With the Edinburgh Fringe all but packed up, the final week of the main Festival has a different feel, but outgoing festival director Jonathan Mills has sensibly left the most keenly anticipated operatic event until the end. Chances to hear the whole of Berlioz epic Les Troyens fully staged in one evening are rare in Scotland, and the huge forces of the Mariinsky Opera under Valery Gergiev, who are performing this over three consecutive nights with key double casting, made this a must-see event for opera fans.

In his programme welcome note, Mills highlights the Festival’s 2014 theme of dealing with wars and unrest and this performance was supported by the 2014 UK-Russia Year of Culture, now sitting awkwardly given recent political events. Mills also highlights that great art offers a unique space to contemplate or escape these challenges so we can hopefully enjoy these performances in the Festival spirit of healing and optimism.

Berlioz who was fascinated by The Aeneid, wrote Les Troyens to his own libretto late in life, but never lived to see a full performance right through. It is a monumental work requiring huge choruses, very full orchestra and sizeable off-stage band, yet intimate too as the stories of how two strong women kill themselves before our eyes is played out.  

The front gauze was a divided picture of ancient classical townscape, separated diagonally from a solid powder blue colour, reflecting the two parts of this opera:  The Fall of Troy and The Trojans at Carthage. Director, costume and scenery designer Yannis Kokkos treated both parts differently with a clever but sparse set. For Troy, a huge mirror across the stage tilted towards the audience allowed us to see the singers simultaneously from the front and above and a slightly sunken moving floor mid-stage gave us a view of people walking across a jumble of ancient buildings. Instantly, the 50 strong chorus seemed to become 100 and with lighting visible through the mirror, it was a puzzle to sort out what was real, and who was reflected in this game of altered perspectives. The horse with only a ghostly white face, it has to be said, was a disappointment. Costumes for Troy were greatcoat dark, with long black dresses and cloaks for the Trojan women, yet the storming Greeks in the final scene spilling onto the stage from the auditorium were in army camouflage, helmets and armed with guns.

For Carthage, it was all white staging with some steps and a few scale model buildings with a midnight blue backdrop. Lighter blues and sparkling white robes were used the costumes for the Carthaginian artisans, surely the cleanest farmers and builders ever. Video projections added to the performance with waves and fire for Troy and what looked like Dido’s leafy garden for the Royal Hunt and Storm where a whole ghostly white horse appeared and vanished into the trees. White stylised models of the Trojan ships, blown off course from Italy hung on threads.

With a minimalist set the singers have to act to get the story across, and this is where the production disappointed as there was rather too much ‘stand and deliver’ singing. Movements were generally not fluid enough to fully engage the audience over a long evening, although a troupe of dancers certainly livened things up at times with some bare-chested wrestling from the men, and women bearing white doves on sticks.  

There were certainly memorable highlights. Mlada Khudoley’s powerful Cassandra, predicting the fall of Troy, railed against the Horse and awe-inspiring procession blasting out the famous march with offstage and onstage brass. She was moving too in her defiant stance against the women who would stay and be slaves, and leading a mass suicide of those who refused. For this performance, Aeneas, strongly sung by Sergey Semishkur who bridges both cities, and Ekaterina Semenchuk’s Dido were well matched, particularly in their duet in Act IV. Impressive too was Ekaterina Krapivina’s smouldering mezzo Anna, Dido’s sister. The mirror returned in the last Act as Dido climbed the steps of her Pyre, the Trojan gifts spilling down symbolically as she ended her life. Dido’s minister Narbal, Yury Vorobiev, a lustrously deep Russian bass stole the Trojans’ tune and led the Carthaginians in a heartfelt curse of Aeneas and his shipmates.

In the pit, Valery Gergiev, Honorary President of the Edinburgh Festival, held the huge forces generally together and his orchestra played their hearts out. The large chorus, singing in French produced an unmistakably Russian sound, if not quite pinning me to my seat, was still thrilling at times. There were a few hesitant moments, some first-night late lighting cues and the odd visible stage-hand, but the capacity audience seemed generally pleased with this welcome heroic performance of a seldom-seen epic.