Like most massive nineteenth-century French grand operas, Berlioz’s Les Troyens is in five acts. Unusually, however, the acts divide into two distinct parts: Acts I and II deal with events leading to the fall of Troy and culminate with the Trojans’ devastating defeat. Acts III through V are set in Carthage, where surviving Trojan soldiers under Aeneas’s command find refuge en route to fulfilling their destiny to make a fresh start in Italy and where Aeneas becomes involved in his doomed romance with the Carthaginian queen, Dido.
After many futile attempts to have Les Troyens produced, Berlioz hit on the idea of performing it on consecutive evenings, with the first part called La prise de Troie (The Taking of Troy)and the second Les Troyens à Carthage (The Trojans in Carthage). In fact, only the second part was put on, at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1863 (following unsuccessful efforts to have it staged at the Opéra, for which it was conceived). These were the only performances of Les Troyens during the composer’s lifetime.
It is easy to view the acts set in Carthage as a respite for the beleaguered Trojans after the preceding tumult, and indeed they are. But the producer Dmitri Tcherniakov’s facile adoption of this view proved fatal to the Paris Opéra’s new production of Les Troyens at Opéra Bastille (seen at its premiere on January 25). This is the third production by the company, which first staged Berlioz’s valedictory work in 1990, as the inaugural production of Opéra Bastille.
The banality of the setting makes a mockery of Berlioz’s majestic music.
When the audience returned after Act II of the new production, the curtain was already up on a “war victims rehabilitation center,” a utilitarian, garishly lighted, modern facility (Tcherniakov was also the set designer) that was frequently contradicted by the opera’s words, its music, or both. The Trojans could plausibly benefit from rehabilitation, but the initial inhabitants are Carthaginians, who have only ecstatic things to say about their flourishing country and its beloved queen. The banality of the setting makes a mockery of Berlioz’s majestic music. When the Trojans do arrive, Aeneas quickly offers his men to join forces in battling the Numidians who threaten Carthage—not your usual therapy.
Meanwhile, Dido, wearing a yellow pantsuit and a cardboard crown (Elena Zaytseva designed the costumes), serves as the facility’s director, a staging choice by Tcherniakov that makes the grand choral tributes by her employees seem ludicrous. Moreover, the set remained for the rest of the opera, so we never saw a forest for the Royal Hunt and Storm or the Trojan harbor. Watching Dido and Aeneas sing their ethereal duet “Nuit d’ivresse” in these surroundings was, unsurprisingly, depressing. Cuts in the score, which included not only the Act IV ballet sequence but also passages within the opera, such as the sentries’ duet in Act V, staved off other awkward conflicts with the original plot, but the cuts should never have been countenanced in the first place. Splendid though it is, Les Troyens is not the most theatrically savvy of French grand operas, and the static nature of Acts IV and V require special directorial attention, which Tcherniakov did not supply.
This was all the more disappointing after Acts I and II, which showed promise. The Trojan king, Priam, who was responsible for the ill-fated decision to allow the enormous wooden horse left behind by the supposedly retreating Greeks to enter the city, is intriguingly portrayed as an arrogant ruler isolated, along with his family, in an elegant paneled room surrounded by squalid pseudo–Eastern European high-rise apartment buildings. Yet Tcherniakov muddles this reframing of the characters by insinuating that Priam also molested his daughter, the prophetess Cassandra, and that Aeneas may have played a part in a coup against Priam. Still, once Act III begins, none of this added intrigue counts for much, except for the contrast between Priam and Dido, who is portrayed as the kind of ruler an average person might like to have a beer with. Was Tcherniakov, who is Russian, trying to make a point about the elites of Western democracies and populists? It’s hard to say, but at the end a thunderous chorus of boos rained down on Tcherniakov and his production team.
Although her attractive mezzo-soprano is on the small side for the role, Stéphanie d’Oustrac was a wonderful Cassandra, asserting her prognostications with forceful eloquence in the face of universal disbelief from the other characters while showing heartfelt concern for the well-being of her husband, Chorebus, as doom approaches. The latter role was portrayed almost to perfection by the baritone Stéphane Degout, who was in warm, resonant voice.
The other principal female role also calls for a mezzo-soprano, and here the Opéra scored by engaging Ekaterina Semenchuk following Elīna Garanča’s cancellation. Singing with a rich, dusky sound as Dido, she brought out the queen’s heartache after Aeneas abandons her; it wasn’t her fault that the expansive death scene seemed too long. Earlier, Semenchuk’s singing could have been more regal in a purely musical sense, but the circumstances of the production surely worked against her.
Also fortunate was the choice of Brandon Jovanovich to replace Bryan Hymel as Aeneas. Jovanovich brought considerable energy to the part and sang with a strong, vital, consistent tone. His singing was especially exciting in Aeneas’s first big moment as he announces the violent death of the priest Laocoön. But he didn’t nail the passage’s crowning high B, and the high C in Aeneas’s stirring aria “Inutiles regrets” wasn’t perfect either. Aude Extrémo and Christian Van Horn sang well as Dido’s sister Anna and the minister Narbal, even though Tcherniakov’s production forced them to debate the wisdom of a romantic match between Dido and Aeneas while playing ping pong. Cyrille Dubois and Bror Magnus Tødenes invested the songs of Iopas and Hylas with lyrical grace.
The conductor for this production is the Opéra’s music director, Philippe Jordan, and he could have become another case of a conductor invested with authority heading off an unworthy production. Here, though, the score unfolded with clarity and precision. Jordan’s pacing was steady, not least in Act IV’s succession of beautiful but slow numbers, though his reading could have been more impassioned and colorful. New Yorkers will have the opportunity to hear more from Jordan when he leads three cycles of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Metropolitan Opera beginning next month.