Twenty-one singers in the Vienna State Opera’s cast list, two large choruses, three ballet ensembles, a five hour experience: when you talk about Les Troyens, you’re talking about obsession with size – but how else is one supposed to do Virgil’s Aeneid?

<i>Les Troyens</i> © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Les Troyens
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

With Les Troyens, Berlioz has undoubtedly created the most monumental of Grands opéras, but it would be wrong to reduce the work to its dimensions: The Fall of Troy, followed by the tragic love story of Dido and Aeneas, isn’t something you can tell in a one act drama. Anyway, for all his megalomania, Berlioz had an eye for detail. He had a passion for this material and expressed it in his own words and ecstatic music, with orchestration that’s dense but never bombastic or overblown. Les Troyens exists dramatically, and even more so musically, as brilliantly exciting contrasts: the use of the unexpected and the confrontation between different moods, translated into rhythm, melody and timbre, are irresistible.

Brandon Jovanovich (Enée) and Joyce DiDonato (Didon) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Brandon Jovanovich (Enée) and Joyce DiDonato (Didon)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

The work begins with the Trojans’ joy at the apparent end of the ten years of war with Greece, contrasted with Cassandra’s dire premonitions, which are believed by no-one, not even her lover Chorebus. For just a moment, on hearing of the death of Laocoon, who had warned about the Trojan Horse, the people are unsure. With this, embodied by the chorus in “mystérieuse horreur”, the first act already hits an impressive climax. Famously, everyone – including the hero Aeneas – misinterprets the meaning of Laocoon’s death, and their fate is sealed by the entrance of the famous horse into the city. (Set designer Es Devilin built the horse from war relics and lights it from the inside).

<i>Les Troyens</i> © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Les Troyens
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

The second act consists of scenes from the last hours of Troy. In the finale, Cassandra convinces many Trojan women to join her in suicide and thus escape the arms of the enemy. Inevitably, one thinks about Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, written 100 years later, and is equally shocked.

David McVicar’s staging is tried and tested: it’s a bought-in production that first saw the light at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The work is shown the way it is, with visuals reminiscent of war films and gladiator movies. Some of the 19th century costumes are opulent. Even the Staatsoper’s large stage would be tight for so many performers, so Devlin builds upwards, and uses the vertical dimension in service of the work: when  at Aeneas’ departure from Carthage, the smashed miniature model of the city leans towards water (only hinted at) and the ropes of the Trojan ships (again only hinted at) are untied, the symbolism is strong.

Monika Bohinec (Cassandre) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Monika Bohinec (Cassandre)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

At the première, Monika Bohinec impressed as Cassandra. She was brought in as a late replacement for the indisposed Anna Caterina Antonacci, but she looked solid throughout and breathed life into the lonely despair of the misunderstood princess. As Chorebus, Adam Platchetka was not in his top form, but the house début of the Austrian-New Zealander bass Anthony Robin Schneider was convincing. As the ghost of Hector, he grabs the great Aeneas by the neck and leads him on a divine mission: he is to found a new Troy in Italy.

Everything is clear for the rest of the evening. The happiness that Aeneas and his followers find with Dido in Carthage will be short-lived, and his mission will destroy more than just one human life. Most spectacularly the life of Dido, who has had a funeral pyre built with memorabilia of her love and stabs herself with her lover’s sword. In this scene (“Adieu, fière cité”), Joyce DiDonato gave at the première the expected demonstration of her highest class, and yet she had her best scene all alone in front of a black curtain. Soft grief, manic fury, wanting her lover back and, in the end, a curse on him and all his descendants: it was one of those moments of opera that are simply unforgettable.

Joyce DiDonato (Didon) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Joyce DiDonato (Didon)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

At the end of the evening, DiDonato was greeted with the expected euphoria, but there was plenty more to celebrate, for example the superb performance of ensemble member Szilvia Vörös, who matched her more famous colleague in technique and beauty of voice. The punishingly long part of Aeneas – a kind of French Siegfried – was performed with bravura by Brandon Jovanovich. As for the remaining cast, including well known names like Jongmin Park, one can’t do anything but shower them with praise. The same applies to the chorus, who  have been rehearsing this since early summer. A pleasant surprise came in the shape of the dance and acrobatics: Lynne Page’s choreography contributed to the story. I can’t remember an opera première in which the ballet was of such quality or received such a huge ovation.

But above everything was the way in which the Staatsoper orchestra enthralled us, and that’s not just because of the novelty value (the work hasn’t been performed in Vienna for 40 years, and virtually never in full). Under the baton of Alain Altinoglu, they brought out the beauty of the score in all its glory, a performance which will surely win new fans both for himself and Berlioz.

 

Translated into English by David Karlin

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