When the curtain rises on David McVicar’s new production of Berlioz’ masterpiece Les Troyens, promoted as a highlight of the Royal Opera House season in London, my immediate thought was, here we go again. The audience is immediately greeted with that sort of monstrous pile of darkly lit, post-apocalyptic rubble and walls mixed with somber costuming straight out of the Crimean War. (It’s always the Crimea isn’t it?) If you’re one of those people still wondering if McVicar is running out of ideas, his short-sighted muddled vision of Les Troyens should settle that once and for all. It’s not the updating of the action or even the now predictable visual look of the show that is so much the problem, it’s a lack of interpretation and often a plain understanding of some events in the libretto that can sink this very long performance over and over again despite some wonderfully coordinated musical performances.
Of course, going in to the run, the big story was Jonas Kaufmann. Originally booked to sing Enée, Kaufmann pulled out due to health issues weeks before the show was to open. His image is still festooned all over the house and town as his appearance was a major calling card for the company this Olympic summer, and ads show him in the corner of a boxing ring dressed in a tuxedo. Oddly enough, as much as I love to hear him sing, in the end, his presence on this team wasn’t missed as much as one might have thought it would be. The reason why is tenor Bryan Hymel, a rising American lyric tenor. He’s had bigger and bigger assignments lately, including the role of Gounod’s Faust at Santa Fe in 2011 and an appearance in the ROH’s recent run of Rusalka. Something big has clicked for him in the last year, and on this particular Sunday afternoon he sounded amazing, with easy top notes and big volume for the house. He’s not in an easy corner of the vocal repertory to pull it off all the time, but admittedly his bright, light voice in the end was preferable, I’d argue, to the kind of darkened baritonal sound Kaufmann is known for.
Hymel did much more than keep up and hold a place in the show. Which is saying a great deal for the quality of performances given by the two other major principals in the show. Eva Maria Westbroek continues to startle world audiences and she did again with the her grounded, accessible take on Didon. She kept her stamina up in this long sing right through the concluding aria. Granted, the chemistry between her and the other principals in the cast could be iffy, but vocally it was a solid, admirable performance. Meanwhile the Cassandre, Anna Caterina Antonacci, demonstrated why she has such an ardent following for a singer who is careful about vocal assignments and how much she travels. The intensity she brought to the first two acts of the evening was up in the Waltraud Meier range. Cassandre’s rage and resolution was captivating and frankly her singing alone made the whole show worthwhile. She was well paired with the Chorèbe of Fabio Capitanucci, although again they weren’t always acting together as much as alongside each other. All these superstars got a performance from the ROH Orchestra and music director Antonio Pappano that was nothing short of spectacular. He dug in for rich, solid, warm sound throughout that rivaled anything I’ve personally heard him conduct in the house despite some indulgent tempi here and there.
That the cast was let down by the production is an understatement. There are so many distressing elements, it’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps the surest sign of weakness were the numerous poorly choreographed and dramatically ignored ballet sequences. I’m not intending to lay blame on choreographer Andrew George, although he could let things get a bit silly at times. The issue is that McVicar treats them as dramatic time outs resulting in endless moments of goofy sailors, amorous slaves, and happy peasants jumping around the stage for minutes on end. Berlioz intended the dance sequences to move the story forward in the way that everything else musically in the opera does, and McVicar’s repeated sloughing them off is a disservice. There is a giant replica of Carthage used in Act III onwards that Didon walks about on and then in subsequent acts is lifted above the scene and finally destroyed. It’s tired and heavy handed symbolism that didn’t look so great when Francesca Zambello used it, if my memory serves, in her own vision of the opera many years ago. There is also that Technicolor happy, happy, joy, joy business in Act III which appears as a set from Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World After All” ride only this time the audience is not in motorized fake boats. As the opera wore on, the production’s inability to maintain a consistently dramatic tension became more and more of a problem. And when a giant mechanized figure, which I assume was Hannibal as referenced in Didon’s concluding passage, rises above the stage, you can already envision the stage hands struggling to get the flames out on cue with the darkened stage at the final note that you know is just around the corner. The audience shouldn’t be thinking about that, and the fact that McVicar hasn’t put something like that out of everyone’s mind after over four hours of music and a performance by hundreds of people is a sign of the underlying mediocrity of it all. But you’ll be able to judge for yourself in the near future at both Vienna and La Scala before arriving at some point eventually in San Francisco. Don't get me wrong, if I were here through the end of the run on July 11th, I'd be seeing it again. This is a big show and not an everyday occurrence with a remarkable cast. But one hopes by the time it arrives in San Francisco, the kitsch factor will be dialed down a wee bit.