queen, and the radiant sounds and sheer intensity of their contribution was overwhelming. The off-stage brass in the ‘Royal Hunt and Storm’ at the start of Act IV sounded thrilling from up in the Gallery and later the sublime Act IV Septet with chorus spread a suitable veil of nocturnal calm over the proceedings.
The daunting tenor role of Aeneas does not have to be sung with the heroic fervour that Jon Vickers or Ben Heppner memorably brought to it. Undoubtedly the role is high-lying and demands great stamina and although nothing like Tristan it does need a heroic tenor capable of singing Otello or Calaf. Whether the originally announced Jonas Kaufmann would have managed it I am not sure and certainly his replacement Bryan Hymel was a little lightweight for the task. He has a strong, pleasant, bright voice with mostly reliable top notes, and he certainly threw himself into the challenge. It was only nearing the end of his Act V recitative and air that his vocal stamina seemed to fail him, but this was a blip from which, to his credit, he quickly recovered.
There were several other winning solo performances in the cameo roles, some proving better than others in filling the cavernous Royal Albert Hall; Barbara Senator’s Ascanius, Jihoon Kim’s Ghost of Hector, Ji-Min Park’s Iopas, Ed Lyon’s Hylas and Brindley Sherratt’s Narbal had considerable vocal and dramatic presence. A singer to look for in the future, Hanna Hipp, a Jette Parker Young Artist, made more of the role of Dido’s loyal sister, Anna, than probably Berlioz actually gives her and sang with subtle feeling in their sentimental Act III duet.
In the end for me, the one constant throughout was the tremendous well-coached and characterful voices of the chorus, who are always a credit to their chorus-master Renato Balsadonna – they played a major part in the collective contribution of a Royal Opera House ensemble that was the strength of this concert performance of Les Troyens.
For more information about the 2012 BBC Proms season visit www.bbc.co.uk/proms.