Opera Review – Les Troyens

This review was first published by Opera Britannia

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

It was a tale of two divas. And it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. The Mariinsky Opera‘s Les Troyens was a bold attempt to bring an epic work to the Edinburgh Festival which never quite achieved what it should have done. Though there were flashes of brilliance, an all too clever set and uncertain and variable singing made the whole long evening very much a mixed bag.

The first big idea to confront the audience was an enormous mirrored backcloth at the back of the stage, leaning in over the action. Technically it offered the design team a number of interesting tricks as things could be back-projected onto it and it reflected a moving stage floor made up of two massive slabs which went to and fro carrying singers backwards and forwards.

It was an astonishingly clever thing to do on the stage. There were constantly changing tableaux made all the more interesting because the mirror brought an almost cinematographic perspective to what was going on. Whilst aware of what the company was doing in front of the audience, it was also possible to see what they were doing from above and beyond. It was also conceptually interesting. Les Troyens is often said to be two operas; the first two acts representing the action in Troy and the final three telling a remarkably similar tale in Carthage. The two cities end up being destroyed after foreigners arrive in their territory. Each has a dominant female royal figure who kills herself in the end. The stories of the two cities are mirror images of one another and the presence of this enormous mirror showed that someone was trying to make sense of a story which does not always sit easily within the audience’s grasp. Unfortunately though, no-one had thought through the consequences of such a large mirror and various technical problems were later to unravel much that was good on the stage itself.

So, let us first consider the goings on in Troy.

The first puzzle of the evening was why the chorus were sounding so tired. Had they perhaps been told to hold it back because of the long sing ahead? Whatever the reason, this was not a particularly sparkling beginning to the evening. Whilst being Trojans, the chorus were dressed as extras from Les Misérables. The presence of a few rifles confirmed that we were certainly not in ancient Troy and the waving of a flag centre stage made one rather suspect that we were in Paris and about to climb the barricades.

The first two acts of Les Troyens depend utterly on the figure of Cassandre. If we don’t enter into her passion then we are going to care little about what’s going on in front of us. The role was sung by Mlada Khudoley, a late substitution for another singer. She had been due to sing the part on the following night so it wasn’t as if she had had to learn things at the last minute. She was a bit lacklustre though. There was a beauty to her voice but not really enough power. Much better was Alexy Markov as Chorèbe, her true love. His French sounded a little more secure and the bold power of his voice was much more able to deal with the tricky acoustic of the Festival Theatre. Ms Khudoley tried her best to persuade Chorèbe to leave Troy due to her premonitions of disaster to come, but he wasn’t having it. My sympathies lay with him too – I wasn’t convinced by her either.

Valery Gergiev was doing great work in the pit. Apart from a very brief wobble towards the end of Act I when it wasn’t obvious that the whirling and burling chorus and on-stage band were entirely in time with the orchestra below, all was well. Particularly noteworthy were the lower strings and brass which were simply lush throughout.

It is my view that the best music in Les Troyens is reserved in each act for duets. However, whilst Cassandre and Chorèbe were fighting it out, there was something of a distraction away from the action. Over to the left of the stage, it appeared that someone was checking a mobile phone. First one, then another, then another. Little bursts of light took the eye far away from Troy. It turned out that it was the chorus getting ready to come on stage bearing fake candles in their hands. They were obviously electrically powered and they were glaringly obvious and in the way, whilst they were waiting to come on from the wings. It was clear that a far from perfect blackout was hindering a poor stage design and this was to dog proceedings for the rest of the evening. The fake candles were to prefigure fake lillies later on too. We’ll come back to the technical problems yet again presently.

But first we must consider the goings on in Carthage.

After a long supper break, the audience reassembled to find the cast now transposed across the Mediterranean to Carthage. Instead of the neo-Parisian grunge of the first two acts, now all was Mediterranean blue and white. The costumes now no longer reminiscent of the French Revolution but long flowing white suits somewhat akin to what a well-dressed Mormon might wear to a Latter Day Saints’ Temple Ceremony in the 1970s. It was all visually very rich, wherever we were.

Now, no matter what they were wearing, things were certainly warming up in the singing department. The audience were treated to a surprising post-prandial boost at just the right moment. The chorus were obviously enjoying themselves a little more and the stage had a strong presence dominating it in the form of Ekaterina Smenchuk as Dido. She had everything which Mlada Khudoley had been lacking back in Troy. A glorious sense of determination marked her singing throughout. I overheard someone describe her in the next interval as being a ‘mezzo-soprano profundo’ which captured perfectly the strength of her singing. At last there was something emotional to grasp hold of too. Suddenly one caught a glimpse of how overpowering the whole piece might have been if it had been consistent. Ms Smenchuk blazed whereas Ms Mlada had merely been attempting to fan glowing coals into flame. In this diva-off there was no real competition. Carthage won.

Whenever he felt the audience were beginning to lose interest in the action, director Yannis Kokkos brought out a troop of nubile half-naked male ballet dancers to tumble and wrestle about on stage. The fact that they achieved one of only two smatterings of applause in the whole five hours, shows how appreciative at least some members of the audience were of their lovely homoerotic antics.

There were a couple of notable male singing roles and one further standout female contribution. Yury Vorobiev as Narbal, Dido’s minister of state was doing as well as any amongst the supporting cast, bringing a delicious gravelly tone to bear on his part and Dmitry Voropaev had a lovely pastoral song to sing, though he didn’t play the large concert harp that had apparently been brought onto stage simply for him to stand next to. All was going well for him until an odd intake of breath made him seem to lose all confidence in the upper register. Dido’s love interest Aeneas was played by Sergey Semishkur. His voice was as good as his looks – polished, refined and rather stately singing.

Rather late in the day, I realised that Lyudmila Dudinova was playing a trouser role as Aeneas’s son Ascagnius. It is a fair bet that if you can get three hours into a five hour opera without discerning the gender of all participants then the storytelling is not entirely working.

Ekaterina Krapivina was a knockout as Anna, Dido’s sister. Whereas others on the stage had powerful voices, hers had a clarity that shone out beyond the rather Slavic sound that might generously be regarded as a Mariinsky trademark sound.

Oh but all was not well around the singers.

The mirror reappeared in the final act, having been absent whilst we were first in Carthage. The trouble with a mirror across the back of a large wide stage is that it will not simply reflect what’s going on in front of you. It will also reflect what’s going on to both sides of you too. Thus, even from a good seat in the centre stalls, it provided a clear view of stagehands flapping about in the wings.

The odd glimpse of a fake candle being switched on is one thing but the mirror revealed far more than was good for any production. I did wonder during some of the more static choruses (and a lot of the action did seem to consist of the chorus simply standing around singing) whether the action in the wings was some kind of postmodern ironic commentary on what was going on centre-stage. Whilst someone on stage was singing in a kind of nautical crow’s nest contraption that floated 15 feet in the air for no discernible reason, a burly stagehand waited close by to grasp it and fling black drapes around it in a vain hope that it would make the contraption disappear when it floated within grabbing distance. He was wearing the helpful word CREW emblazoned across his back – reversed in the mirror, of course. At one point whilst Dido was singing about the joys of love under the gentle rays of bright Phoebus, there was the sight of the buttock cleavage of a stagehand, clearly mooning out at us from between his ill-fitting T shirt and scruffy jeans in the wings. During the moments leading up to Dido’s emotional suicide there was a billowing of drapes and the word EXIT appeared on a green sign at the back of the stage. I was unsure whether this should be seen as a deep and rather meaningful meditation on the passion of the dying Carthaginian Queen or the desperation of someone stage-right who wanted us all to leave the theatre as he’d had more than enough and wanted to get home.

The nonsense in the wings was considerably better lit than the action on the stage, where the principals often found their faces obscured in deep shade. Heaven knows what Vinicio Cheli the lighting designer was up to.

Notwithstanding all this, during the final act, I have to admit that I was starting to care about Dido and Aeneas. It took a long time to get there but the passions did billow up from below in the end. Their love duet in the final act was all that it should have been – ravishing and enveloping.

However, the technical and design problems spoiled a rather grand vision. There simply doesn’t seem any excuse for these in such a mammoth and much anticipated Edinburgh Festival Production.

There are many who will view Berlioz’s great work as intriguing but ultimately deeply flawed. The Mariinsky managed to stage a production that lived right up to such an analysis.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Fidelio – Opera de Lyon – Edinburgh International Festival

This review should appear at Opera Britannia in due course.

Star Date: 12 August 2013

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

There are many areas of human endeavour where we must applaud glorious failure. Better, surely, that risks are taken than that we make do forever with the urbane and the familiar. The trouble is, when it comes to space travel, risks that don’t come off tend to result in crashes of spectacular intensity. Such is the case with Gary Hill’s interpretation of Fidelio, which for some reason never entirely explained, he chose to set in space.

This was a production with a lot of “concept” going on. It may be some time before we get to the singing but in a sense, that is true to the experience. One was never entirely convinced that the singing was the point of it.

Not only were we to be experiencing Fidelio on a spacecraft, but it was a spacecraft that was first known to humankind through its appearance in a Swedish science fiction poem that was published in the 1950s by Harry Martinson. Thus, we were on the good ship Aniara which somehow had found itself going off-course from its mission to colonise Mars. That it wasn’t the only thing that was going off-course was to become something of a theme of the evening.

It must have been such a wheeze deciding that the principle characters would mostly get around the spacecraft on Segway machines. There is certain dramatic ballet to be had by such machines gliding around. The trouble is, one controls a Segway by shifting one’s balance. It is a delicate operation. That one can persuade opera singers to perform on them is in itself worthy of note. However, directors who consider this course of action in future might be well to observe that if the singers are standing stock still with their hands by their sides in order to prevent themselves whizzing off into the wings, then it is a fair bet that their acting abilities are somewhat curtailed.

It was not always clear why some of the cast appeared on Segways at some points and walked on their legs at others. At one point Fidelio zoomed off-stage into the wings from which one could hear a decisive thud and came back on foot for the rest of the opera. Whether this was an accident or an expression of a new and previously undiscovered level of existential angst in the mind of the director was never clear.

Particular mention should be made of Don Pizzaro’s costume which made one wonder whether the cosmos had somehow conspired to mate the Mikado with a passing armadillo. It should come in handy if Opera de Lyon ever decide to stage the Savoy operas in a lunar safari park. Having seen this production, we must not rule out the possibility. The other costumes by Paulina Wallenberg-Olsson might have some second-hand value if Blake’s 7 is ever re-commissioned.

Then there was the video. Digital projection was not merely a feature of this production so much as its whole raison d’etre. Digital images were projected onto the rear of the stage throughout. Meanwhile, a gauze curtain was hung in front of the action during the whole opera and further digital images were projected onto this. Sometimes they related to the action. Sometimes they didn’t. What they did do was move constantly. Lines, polygons, imagined space-worlds all appeared before our eyes and jiggled and danced before us. It was as though someone was trying to demonstrate what was happening inside the head of someone with attention deficit disorder who was enduring a migraine whilst watching Star Trek. The poor cast, whizzing about on their Segways behind this curtain of dizziness could thus not be seen entirely clearly nor in all cases heard.

And so we come, at last, to thinking about the singing and in this respect it was an opera of two halves. The first half saw some spirited singing by Erika Sunnegårdh as Fidelio/Leonore whilst the second was somewhat energised by Nikolai Schukoff’s Florestan. His cry of injustice from within his prison cell was powerful and heartfelt and suddenly drew one’s attention away from all the digital action that was crowding one’s vision at the time. His voice had enough emotional intensity to focus the mind for a moment on what all this was supposed to be about – a political prisoner incarcerated because he had stood up to a tyrant.

Pavlo Hunka as Don Pizarro, the villain of the piece may well have had a good voice but struggled even more than the others to reach beyond the curtain that hung between him and the audience. Michael Eder produced a little more clarity as Rocco and provided a very solid underpinning to the quartet Mir ist so wunderbar which was a rare moment of tranquillity and a thing of touching beauty. Valentina Naforniţa’s Marzelline and Christian Baumgärtel’s  Jacquino completed that foursome but always sounded better in the tutti pieces than they did on their own.

There was dialogue for them all to negotiate too. New bits of German dialogue which had been written presumably to fit within the concept or which had perhaps been drawn from Harry Martinson’s poem. Either way, it was all rather forgettable, something which the cast seemed intent on demonstrating once or twice by apparently forgetting their lines.

That gauze screen in front of the action was a wretched decision and made it seem as though the action was all taking place within the context not of a theatre but of a conceptual art gallery.

Full marks to the chorus and the orchestra though. They produced some stunning sounds and each at one point or another acted as the booster rockets for a flagging evening. By some distance, the most exciting musical offering of the whole night came from a powerful chorus singing from the back of the stage and mostly invisible.

This was clearly a production which divided its audience. There was laud and raucous booing at the end but mixed in with cries of bravi from some. Perhaps the greatest failing was in billing it as an opera. Had we been encouraged to see it as an art event during which the participants would happen to try to sing Fidelio then we might have been on firmer ground. In billing it as an opera, the Edinburgh International Festival encouraged us to believe that it was in some way an interpretation of that work when in fact it was not.

It is good that there are opportunities for directors to do this kind of thing. It is important that someone reaches for the stars. However, this particular production showed what happens when the risks don’t come off. It was, from time to time, spectacular. The concept itself though was doomed from take off.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆