The English National Opera presented
Part I of Berlioz’s The Trojans in February February,
and I was not impressed. Part II, which opened on 8th May, does a marginally
better job – but not much. The production, still by Richard Jones, isn’t
crippled by Stewart Laing’s feckless designs and costumes; instead,
the designer’s duty passes to John MacFarlane, who reveals himself to
have a slightly less wayward imagination – though still not a very active
The trouble is, as before, that
the production does nothing to look inside the music, to promote it,
to pick on aspects of the score and illuminate them – any amount of
radicality can be tolerated if it does that; indeed, it’s downright
exhilarating when it happens. But there’s not much exhilaration to be
had in here. Most of the stage business seems irrelevant. For the ‘Royal
Hunt and Storm’, for example, the principals spread across the stage
and leap up and down, which just looks daft. The approach of the storm
is indicated by three screens dropped in front of the stage, each bearing
a large painting of a whirlwind and accompanied by some peremptory flashes
of the lights – is that the best they can do in these high-tech days?
Philippe Giraudeau’s choreography seems to involve pointless gesture
more than anything else.
What this production seems to
have forgotten is Berlioz’s essential Classicality. For all that he
is often described as the Romantic composer par excellence, he
was a direct descendant of Gluck and Spontini (two composers he admired
deeply): his flashes of Romantic ardour are the more effective because
they occur in a framework of Classical restraint. The foreground Romanticism,
to put it in Kellerian terms, requires that the background be understood
almost as a form of ritual. When the Trojans, their differences of rank
undistinguishable, arrive in sneakers and T-shirts to be greeted by
Dido in the black tunic of a hospital matron, the loss of formality
detracts directly from the impact of the opera as a whole – the surging
emotions Berlioz releases gain much of their strength from the disciplined
world from which they emerge. Modern dress and bold, colourful sets
vitiate that productive duality.
Sandwiched between Sir Colin Davis’
recording for LSO Live and his forthcoming Proms performance, Paul Daniel
is bound to find himself in direct comparison with by the pre-eminent
Berliozian of the day, and he’s naturally going to be found wanting.
Davis can spring the rhythms in a way that keeps the entire thing pointing
forward, that gives the score a tensile strength. Daniel is clear, workmanlike,
unfussy – he doesn’t make the music his own, as Davis does, but he doesn’t
get in its way, either, and the orchestral textures were clear and crisp;
Daniel seemed to have paid especial attention to the woodwind, whose
sparkling timbres danced through all three hours.
The singing honours were mixed. Susan Parry was a stern Dido, in voice
as well as manner – the production gave her little chance to develop
much personality in the role. And John Dazsak’s Aeneas was adequate
rather than distinguished: his voice takes on a little hardness when
it’s under pressure. Their love duet, though, one of the great moments
in all music, went straight to the heart; all criticism fell away at
that moment. Anne Marie Gibbons, deputising on the opening night for
the indisposed Anna Burford, brought warmth and feeling to the role
of Anna, Dido’s sister, and Victoria Simmonds was a bold and forthright
Ascanius, credibly masculine in her travesty role. The embattled
ENO chorus again demonstrated that it is the company’s chief glory.
A mixed bag, then, which is already
an improvement on Part I. It’s marvellous to hear Berlioz’s glorious
music live, of course, but one shouldn’t find in an opera house that
one has to close one’s eyes to protect the music from the visual shenanigans
Further performances on 14, 16, 23, 29 and
31 May, and 5 and 7 June. Details at www.eno.org.
Credits: ENO New Production - The Trojans
Part II: The Trojans at Carthage
Press Night Thursday 8 May 2003
Photographer: Clive Barda
Back row, from left to right John Daszak as Aeneas, Susan Parry
Anne Marie Gibbons as Anna, Colin Lee as Iopas.
Front row, from left to right Victoria Simmonds as Ascanius, Iain
as Pantheus, Clive Bayley as Narbal.
Susan Parry as Dido