Monday, 9 July 2012

ROH: Les Troyens

I finally caught up with the Royal Opera's Troyens on Thursday. But, from my Zeus-like vantage point in the gods (a few no-shows meant at least that I could promote myself from a bar stool to a grown-up seat), the evening was a disappointment. Many reviews have already described the show and (rightly) praised many of its aspects; but I hope you'll forgive me being rather negative, spending less time going into that sort of detail than explaining my own sense of dissatisfaction.

For me, what we seemed to have was primarily a demonstration of the Royal Opera as a smooth theatrical machine, able to put on a fluid, fluent account of this whopping score without any hitches. The orchestra played all the notes, often, under Antonio Pappano's characteristically keen-eared direction, very beautifully indeed; the fine cast sang all their notes; the horse was big, if not exactly scary (having it nod benignly as it was wheeled on seemed like something of a miscalculation). But while the evening was long, it seemed essentially small-scale. Pappano's conducting, for all its wonderful detail and accuracy rarely communicated much of the score's enormous ambition: there are as many sorrows here, and certainly as much grandeur as in any Wagner score, but the reading only fleetingly cohered into something compelling--maybe my distance from it all played a role. Berlioz's score is no doubt partly to blame, and the composer's jaunty melodic style, in particular, fits uncomfortably with grand-opéra conventions. The singers, Anna Caterina Antonacci's flailing, over-dramatic Cassandre excepted, were solid and efficient (no mean feat in itself, of course) but there were few sparks to risk setting the drama alight.

The main source of disappointment, however, was David McVicar's production. As several reviews have noted, this is solid, reliable McVicar--fluent, professionally done, often visually striking (in Es Devlin's sets, Moritz Junge's costumes and Wolfgang Göbbel's rather clunky lighting). But I had that awful sense of having seen much of it before, apart from the horse, which, made from gnarly battle-field bric-a-brac, could itself have been put together from the detritus of any number of old McVicar productions. Once again the director updated the action to some time around the time of composition (this time the Crimean War); once again we had noisily vocal extras bursting onto the stage to impress on us the fact that this is real drama involving real people; once again there was a fair bit of dancing and prancing, much of it almost comic in its superfluousness. There was a sometimes alarming mixture of the 'realistic' and the abstract, while the pyrotechnics (the horse snorting fire at the close of Act 2, and then, at the close, an enormous figure made from the same material rose up and caught fire) brought Francesca Zambello's Don Giovanni to mind--never a good thing.

One of Western civilization's grandest, most universal narratives became tepid entertainment. The ideas struck me as incidental, culinary and superficial. Like the Trojan Horse itself, this production has a grand, distracting surface, but, unlike it, there's nothing dangerous or challenging hiding inside. Maybe all this feeling comes as a result of over-exposure to McVicar's work, but it also seems to reflect on a certain lack of adventurousness that has characterized the Royal Opera's season. This Troyens needed to be challenging, exciting and thrilling--and one can only imagine what any number of directors might have made of the opportunity afforded McVicar. Instead it felt safe, and Berlioz, of all composers, should never be safe.

Posters outside the opera house, incidentally, still show Jonas Kaufmann, posing in his dinner jacket in a boxing ring, and proudly proclaim that he will be singing in the production. Presumably they've been up there for some time; did it not occur to anyone that they should be taken down?


  1. Saw it last night. I actually think Antonacci's Cassandra at least had some dramatic fire and her voice was fine. The over-magnificent sets were certainly something to see, and I think McVicar's direction wasn't all that bad. It's just that it's not a very inspired opera to begin with!

  2. J J -- you're right about Antonacci, and I left rather too much ambiguity in my comments regarding her performance: I sort of meant that there's quite a lot to be said for her not being 'just' solid and efficient. She was, however, made to stick out rather among the rest of the cast, whose collective dramatic fire was rather less, well, fiery. Maybe I'm being a bit unfair on McVicar, too, but I think a really interesting, thought-provoking production would have succeeded in persuading us that Troyens really is an inspired opera--which it undoubtedly is, if not necessarily consistently so.