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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Les Troyens (1856-60)
Grand Opera in five acts, libretto by the composer after Virgil’s Aeneid
Dido (mezzo) – Susan Graham
Cassandra (soprano) – Anna Catarina Antonacci
Anna (contralto) – Renata Pokupic
Aeneas (tenor) – Gregory Kunde
Choroebus (baritone) – Ludovic Tézier
Pantheus (bass) – Nicolas Testé
Iopas (tenor) – Mark Padmore
Ascanius (mezzo) – Stephanie d’Oustrac
Helenus (tenor) – Topi Lehtipuu
Chorus of the Théâtre du Châtelet /Monteverdi Choir
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner
Stage Director – Yannis Kokkos
TV Director – Peter Maniura
Recorded live at the Théâtre Musical de Paris, Châtelet, October 2003
BBC OPUS ARTE OA0900D [3 discs, running time approx. 5 hrs 12 minutes]


This lavish production, mounted at the Châtelet in Paris to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Berlioz’s birth, must have been eagerly awaited by fans of the composer. For those of us not fortunate enough to see it in the flesh, the handsome three disc DVD set from the ever reliable BBC Opus Arte makes up for the disappointment. Picture and sound quality are superb, with sensitive TV direction from Peter Maniura capturing faithfully the epic yet suitably modernist staging by veteran Yannis Kokkos, Greek-born but resident in Paris for some thirty years now.

In the pit we have our own John Eliot Gardiner, so both fans and detractors will probably know what to expect. Tempi are swift and rhythmic control clam tight – no bad thing in an opera that can seem, especially in a complete four-hour-plus production like this, diffuse in structure and slightly long-winded in places. As no great expert on the piece, I find it a credit to Gardiner and his period forces that I was never bored, indeed quite often found myself marvelling at the orchestral detail and originality of the scoring. Examples abound throughout, but I was particularly impressed by passages such as Aeneas’s Laocoon scene in Act 1, where the low brass snarl away menacingly on the word ‘serpent’. Gardiner also has the luxury of period saxhorns in his band, here loaned from a private collection, rasping excitingly though the texture in the famous Royal Hunt and Storm scene; the director makes sure we’re aware by homing in on them repeatedly, but one can’t blame him. Strings are lithe and supple, easily able to cope with the composer’s syncopations and rhythmic complexities. It’s really thrilling to hear the opera underpinned like this, rather than with a rich, velvety carpet of plushness. It also means that the singers are never drowned out, and balance between stage and pit is as good as I’ve ever heard.

Luckily for us, the singers match the commitment of the orchestra with performances that are both wonderful to listen to and convincing to watch. The impassioned, fiery Cassandra of Anna Caterina Antonacci dominates Act 1, and her doomed prophetess is a thrilling creation, gorgeously classical-looking in her flowing white gown. She grows ever more agitated as the people of Troy welcome the famous horse; wisely staged with just the head projected onto the backdrop, as in the above reproduction. The scene where she convinces the women to kill themselves rather than submit to slavery or worse is truly gripping. She is well matched by Ludovic Tezier as her lover Choroebus, their lyrical duet one of the many high points of the production.

The rest of the opera is dominated by the serene, dignified Dido of Susan Graham and the gritty, heroic Aeneas of Gregory Kunde. Graham’s youthful Queen, so effortlessly lyrical, is a joy to behold, with acting and singing of the highest calibre. Kunde makes Aeneas a gritty, headstrong soldier, his rounded tenor ringing out in thrilling Jon Vickers-like fashion. Their rapport is obvious in the great starlit duet that ends Act 4, Kunde lightening his tone for the two voices to mesh like the lovers. Dido’s death scene is genuinely moving, all the more so for being staged so simply.

There are other notable contributions, particularly the Narbal of Laurent Naouri, a singer last seen on DVD as an excellent Escamillo on Opus Arte’s Glyndebourne Carmen. Mention must be made also of the chorus; Berlioz, like Mussorgsky, gives them a key role in the action, and the youthful Châtelet chorus, supplemented by Gardiner’s crack Monteverdi Choir, is one of the glories of the production.

The direction of Yannis Kokkos, who also designed costumes and set, leaves plenty of room for the singers to act. Most of the key set-pieces are on a fairly bare stage, though the sense of spectacle is provided by a huge mirrored backdrop which tilts and slides as required. This clever device is able to reflect the stage floor, thus showing us a huge Renaissance cityscape for Troy, as well as making the stage seem twice as big at important moments: crowd scenes, invading soldiers etc. It is also mightily useful for the projection of images, such as the above-mentioned horse’s head, and the scene where Hector’s spirit talks to Aeneas at the start of Act 2. It is a hugely imaginative, expensive-looking piece of kit which never invades the intimacy yet gives the audience its share of thrills. Costumes are of the flowing, timeless sort, though the Greek army looks uncomfortably like a group of American GIs, possibly the only political statement in the production.

This is a revelatory set, both musically and visually. It runs to three discs, but there is an excellent extra in the form of an hour-long documentary by Reiner Moritz entitled ‘The Trojans: A Masterpiece Revived’, in which all the major players get the chance to give us their take on the opera. As with the Glyndebourne Carmen, Opus Arte has given us a memento of a great production. Even though the DVD competition is limited, it is hard to imagine it being bettered.

Tony Haywood

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