Sunday, December 19, 2010

Les Troyens in Berlin (DOB)

Les Troyens, Deutsche Oper Berlin, December 11 2010

Conductor ..... Donald Runnicles
Director ..... David Pountney
Stage design ..... Johan Engels
Costume design ..... Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Chorus master ..... William Spaulding

Énée ..... Ian Storey
Chorèbe ..... Jean-Francois Lapointe
Panthée ..... Seth Carico
Narbal ..... Reinhard Hagen
Iopas ..... Gregory Warren
Ascagne ..... Jana Kurucová
Cassandre ..... Petra Lang
Didon ..... Béatrice Uria-Monzon
Anna ..... Liane Keegan
Priam ..... Lenus Carlson
Greek military leader ..... Sergio Vitale
Hector's shadow ..... Stephen Bronk
Hélénus ..... Yosep Kang
A soldier ..... Ben Wager
Two Trojan soldiers ..... Ben Wager
Two Trojan soldiers ..... Lenus Carlson
Mercure ..... Stephen Bronk
Hécube ..... Fionnuala McCarthy
Andromache ..... Etoile Chaville

Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin
Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin
Opernballett der Deutschen Oper Berlin

J’avais entièrement terminé à cette époque l’ouvrage dramatique dont je parlais tout à l’heure et dont j’ai fait mention dans une note d’un des précédents chapitres [allusion aux Troyens; voyez ci-dessus]. Me trouvant à Weimar quatre ans auparavant chez la princesse de Wittgenstein (amie dévouée de Liszt, femme de cœur et d’esprit, qui m’a soutenu bien souvent dans mes plus tristes heures), je fus amené à parler de mon admiration pour Virgile et de l’idée que je me faisais d’un grand opéra traité dans le système shakespearien, dont le deuxième et le quatrième livre de l’Énéide seraient le sujet. J’ajoutai que je savais trop quels chagrins une telle entreprise me causerait nécessairement, pour que j’en vinsse jamais à la tenter. "En effet, répliqua la princesse, de votre passion pour Shakespeare unie à cet amour de l’antique, il doit résulter quelque chose de grandiose et de nouveau. Allons, il faut faire cet opéra, ce poème lyrique; appelez-le et disposez-le comme il vous plaira. Il faut le commencer et le finir." Comme je continuais à m’en défendre: "Ecoutez, me dit la princesse, si vous reculez devant les peines que cette œuvre peut et doit vous causer, si vous avez la faiblesse d’en avoir peur et de ne pas tout braver pour Didon et Cassandre, ne vous représentez jamais chez moi, je ne veux plus vous voir." Il n’en fallait pas tant dire pour me décider. De retour à Paris je commençai à écrire les vers du poème lyrique des Troyens. Puis je me mis à la partition, et au bout de trois ans et demi de corrections, de changements, d’additions, etc., tout fut terminé.
Hector Berlioz, 1864

To make the things clear from the onset, to me this is the best non-Wagner/Mozart pre-20th century opera, and definitely the best French opera ever. Since I had to skip the new production of this opera in Amsterdam earlier this year, there was no way I would have missed it this time -- new production in Berlin, directed by David Pountney for whom I have a world of respect.

Initial scene with Trojans breaking the Greek siege of their city (photo Matthias Horn)

If you like Wagner, it is very interesting to see the way this opera works on you. After you've experienced Les Troyens and  Roméo et Juliette you could tell how huge an impact Berlioz had on Wagner. It is that style in which the dramatic action is given the central spot, structured in such a way that there is a very vague distinction between arias and recitatives, and in which music has the role to provide an emotional support and to give momentum to the narrative. Berlioz wrote the libretto too -- otherwise it wouldn't have been possible to make his concept work. It is build on the idea of grand French operas but with no pathos and with musical quality that was unusual for the time in which he was creating. Apart from a few arias this opera is not catchy. It is instead very subtle and the more you listen to it (or study the score) the more you realize how profound it is.

To stage Les Troyens today it is hard because you need a huge cast, big orchestra, a top notch conductor, and a good ballet troupe. To find genuinely appropriate singers to sing these roles is difficult too. Many singers today are being trained for large Wagnerian roles: such singers are suitable for singing in Les Troyens but only partly.  A good example of how peculiar a voice is needed is the role of Enée for which you need someone able to show off his heldentenor qualities as well as to sing with tenderness needed to sing Rossini. Gregory Kunde, in the Châtelet production  available on  DVD, was a perfect match for Énée

Énée - Ian Storey (photo Matthias Horn)

In Berlin this role was confided to Ian Storey who definitely had all it takes to sing majestically the grand "Inutiles regrets ! Je dois quitter Carthage". He was however struggling with lyricism of "Nuit d'ivresse et d'extase infinie". You do not expect from a typical Wagnerian tenor to excels in piani or to let his legato surf on emotionally charged love themes. Even Stephen Gould --who ,of all active helden-tenors, I like the most-- had to cancel his Énée in this production at Deutsche Oper, after he tried to sing it last year in Valencia and suffered through the  highly lyric patches of the score. So, Ian Storey's  Énée will be remembered for his superbly sung "Inutiles regrets !", especially for its punchy ending that only a gutsy Wagnerian tenor can deliver. Big bravo to him! I would love to see Colin Lee in this role, or --here is an idea!-- Brandon Jovanovich, or... 

Cassandre in pain among happy Trojans [N.B. the contours of the Trojan horse] (photo Matthias Horn)

Another great character in this opera --and this production, in particular-- is Cassandre by Petra Lang. Her singing and acting here justifies my claims that she is one of the best opera singers ever. She's not a big star, but a reliable, superbly singing mezzo with a natural timbre for Sieglinde, Cassandre, Ortrud, or Brangäne. What makes her concert performances and liederabends special is that every single word she sings is given attention, everything is appropriately colored to fit in the context, and everything is pronounced so that any listener can perfectly understand what she sings about. This pronunciation part is extra-tough on (mezzo-)sopranos, but Petra is living proof that you can do it while keeping your voice big. Her Cassandre is huge; her full emotional and physical investment into the role makes her performance compelling on every possible level. Brava!

I also liked Chorèbe by Jean-Francois Lapointe. He seemed perfectly at ease with the role. It suits his natural vocal range, and even though he had to step in and replace indisposed Markus Brück, he sang it in full voice, very convincingly, and with perfect scenic presence.

Ascagne by Jana Kurucová (photo Matthias Horn)

The overall level of singing was very high but if I had to single out a couple of singers then this would be Ben Wagner and Jana Kurucová: their bright, clean, honest, energetic and audacious singing is what I always love to see with young singers trying to make their way to the top. Bravi!

Didon by Béatrice Uria-Monzon -- Carthage is all yellow/green (photo Matthias Horn)

As for Didon, Béatrice Uria-Monzon was in good voice that night. Volume was never an issue for her voice  and her scenic presence is as remarkable as ever. If only we could understand more than 2 words per stanza of what she was singing, I guess I would've been more complimentary about her overall performance.

If you were a head of an opera house and decided to stage Les Troyens you'd have to be very confident about your chorus. This score is loaded with long chorus arias, full of abrupt changes and traps that could disunite the most compact of choruses. The Deutsche Oper Berlin (DOB) chorus passed all those tests admirably and showed once again why they are considered as one of the world's best choruses. Just listen to their performance in Tannhäuser, Rienzi, Otello, and then see them weave effortlessly through Les Troyens and you'll understand what's so great about them. [ I must add that equally impressive (but in a different way) is the chorus of the Komische Oper Berlin -- it would be interesting to listen to them sing Les Troyens. ]

As you might have already noticed --unless necessary/unavoidable--  I focus on what I like and do not discuss the singers or conductors I don't like. To be perfectly honest, for a long time I thought either Donald Runnicles was overrated, or his greatness was escaping my sensors. Even if acurate his music regularly appeared characterless and dry to me. This feeling was particularly corroborated after his recent Tannhäuser at DOB, which I thought was routinely (to put it nicely). Why I talk about that?! Because I am about to eat crows and recognize that his reading of Les Troyens was magnificent! Keep in mind that this opera is relatively rare (expensive to mount & tough to cast), the score is very peculiar  [you don't conduct it like you'd do it with an opera by Wagner,  or Strauss, or Mozart, or Verdi, or...] -- you have to specially prepare for this, to breath in your style, to emphasize the pattern of leitmotivs, and to be able to prevent the orchestra performing as if it was a routine. To all this add a fact that this opera is long [with intermissions - 5 hours 30mins], and you have to be all the time 100% focused not to miss any of many transitions between emotionally charged pages to the saga-like narrative of heroic episodes. So, here is a big thanks to Maestro Runnicles and his orchestra for musically thrilling evening!

Nuit d'ivresse - Énée and Didon (photo Matthias Horn)

What about staging? It's split in two as it should be: this is a double opera.  My guess is that  David Pountney and Johan Engels directed the show until the action moved to Carthage, when the choreographers took charge all the way until the last scene. Part-Two is filled with orchestral numbers and ballet routines, the purpose of which is to sustain the dramatic intensity in a different way. Maybe I am unable to resonate with ballet but even though the choreography was more modern than classic (yes, I dislike classical dance!) I felt the dramatic crescendo fell completely flat after the Troyan  committed collective. Cheesiness of the episode with Énée and Didon in metalic bubbles singing "Nuit d'ivresse" while traveling across the video-sky didn't help. Maybe my attention got extra-derailed by the costumes of Carthaginians: Turkish-Dervish-looking gowns with Jamaica colors [did they really need those green hats?!]

My photo: last scene with Carthagenians wearing infamous green hats [in the center you see Didon who died in the arms of (the spirit of) Cassandre]

So I prefer to focus on marvelously staged Part-One. Cassandre is a prophetess whose initial tragedy is that she can --from the pattern coming out of her compulsive knitting-- predict the fatal future of her people but no one believes her. She even rejects her love for Chorèbe to be totally tragic, but ultimately heroic.  Her mental struggle is represented by a circle of life, which is put like a platform with a center that like a whirl attracts everything to its center, the characters appearing in her dreams will come from the center of that circle. The moment when Greek would start coming to take Troy that platform same rose and was turned around its horizontal axis to protect women from Greeks -- to give them enough time to commit suicide and thereby avoid  torture and humiliation.  In its center is Cassandre who dies too. In the very end that same platform will be brought again on stage, when Didon is dying, with Cassandre standing behind her.

Since the opera is not very well known and libretto is unusually dynamical for an opera, Pountney's direction is narrative but luckily the mass scenes are never half-directed (usually the directors leaves the chorus to stand still and sing -- as if their appearance is enough), but it looks as every chorus-member has his/her purpose on stage. 

If the Gold is a central trick of Das Rheingold and often it determines whether or not the production is inventive, imaginative..., here it is the Trojan horse. That was particularly badly done in an otherwise good Châtelet production, I thought here it was done wonderfully. In the second of the photos I posted above you can see the contours of the Trojan horse.   The stage at DOB is large and the horse should obviously be much larger. So you see a wooden head of the Trojan horse and two of his legs. That was both spectacular, truthful (in terms of perspective) and wonderfully done. 

So with all the great things in this opera I was of course thrilled to spend a fantastic evening, although the flaws related to a loss of dramatic thread in Part-Two was a major obstacle for this opera to be one of the most memorable operatic evenings this year.

Thanks to DOB for staging Les Troyens: they had a very good year with a few excellent new productions (Rienzi, Otello, Les Troyens), which more than make up for the Don Giovanni flop.   

Basic synopsis of Les Troyens can be found here; more detailed information, including the score and a complete libretto can be dug out from this site.

Below you can find more production photos (all by Matthias Horn),  curtain call pics by Yours Truly, and a trailer of this production.


Cassandre with xxx

Carthage war

Didon among her Tyriens

 The ghost of Hector (Stephen Bronk) urges Énée (Ian Storey) to set the sails for Italy

Didon is dying with the spirit of Cassandre behind her
Curtain call pics:

Petra Lang, MAGNIFICENT Cassandre
Cassandre, Énée, Didon, and Chorèbe
here with maestros Runnicles and Spaulding

Wagner, Kurucova, and Warren

King Priam and a Troyan soldier

Large chorus and a chunk of the ballet troupe

Ian Storrey and Béatrice Uria-Monzon

Petra Lang and Jean-François Lapointe



  1. Great review, I totally agree. Troy was so good that it was very disappointing when the production fell apart in Carthage.

  2. Thanks Likely :)

    I only now read your review even if I saw it out a couple of days before I went to Berlin (was afraid to be influenced, or that it would kill the surprise part of the show to me.)

    So we saw the show the same way. GOOD ;)

    BTW if you can go and see Rusalka by Herheim, it's absolutely worthy a trip to Dresden. There is a cheap bus connection from Berlin (c.f.