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Berlioz The Trojans ENO, London 27 September 2004
and Les Troyens on DVD

Dido Sarah Connolly
Cassandra Susan Bickley
Anna Anna Burford
Aeneas John Daszak
Chorebus Robert Poulton
Hylas Mark Padmore
Director Richard Jones

Sets and Costumes
Stewart Laing
& John Macfarlane
Lighting Designer Wolfgang Göbbel
Choreographer Philippe Giraudeau

Conductor Paul Daniel

Ominously, the second of five performances of Richard Jones' production of The Trojans complete (five and a half hours) had many empty seats and the balcony patrons were "relocated". I had virtually the entire side block of the stalls to myself and was able to choose a seat near the back where, from experience, more words come through than elsewhere. Will Wagner be the next to fall victim to Londoners' reluctance to ensure automatic sell-outs of marathon nights at the opera?

My reservations about this production when the two halves were given separately (see my review of The Trojans at Carthage) remain and, from interval conversation overheard, they seemed widely shared.

It was worth going for the acting, and especially the singing, of Sarah Connolly and Susan Bickley. Connolly as Dido gave the performance of a life-time, as comprehensive and moving as any I have heard in the role, especially after she had been allowed to change into a more suitable dress for the romantic scenes of Act 4 and the descent into despair, shame and ritual suicide at the end of the opera. Susan Bickley made us feel the intolerable frustration and isolation suffered by the only one who can see through to the truth.

The interactions between the principals, and their movements, were well conceived, but I felt less so about the chorus - running fro and to all the time, then being boxed closely together; no respect for 'personal space' in those hot climes!

The two chief ladies were 'power dressed' in black for the most part and all the jumping on and off chairs and tables seemed gratuitous and ludicrous in a regal court, even one in an emerging North-African state. The architectural model-making display on the same tables (see programme cover illustration) was more distracting than illuminating. Anna Burford (contralto rather than mezzo) was directed with incongruity between her voice and physique and the skittishness required to characterise a younger sister? John Daszak as Aeneas was less than alluring, but did find a suitable tone quality for the rapt duet in Act 4. Mark Padmore stole his lovely little scene as Hylas. The orchestra under Paul Daniel's careful direction was fine at this second performance (questions were raised at the première) and Berlioz's astonishing orchestration benefited from the spaciousness of the Coliseum.

I couldn't get onto Richard Jones' wave-length and found the sets and, particularly, the costuming alienating. In the first half I found it helped to concentrate on the music and pretend I was watching a rehearsal with the singers wearing more or less what they chose. At the end one was left feeling that all the expenditure upon the visual components was less than worthwhile, and that this production is already dated and confused in its political analogies.

But why could we not be given more help in the costly programme book, as is increasingly usual now with DVD Extras?

Most ordinary opera goers would surely have preferred, instead of skimming the dense conjectural essay by James Davidson about Homer singing his Troy Story (eight closely typed pages with tastefully picturesqe illustrations by Poussin, David, Guérin and Runciman) to have had Richard Jones and Stewart Laing sharing their deeper insights with the audience.

A fair proportion of us might have found that would have rescued us from floundering, and then rejecting, this modernization of an ancient epic?

One of the best and fairest reviews of the ENO production is Helen Elsom's Weeping for Dido on Concerto Net.

Les Troyens on DVD

We have two DVDs of Les Troyens, from Arthaus (Salzburg, 2000) and Opus/Arte (Paris, 2003) each with its merits. The Salzburg version under Cambreling works a gradual spell and Deborah Polaski is effective as Cassandra, less so as Dido. The modern dress cocktail party at the Queen's court is unpersuasive, as is the colour coding (red and blue gloves) worn by everyone on the Arthaus 100350 DVD. This is a small scale Trojans.

Vastly more impressive, and fully deserving of the plaudits it has received universally, is John Eliot Gardiner's period orchestra version from Paris on Opus Arte OA 0900 D, which has to be my recommendation.

The staging by Yannis Kokkos is breathtaking as seen at home and the singing/acting is fully convincing on the small screen, with Anna Caterina Antonacci's warnings as Cassandra inevitably ignored, and Susan Graham one of the most moving exponents of the Dido role I've ever seen. Gregory Kunde is personable and sweet voiced as a rounded and thoroughly plausible Aeneas and there are no serious weaknesses.

Of greatest interest is the resurrection of Berlioz's special brass instruments, and my only slight criticism is that I would sometimes have preferred the balance to be shifted some 10-15% in favour of Gardiner's orchestra. With surtitles and visual dominance, there is no risk of the singers being upstaged by the 'accompaniment'.

I guess this is always something that solo instrumentalists and singers have to battle outwith conductors and 'accompanists' in the control/playback room, with only the producer to finally arbitrate? (Glenn Gould experimented with empowering listeners to participate actively in his home studio recordings long ago.)

Now that we have the facility for interactive choice and emphasis upon what we choose to see (q.v. the Ambroisie Beethoven piano concertos on Interactive DVDs - also on The Rolling Stones - Four Flicks) can it be long before home viewer/listeners might have the luxury to adjust balance to individual preference?


© Peter Grahame Woolf