Berlioz’ Les Troyens is one of those pieces that really deserves the descriptor “sprawling epic” and, if anyone can make an epic sprawl it’s David McVicar. This production, recorded at the Royal Opera House in 2012, is typical of McVicar’s more recent work. It’s visually rather splendid and the action is well orchestrated but it’s short on ideas and long on McVicar visual cliches; acrobats, gore and urchins (but mercifully no animals). I don’t want to be too hard on McVicar. This piece is based on the sort of “Ancient History” one used to learn at prep school (British usage) and McVicar pretty much runs with that making no attempt to find deeper meaning, despite superficially translating at least the first two acts to the time of first performance; the era of European colonialism.
We start off, of course, in Troy. Here it’s depicyed as a sort of derelict factory populated by men in 2nd Empire uniforms, women of the same period and scruffy urchins (lots of them). Quite why isn’t clear. The action is a bit low key with no real sense of horror, despite a particularly gory ghost of Hector. Even the mass suicide scene is a bit low key and the Greeks, depicted in British uniforms of the same period, don’t seem particularly menacing. The star, visually, of this part is the Horse. It’s a rather impressive assembly of cast off weapons and involves some quite spectacular pyrotechnics.
Then it’s on to Carthage. Here we get a scale model of the city with Dido, Godzilla like, astride the Lego town. Costuming here was the sort of thing one might pick up in Kensington Market for a 70s party. There’s an interminable series of ballets here too, especially in Act 4. At best there’s some eye candy but mostly the choreography ranged from uninspired to just plain silly. There’s also rather a lot of uncritical faux orientalism going on. Cuts would have made sense here. The final act is not bad with an impressive array of dead Greeks badgering Aeneas but why is Hylas singing from a bucket high above the stage? The ending is rather fitting. As Dido’s pyre goes up MekkaHannibal(?) enters from upstage kind of embodying all the Rome/Carthage prophesying that’s been going on. It’s a fitting conclusion to a piece of comic book history.
Musically, this isn’t too bad. Again the first two acts are strongest largely based on Anna Caterina Antonacci’s intense Cassandra. She really is rather wonderful. There’s a nice contribution too from Fabio Capitanucci as Coroebus. The second half is a bit more mixed. Bryan Hymel was on good form as Aeneas with ringing high notes and the same sort of heroic persona he inhabited at the Met. Eva-Maria Westbroek didn’t work for me as Dido. She’s a good singing actress but the voice lacked the warmth and sweetness that I look for in this role; more Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk than Dido really. The big love duet really didn’t come off sounding more strident than sensuous. There is some really pleasing singing though from Hanna Hipp as Anna and Brindley Sherratt as Narbal. The orchestra and chorus sound pretty good throughout though. Anthony Pappano’s conducting is brisk and efficient rather than revelatory.
Technically this Blu-ray package is very good indeed. François Roussillon’s video direction does justice to the grandeur of Es Devlin’s sets. The picture is extremely clear and detailed (I’ve left the screen caps full size so you can get some idea by clicking through for the larger image) and the surround sound is solid and spacious. Extras include an interesting short talk by Devlin about the use of models in set design and a musical introduction from Pappano. The booklet, luxuriously printed on glossy paper in three languages, contains a synopsis and a long essay but not, inexplicably, a track listing. The recording is spread over two BD50 disks and the whole thing is packaged in a slip case. Subtitle options are French, English, German, Spanish, Japanese and Korean.
The main competition to this recording is the Paris recording featuring Susan Graham, Gregory Kunde and Anna-Catarina Antonacci. To my ears and eyes it’s better sung and a clearer, less fussy production. It’s also available on Blu-ray so there should be few, if any, technical trade offs.