Arma virumque canunt

Berlioz’ Les Troyens is widely considered to be his masterpiece and it does have a lot going for it both dramatically and musically, especially when given the full on star studded treatment that it got at the Chatelet in 2003. That said, it’s dramatically rather odd, it’s very long (well over four hours) and it requires huge forces; twenty soloists, massive chorus, dancers, supers, acrobats, jugglers etc. It also has preludes, ballets and masques on a scale that seem more appropriate to the 17th than the mid 19th century. Act 4 is particularly marked in this respect. It’s perhaps no wonder that it was never played complete in Berlioz’ lifetime. The story is taken from Books two and four of Virgil’s Aeneid; the first dealing with the wooden horse and the fall of Troy (Acts 1 and 2) and the second with the Trojans at Carthage (Acts 3-5). The problem is that there isn’t much connecting them. In the first part the drama centres around Cassandre. By the end of Act 2 she’s dead and we move on to Carthage where Didon makes her first appearance. The Trojan hero Énée links both halves but he’s a pretty minor presence in the first bit.

In Acts 1 and 2 Troy is a sparse stage with a reflector above it projecting much of the action onto a backdrop of an Italianate cityscape of Troy. It’s a good idea as for most of the act there are a lot of people on stage and it’s not easy to take it all in. Occasionally the cityscape dissolves into some kind of symbolic back projection as with the the horse itself which is just a rather grim projection of a horse’s head. It works pretty well. A similar approach is used to introduce the scene where Hector’s ghost tells Énée he’s got to rebuild Troy in Italy. The camera work for the DVD switches between stage and backdrop with the usual close ups and just occasionally pulls back to let us see what the theatre audience is seeing. All in all I think Peter Maniura is giving us as good a look at Yannis Kokkos’ staging as could reasonably be done on DVD.

Vocally, the first part is all about Cassandre, here played by Anna Caterina Antonacci. She’s stunning. She gives a totally committed performance as the prophetess who everyone thinks is mad until it’s all too late. She stands out visually in a simple white dress against the rest of the Trojans who wear greatcoats of mixed military provenance and otherwise look generally scruffy giving an effect somewhere between Colditz and Les Miz. Her singing and acting are both quite mesmerizing. She is well backed up Gregory Kunde’s Énée although he doesn’t have too much to do. He manages to sound like a bel canto singer while upping the heft to cope with some pretty dense orchestration.

Here’s a clip of Antonacci which gives a pretty good idea of the overall idea.

Act 3 involves a total shift of dramatic and aesthetic gear. Now we are in Carthage where Didon (Susan Graham) is presenting the results of the first Five year Plan to what looks like a cross between a Druidic gorsedd and a meeting of the Carthage Soviet of Workers and Peasants. The plan has met its targets but their idyllic existence is threatened by the king of Numidia who wants to marry Didon and is marching on Carthage. Énée appears and offers to save the peace loving Carthaginians (nb these are not the baby burning, general crucifying Carthaginians I remember from history) by doing the fighting for them. This is followed by a longish section where Didon’s sister Anna (the very fetching Renata Pokupić) tries to persuade her that hooking up with Énée would be a smart move. This continues into Act 4 which rather drags. There’s a long, almost Wagnerian, prelude after which Didon enters, obviously head over heels in love. We can tell this from her little interpretative dance and her spending the next half hour looking like a contented hamster watching several ballets complete with jugglers and acrobats.. The entertainmet concludes with singing, dancing Nubians who could have come straight out of National Geographic c. 1950. Finally we get going again and Didon decides that maybe the Énée thing isn’t such a bad idea after all. She and Énée sing the gorgeous duet “Nuit d’ivresse”. Kunde and Graham are very fine indeed in this as you can see below. Both these acts are played out on a brightly lit stage with lots of bright whites and colours.

The act concludes on an ominous note as Mercure reminds Énée of his Italian destiny.

In Act 5 we are back dramatically and aesthetically more or less where we started. It’s dark, Trojans in greatcoats, the reflector. The ghosts of the dead Trojans remind Aeneas of his quest. He decides to obey. Most of the rest of the act is Susan Graham going through a full gamut of emotions; anger, grief, vengeance, resignation. It gets a bit over the top but she is elemental and always musical. Graham steals the show in the final three acts but she is very well supported by Pokupić’s Anna and Laurent Naouri’s Narbal as well as Kunde. Cassandra (or her ghost) get the last word but nobody is going to believe her.

John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. He pushes things along well without sacrificing grandeur at the needed points. The period instruments give some pleasing variation of tone colour. The chorus is the ever excellent Monteverdi Choir. No problems in those departments.

Peter Maniura’s screen direction maintains its high standard through the second half. So what of the disk package? It’s an Opus-Arte production and it was filmed in high definition. The 16:9 anamorphic picture is superb even on DVD (which is what I watched) but it is also available on Blu-Ray which should be even better, especially as the Blu-Ray is cheaper and two discs versus three DVDs. Sound is LPCM stereo or DTS 5.1 (DTS HD on the Blu-Ray). The DTS track is really good with real depth. There is even adequate documentation and an hour long “Making of” documentary. All in all, it’s what an opera DVD/Blu-Ray release ought to be.

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One thought on “Arma virumque canunt

  1. Pingback: Seamen from a distant Eastern shore | operaramblings

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