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Sunday, February 17, 2008

DVD Review: Horse Opera

Susan Graham as Didon in Les Troyens.
Les Troyens from the Théâtre de Chatelet.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
No French opera has had a more difficult road to the stage than Les Troyens, the five-act magnum opus of Hector Berlioz. Based on Virgil's Aeneid, (with a libretto written by the composer) Troyens went through as many trials and tribulations as its titular heroes.

In2003, the Théâtre de Chatelet honored the 100th anniversary of Berlioz' birth, by giving the long-overdue Paris premiere of the full five-act version of the opera, played in one evening (with no cuts) as the composer intended.

Troyens has been dogged by bad reputation and worse luck. At the opera's 1863 premiere, the producers split the five acts into two nights, and then dropped the first half (The Sack of Troy) entirely. The five-act version did not premiere until 1890. These performances reinforce the brilliance of Berlioz' sweeping design.

Part One: The Sack of Troy mirrors the eventual fate of the Carthaginians at the hands of the Romans.Cassandra, (Anna Caterina Antonacci), the Trojan prophetess, has a spiritual sister in Didon (Susan Graham), the love-struck Carthaginian queen. (It is not a coincidence that both characters commit suicide onstage.) Énée (Gregory Kunde) is caught in the middle, torn between Trojan survivors' guilt, his genuine love for Didon, and the voices of the Trojan dead, urging him to sail for Italy and found the Roman state.

Sir John Eliot brings his obsessions over clarity and period detail to bear on Berlioz' music. The results are a wonder to the ear--crisp and clear without any muddled textures. His Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique uses all of the oddball instruments that Berlioz wrote for. These instruments (wooden flutes, ophicleide, cornets, natural horns, kettledrums played with hard sticks,) serve to illuminate the unique colors and orchestral textures of the score. The effect is especially impressive in the large orchestral moments in this opera: the Trojan March and the Royal Hunt and Storm.

Each of the three leads gives a devastating performance. Anna Caterina Antonacci is an excellent singing actress, conveying Cassandra's hysteria through movement and gesture even as she soars easily through her long opening aria. Susan Graham is vocally right at home. She is born to play this part: an imposing (occasionally barefoot) Didon who melts for Énée. Both female leads meet their vocal challenges with skill and elegant French vocal style.

Gregory Kunde is a fine, heroic protagonist. He sings lyric passages and heroic moments with equal conviction, creating a conflicted Énée. The supporting cast is excellent, especially smooth-voiced baritone Ludovic Tézier, (Chorebe), and mezzo Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Ascagne). The Monteverdi Choir joins forces with the Choeur de Théâtre de Chatelet to provide excellent choral singing, crucial in this opera with its crowd scenes of Trojans and Carthaginians.

Yannis Kokkos directed, designed, and lit this production. Its success is all on his shoulders. His admirable, utilitarian set: a series of staircases, scrims, mirrors, projections and sliding platforms that adapt easily to the very different worlds of Troy and Carthage. The Trojan Horse is an impressive visual here: a giant, grinning beast that emerges from a trap door beneath Cassandra's feet. Through a mirror-trick it appears to carry its load of Greeks right at the audience.

By choosing two distinctive visual palettes: black and brown for the Trojans, white and blue for Carthage, Mr. Kokkos has cleverly solved the problems of staging this sprawling opera. This impressive package (which also features a bonus hour-long documentary with interviews with conductor, director and principals) is an exceptional presentation of this important production.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.