War Rages, Steed Spews Fire in Covent Garden ‘Troyens’

A scene from "Les Troyens" by Berlioz. Designer Es Devlin creates a spectacular, fire-spewing Trojan horse. Photographer: Bill Cooper/ROH via Bloomberg

The 10-year Trojan siege comes to an end. “Ha ha!” sing the relieved townspeople.

After they’ve met a huge fire-breathing horse, some splenetic specters and many untimely deaths over the course of the next five and a half hours, they’re not so cheerful. What did you expect from a French grand opera?

Berlioz’s gargantuan “Les Troyens” (“The Trojans,” composed 1858), now at Covent Garden in London, is just about the toughest call for an opera house after Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

It requires a stentorian heldentenor who can sound seductive in French, two doomed mezzos, troops of ballet dancers and a conductor with the unstoppable get-go of a Panzer tank. All that, and a Trojan horse with plenty of wow factor.

The Royal Opera serves it up proud in a lavish and thrilling new production, its first in 40 years.

The early part of the piece deals with the end of the Greek siege of Troy, and the arrival of the wooden horse. Everyone is ecstatic, except the gloomy prophetess Cassandre.

The Trojans don’t listen to her, which is a big mistake. Since Cassandre writhes on the floor a lot and has eyes painted on her hands, perhaps it’s understandable.

The horse is stuffed with enemy Greeks, and there’s a battle. A bloodstained ghost commands Enee (Aeneas) to flee, take the city’s treasure, go to Italy, found a new Troy, and die a hero’s death.

Dido’s Fury

The second part takes place in Carthage, in North Africa. Aeneas dallies there on his way to Italy, and falls in love with Queen Dido (in the opera called Didon). When more spoilsport Trojan ghosts order Aeneas to get to Italy, he abandons her.

Dido is miffed. As she prepares to kill herself, she calls for eternal war between Africa and Rome, between East and West.

It’s stirring stuff, profuse in luxurious French melodies and ear-tickling orchestration. There’s an odd whistling sound when the ghosts appear. There are weird rumbling brass noises to depict serpents. The rocking string accompaniment to the climactic love duet pulses with sensuality.

Antonio Pappano conducts like a man possessed, and creates some thrilling off-stage surround-sound moments too.

Director David McVicar updates the Trojan action to France in the era of the opera’s composition. Since this was a period of military expansion for the country, it makes sense. For the Carthage scenes, he provides a less-specific North African setting awash with ochers and terra cottas.

Equine Sensation

Designer Es Devlin’s Trojan Horse must go down as one of the largest props ever created by the Royal Opera. Made from rifles, cannons and military paraphernalia, the rocking equine head looks fabulous, and creates a sensation when it spews fire.

There’s another huge fiery prop at the end of Dido’s death scene that doesn’t create the same effect. It’s just one disappointing moment in an otherwise beautifully judged show.

The singing is top-drawer. Anna Caterina Antonacci is as fire-breathing as any of the props in the mezzo role of Cassandre, and invests her dark-toned voice with horror and rage. It’s a performance of astonishing physicality: She twists and contorts as visions of horror and destruction invade her.

Soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek is a luminous Didon (a role usually taken by a mezzo) who radiates queenly authority and love in equal measure. Her despair and fury when Aeneas leaves are awe-inspiring.

Brian Hymel is the real deal as Aeneas. Blessed with a strong, lyrical voice that opens and soars the higher it goes, he sounds equally good in the heroic and amorous scenes.

On the first night, the audience reserved applause until the end of each act, except when Hymel thundered out his pulse-quickening B flat at the end of “Ah! Quand viendra l’instant des supremes adieux” (Oh, when the moment comes for the final farewell). After that aria, the crowd went wild.

The supporting roles are beautifully done, the enlarged chorus makes a monumental sound, and the ballets add yet another element of lavishness to an already grand production.

Rating: ****.

“Les Troyens” is sponsored by Rolex Group and the Monument Trust in Memory of Simon Sainsbury, among other donors, and is in repertoire at the Royal Opera through July 11. Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000. It is a co-production among Vienna State Opera, Teatro alla Scala and San Francisco Opera, and will travel in due course.

The production will be broadcast in movie houses in November (see the ROH website for details), and will be available for viewing free online at http://www.thespace.org from July 5 through Oct. 31.

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

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(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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