France Berlioz, Les Troyens: Soloists, Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus master: José Luis Basso), Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris / Philippe Jordan (conductor). Opéra Bastille, Paris, 28.1.2019. (MB)
Director and Set designs – Dmitri Tcherniakov
Costumes – Elena Zaytseva
Lighting – Gleb Filshtinsky
Video – Tieni Burkhalter
Cassandre – Stéphanie d’Oustrac
Ascagne – Michèle Losier
Hécube – Véronique Gens
Énée – Brandon Jovanovich
Chorèbe – Stéphane Degout
Panthée – Christian Helmer
Hector’s Ghost – Thomas Dear
Priam – Paata Burchuladze
Greek Captain – Jean-Luc Ballestra
Soldier – Jean-François Marras
Polyxène – Sophie Clasisse
Didon – Ekaterina Semenchuk
Anna – Aude Extrémo
Iopas – Cyrille Dubois
Hylas – Bror Magnus Tødenes
Narbal – Christian von Horn
Mercure, Priest of Pluto – Bernard Arrieta
Créuse – Natasha Mashkevich
Andromaque – Mathilde Kopytto
Astyanax – Emile Gouasdoué
Polyxène – Francesca Lo Bue
Home now to the greater number of the Paris Opéra’s opera productions, the Opéra Bastille opened, unfinished, with a gala performance on 13 July 1989, the bicentennial eve of the storming of the celebrated prison that had once stood on its site. The amphitheatre then had to wait until March of the following year for its first opera production: Les Troyens by Pier Luigi Pizzi. The appalling goings on, even by Parisian operatic standards, that had led to the dismissal of Daniel Barenboim from the Opéra’s music directorship before he had even begun have, touch wood, long been put behind the institution. At any rate, there could be few more fitting works to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Opéra than the crowning masterpiece of the French master the philistine Pierre Bergés of their day spurned as injuriously as they would Barenboim. If it were a pity that Barenboim were not granted the opportunity to set the record straight – imagine! – then it was a nice twist of history that the conductor would be his sometime assistant, now the Opéra’s Music Director, Philippe Jordan.
More importantly, Barenboim’s longstanding artistic collaborator, director Dmitri Tcherniakov, grasped the opportunity to stage and to rethink Berlioz’s opera in a fashion that will surely prove a turning-point in its chequered fortunes. A comparison with Carmen might seem bizarre. However unsuccessful that opera’s premiere, it can hardly be said thereafter to have lacked performances. Few productions, however, can be said to have done anything terribly interesting with Bizet’s opera: Calixto Bieito’s, yes, but also, still more importantly, Tcherniakov’s 2017 staging for the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. I shall come a little to what they conceptually have in common; for now, I shall suggest that this most recent staging will prove as important a milestone for Les Troyens as his Carmen is now widely considered to have done for that opera.
The division of Les Troyens into two parts, historical, structural, thematic – which is not, of course, to say that it has no other divisions, nor that the two parts do not possess greater unity – is uncommonly clear in Tcherniakov’s production, just as it was, whatever else one might have thought of it, in Philippe Jordan’s conducting. The latter emphasised in the first part, ‘La Prise de Troie’, Berlioz’s debt to and inspiration in Gluck; if only that had been sharper, rather than a somewhat inhibited, woolly-round-the-edges ‘classicism’, then musico-dramatic unity and self-reinforcement might have been achieved. As it was, we had to rely largely on Tcherniakov, who plunges us immediately into a modern, yet still monarchical warzone, very much the concern of a Trojan royal family that yet breeds dissent from within. Rolling news headlines inform and doubtless deform the populace, in a manner we are used to: fact mixed with propaganda, so we are never quite sure what is what, or whether indeed the distinction still pertains. Just as the opening ‘information’, that the siege of Troy has finally been lifted sets the scene for what ensues, so too do Elena Zaytseva’s costumes: sharp and stylish in dress-uniform and trophy-bride fashion. Is there a reality behind the news, behind the clothes? Yes and no. It depends where one looks, what one seeks. I was put a mind a little not only of Tcherniakov’s Tristan but also of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Iphigénie en Tauride, surely one of the most important Paris productions of the Mortier years. Royal families are a curious thing, especially now; being curious, however, does not mean they wield no power, nor does their pretence that they do not.
However, politics of a broader, still baser kind gnaws at the monarchy’s foundation. Just as the war raging offstage – with occasional threatening forays onstage – is both dynastic and, in a sense not so different from the nineteenth century’s or our own, national, so our alleged hero looks both ways. Énée appears to be compromised by relations with the Greeks. We know from his thoughts – relayed on film – that he fears Priam’s foolish pride in not negotiating with them will lead to everyone’s downfall. We see Énée (apparently) welcome them once they are in the city and it is perhaps too late, yet also then take up the fight once against them. We also see his wife, Créuse, in a silent role, take her life in shame at what they have done, her suicide note relayed to us – who are ‘we/us’? – on screen. Are we being lied to, though? Who is dispensing this ‘news’, both on stage and on film?
Cassandre’s truthfulness speaks for itself, though. Just as none will listen to her onstage, no one in the audience will doubt her. That is partly to be attributed to a performance truly powerful in its verbal and musical integrity from Stéphanie Oustrac, but also to Tchernaikov’s direction. He places the prophetess cursed by incredulity around her in a position of alienation. She distances herself and is distanced, even despised – most clearly of all by Priam, whose casual violence during Laocoön’s obsequies once again renders the personal political, and vice versa. (The atrocity itself, only reported, had nevertheless, in modern war-media style, proved both hyper-real and hyper-unreal.) When Cassandre ventures outside the glitzy and austere throne room – venue of military high command and Hello! photo-shoot alike – so as to speak, to sing to the cameramen outside, she captures the attention of all spectators at once. She speaks to camera, she distinguishes with effortless style between recitative and aria, relating them too. It is a feminist moment, but in Oustrac’s hands, it was equally a masterclass in lineage from Gluck and Mozart. Film speaks of her unconscious, her childhood memories, her words and notes show alignment with them rather than the deception, the display, the death elsewhere. Where Laooön’s final rituals are a state event, the bravery of Cassandre and her virgins is the real thing – as, again with seeming uniqueness, had been her love for Stéphane Degout’s Chorèbe and his for her. Indeed, the latter’s truthfulness and romantic ardour could not have contrasted more strongly with the tortured machinations of Brandon Jovanovich’s complex, quite outstanding Énée. Ghost, fire, parafin, immolation: all seem real rather than hyper-real. But who, ultimately, knows…?
For when we move to Carthage, things are both very different and yet ultimately the same. Tcherniakov’s Carmen took us to an expensive game of psychotherapy for Don José; his Troyens now moves to a war victims’ centre for ‘rehabilitation’, whatever that might (or might not) be, role play a common element. Is that not, after all, what singers, what opera, what drama do every day – generally whilst playing with the idea that they are not? Where are the boundaries, beyond the walls of the psychotrauma units on- and offstage? Again, as in Carmen, games of identity play themselves out, again not ever quite as one expects. Didon is lauded as Queen of Carthage. We and Énée initially see her acclaimed, an agent of his therapy, dressed in the very same yellow as Créuse. We may even occasionally wonder whether the latter’s suicide were real; is this therapy for a couple traumatised by betrayal on personal and political stages alike? Probably not, ultimately, although the possibility tantalises. The staging, despite or indeed on account of its specificity of direction in the moment, remains open: adaptable to our standpoints, as well as the characters’, the director’s. As Jordan at last summoned greater Romantic fire from the orchestra – still rather less than some of us might have liked – the work opened up in a fascinating way, at least to those open for it to do so. The path shown by therapists Anna and Narbal – elegant of line as of gesture in fine, collegiate performances from Aude Extrémo and Christian van Horn – infuriated onstage and off. Parts of an audience whose behaviour was often, even by opera house standards, truly appalling, erupted prior to the fifth act, booing only obliterated by one fascist’s interminable hurling of verbal abuse. Cries of ‘Silence!’ only served to encourage, so it seemed, until Jordan momentarily defused matters by holding up a white cloth from his baton in the pit.
Transformation of identities in set-pieces such as the Royal Hunt – is that not precisely what the music portrays, indeed incites? – has led inexorably to moments of violence onstage too: for instance, at the close of the fourth act, Didon’s throwing the table across the stage in anger. Whilst we have mostly been following Énée’s story – Berlioz and Jovanovich alike ensuring that – we suddenly become aware of another. And if we are human, we feel the guilt that, to be fair, this Énée displays too, whatever his decision. By bringing plot mechanics, emotions, trauma into the open – not unlike, say, the framework of the Centre Pompidou – Tchernaikov and his cast highlight their manipulation, both passive (by other forces, be they of Fate or something more human) and active (of the therapy group, of the audience). Worlds collide; lies and truths alike multiply, courtesy not least of dedicated performances from Jovanovich and Ekaterina Semenchuk. Elegant simplicity of response from Cyrille Dubois (Iopas) and Bror Magnus Tødenes (Hylas) in their big moments served also to highlight the dramatic contrast of complexity elsewhere. We might sometimes wish to hear beautiful airs, beautifully sung – who does not? – but we know, or should know, that there is far more to musical drama than that. Didon loses out in more ways than mere convention could ever have imagined. Does she reprise Créuse’s final sacrifice in a formal and dramatic recapitulation? Has she not been preparing that role all along? Jovanovich’s portrayal of trauma and caprice may endure longer in the memory, but is that not in itself testimony to our ‘values’, our exaltation of ‘heroism’?
What of that most elevated – or enervated – of truths, Werktreue? Cuts in the theatre are hardly the end of the world here. Whilst I should happily see the opera complete, I can live, as here, without much of the fourth-act ballet music (which, if memory serves me correctly, was included complete at Covent Garden in 2012, with less than convincing choreographic results). There are more fidelities, greater fidelities than are dreamt of in dull literalists’ philosophy. Such fidelities will more often than not be unleashed by infidelities, be they in love, in war, or in art. That is very much the story of Les Troyens and of Tcherniakov’s engagement with it; it should also be the tale of our engagement with both. What form that takes, or does not, is up to us. The greatest sadness, however, would be if, playing the role of heirs to Bergé and his patronising anti-modernism, we did not so much as try.