James L. Zychowicz
, October 2011
…this recent production by Palau de les Arts “Reina Sofia”, Valencia deserves attention amongst other things for the effort that went into the multi-media aspects…the present DVD breaks convention in a modern rethinking that makes use of elements of sport, science-fiction and abstract modernism to re-envision Berlioz’s as a multi-media event. This resembles in some ways the recent Ring cycle from the same theatre. That also which also deployed projected film and other special effects in a re-conception of another nineteenth-century epic. Tastes will vary and some may view the aesthetic results as a mere juxtaposition of modernism and tradition. At bottom, though, the criterion is: how effective is this production and music-making in conveying the meaning of the work.
In terms of the musical quality, the performances are outstanding, starting with Gergiev’s exceptional leadership of this sometimes sprawling score. The orchestral sound is clear and focused, with a balance that allows the solo voices to be heard distinctively and the chorus to be supported solidly. The recorded sound benefits from the best aspects of studio work, without the sort of gaps one otherwise hears when singers turn or encounter dead spots on the stage. At the same time the stage machinery’s action does not intrude upon the recording as occurs in some DVDs. This allows Gergiev’s convincing interpretation to emerge readily.
As to the solo voices, the principals represent optimal casting with Elisabete Matos embodying well the character of Cassandra, and Gabriele Viviani comparable as Chorèbe. Their duet in the first act “C’est lui!” shows the two in an admirable light. Lance Ryan as Énée gives a strong reading of his part from the start, with the recitative “Du peuple et des soldats”, a section that benefits from the incisive way the singer approaches this passage and others. As Didon, Daniela Barcellona’s interpretation brings the nuance that characterizes her role, a crucial element in the second part of the opera. The performance benefits from the phrasing and articulation Barcellona contributes which, in turn, allows the details of her character to emerge effectively through the text and accompanying music. Barcellona is impressive from her first entrance in the scene with chorus “Gloire à Didon”, a point presented with sufficient pomp to work well. Yet her duet with Énée that concludes the fourth act “Noit d’ivresse” merits attention for the intimacy that emerges. Both Barcellona and Ryan demonstrate exemplary ensemble. Barcellona sustains her character through the climax of the fifth act, where Didon commits suicide and with that act allows Énée to continue his journey, an element that is implied in Berlioz’s score and is all the more powerful for being implicit rather than blazoned directly.
The chorus is also impressive because of its focused sound and clear diction, elements that are key to this work. In this interpretation the choral sound is dense in texture, even when the volume is subdued or even soft. The text is always clear, thus allowing the full effect of the crowd scenes where the masses are represented by the chorus. The results are as impressive vocally as they are visually.
In presenting Les Troyens in this fantastic setting, stage designer Roland Olbeter avoided some of the clichés which come with implementing our images of mythic antiquity. In doing so he makes free with space-age elements in the final act, as it looks forward from ancient Carthage to the future hegemony of Rome, a place Énée, the legendary Aeneas, has not yet founded. Touches like the space walk of Iopas allow some of the imagery to become concrete on stage, rather than remain figurative. Such interpretive design accentuates the climactic suicide of Didon with images of blood-red liquid flowing from her in a fountain, with her costume forming the upper portion of the structure.
Elsewhere the design makes use of filmed images to create some stunning effects, as with the usually painted backdrops of the sky—as found in the first part of act one—transformed into dynamic images of billowing clouds moving freely in the space behind the stage. Later in that part of the opera, the death of Laocoön who is slaughtered by vicious serpents, is part of the narrative. This is depicted by the impressive stage machinery as a larger-than-life display that connotes the mythic intervention of the Greek gods. Granted, it is not obligatory to include a depiction of this scene, but it certainly contributes visually along with the grandeur implicit in the story and in Berlioz’s setting.
While trailers exist on the Internet and show in quick succession a variety of the elements of this production, it is important to view this staging in real time, to gain a sense of the pacing of the stage effects, which fit well into the overall concept. Not everyone may share in the appreciation of the Trojan populace in soccer-style uniforms, but the overall impact supports the concept of the production. Likewise, the use of stylized uniforms offers a perspective on the military scenes in harmony with the overarching structure. These and other elements take the listener into the world of this score in ways that other, more ‘realistic’ approaches may not always do. As much as traditional settings may offer some comfort, the imagery behind this innovative reading complements the strong musical conception of Berlioz’s Les Troyens which is, after all, the focus of all the effort. This is powerful stuff and merits attention for a vivid performance that works visually to allow scenes and entire acts to remain in memory long after the final notes have faded.