Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Les Troyens (1856-59)
Lance Ryan - Énée
Gabriele Viviani - Chorèbe
Giorgio Giuseppini - Panthée
Stephen Milling - Narbal
Eric Cutler - Iopas
Oksana Shilova - Ascagne
Elisabete Matos - Cassandre
Daniele Barcellona - Didon
Zlata Bulycheva - Anna
Valencia Regional Government Choir
Valencian Community Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. 9 November 2009, Palau de les Arts “Reina Sofia”, Valencia, Spain.
Picture format 16:9, 1080p; Sound format DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1;
Subtitles EN, DE, FR, SP, KR, ZH;
Region Code 0 (Worldwide).
UNITEL CLASSICS 706104 [240:00 + 21:00]

I first discovered Les Troyens one afternoon in October, 2003, when, after eating lunch, and flipping around on the TV, I came across the introduction to a live broadcast of the opera from the Théâtre du Châtelet, in Paris. I live in France, and this was broadcast on TV and, in simulcast, on the radio. I had never seen this work, so I decided that I would watch the beginning. Five hours later, when it was over, I finally got up, drained yet exhilarated by the music and the performances. Fortunately, a DVD set was later released of this performance (reviewed here), though it’s a shame that no CD set was released of this.

In any case, a new production of Les Troyens is a rare event, and we are fortunate to have it recorded for posterity. Or are we?

This production opens with a huge choir (the Trojans) milling about on a dark stage, dressed as some combination hockey players, wrestlers and imperial storm-troopers. After the introduction, the stage clears to show a battlefield littered with corpses (and is that a spaceship? no, it’s a metallic horse…), left from the battle with the Greeks, who have withdrawn. The staging is dark, dismal, even perverse at times, the costumes laughable, and the lighting, which might work well in a theatre, doesn’t come across well on a recording. Later there is a boxing match, and then a wrestling match where space worms are assisting the wrestlers, which is simply annoying, and detracts from the production - especially because on the DVD, the focus is on the space worm wrestling match, rather than the singers.

But it gets worse. You see, the joke is on you, dear viewer. The “Trojan horse” here is a combination of a horse and the now-ubiquitous computer malware. When we start seeing the video displays on the metallic horse, the production jumps the shark. The choir is given laptops from inside the Trojan horse, and walks around with them for a while. And at the finale of Act I, there are computer error messages projected on the curtain. Seriously?

Sometimes, the adjective “avant-garde” is used as an excuse for stupidity, and when one outs the emperor in their new clothes, one is said to “not understand,” or be too “old-fashioned.” There’s a lot I can accept in staging and productions of theatre and opera, but sometimes it just goes too far and shows that the designers have no big-picture concepts. Just cobbling together a bunch of vapid ideas is not sufficient. Sure, you can call it avant-garde, and say that the detractors don’t get it, but, in the end, the goal is to touch your audience. In my opinion, the ludicrous staging of this opera touches no one but the patrons who paid for this dreck to be staged.

From the beginning, some musical weaknesses are apparent. Other than the odd staging, not all the singers are up to their roles. While Elisabete Matos is fine as Cassandre - big-voiced, and big-bodied - Gabriele Viviani’s singing as Chorèbe is painful. He drawls, his intonation is off, and his diction is approximate at best (can a professional opera singer really pronounce “du” as “dee”?). At times it sounds like Viviani is just mumbling nonsense syllables. Unfortunately, Matos does not have the raw sensuality of Anna Caterina Antonacci in the Gardiner production, which made the first act of that performance nearly a one-woman show. The due of Matos and Viviani just doesn’t look attractive; they look like they’re at a weight watcher’s meeting, especially with Viviani’s folds that extrude from under his plastic armour. Yet why is Cassandra seen first in a wheelchair, yet, at times, able to strut around the stage unassisted? Well, I guess this is opera; anything goes.

On the plus side, the orchestra is well balanced, and the singers - both soloists and choir - always sound fine. I can only imagine how difficult it is to maintain this type of music tension for such a long performance; kudos to Gergiev and his musicians. There are some harsh sounds from the percussion, which seems just a bit too loud, during some of the choral numbers, however. The choir, which has a large role in this opera, is also fine. Aside from their costumes …

I managed to sit through a bit more than an hour of this production. The ludicrous staging is laughable, and detracts too much from the music; I simply couldn’t take any more. But I did get my copy of the John Eliot Gardiner production of Les Troyens and watch that again. So there is a silver lining in this disc.

Kirk McElhearn
Kirk writes about more than just music on his blog Kirkville.

see also review of DVD by James L. Zychowicz and of the live performance by José Irurzun

Wonderful music; horrendous staging.

nderful music; horrendous staging.