‘Alternative facts’ have been around for millennia. In the first century BC, Virgil’s Aeneid created a mythology about the creation of Rome that was intended to lend legitimacy to the poet’s emperor, Augustus, by trading on the legend of the founding of the nation by the displaced Trojan people under Aeneas. In his Staatsoper Hamburg staging of Berlioz’s adaptation of Virgil’s great poem, Les troyens, Michael Thalheimer seems too have gone one stage further and virtually done away with all facts. In an approach familiar from his recent staging of Otello, in Antwerp and Düsseldorf, the drama is pared down to essentials, and even some of those don’t survive here. There’s no Trojan Horse, for instance, but instead a huge rotating back wall dripping with blood symbolises the aftermath of its arrival.

Catherine Naglestad (Cassandre) © Hans Jörg Michel (2016)
Catherine Naglestad (Cassandre)
© Hans Jörg Michel (2016)

The chorus, as in the Verdi production, is treated as a single body, moving in slow procession backwards and forwards, while the main characters often cling to the side walls and interact with each other from a distance. But while in Otello the result was an intense and unstoppable drama, here things feel diffuse and spare for their own sake. It’s so stylised that it almost feels like a concert performance, yet many of the stage pictures are impressive – the bloody wall glowing in sinister light, the curtain of water falling during the Royal Hunt and Storm (an effect for which the director of the first Paris staging wanted to divert the Seine) and the atmospheric back-lighting – and the scale of the set nonetheless gives it all an epic feel.

Petri Lindroos (Narbal) © Hans Jörg Michel (2016)
Petri Lindroos (Narbal)
© Hans Jörg Michel (2016)

But it’s a truncated epic. Using a performance edition by the French composer Pascal Dusapin, Hamburg lops well over an hour off the running time of the complete five-act version of Berlioz’s magnum opus to create a ‘manageable’ evening of three and a half hours. Some cutting can be justified – the rather superfluous ballet at the court of Dido, for instance, here reduced to a brief parading of the captured Numibian slaves – but the result was a loss of some fine music and a sense of proceedings being rushed while, perversely, little was actually seen to be happening on stage.

Torsten Kerl (Énée) © Hans Jörg Michel (2016)
Torsten Kerl (Énée)
© Hans Jörg Michel (2016)

When this production was new in September 2015, it marked the arrival of Kent Nagano as Hamburg Opera’s new music director, and he was again in charge, drawing some exceptional playing from the orchestra, which obviously relished the audacity and originality of Berlioz’s orchestration. For this first revival, many of the original cast survived, though the advertised Catherine Naglestad as Cassandra was replaced by two other singers during the five-performance run, on this occasion by Anna Markarova, an impressive, rich-voiced mezzo with a real feeling for projecting the text. Elena Zhidkova’s Dido was focused and vocally dominating of every scene in which she appeared, though her dramatic performance seemed hampered by the director’s cool, highly statuesque portrayal of her character. Torsten Kerl’s Aeneas was effortless in the way he negotiated the role’s notes and phrases, but a bit more tonal variety would have been welcome. A highlight, though, was the entwined voices of Zhidkova and Kerl in a visually chaste account of their love duet, "Nuit d’ivresse".

There was plenty to enjoy among the supporting cast, from Kartal Karagedik’s lusty Coroebus and Heather Engebretson’s lyrical Ascanus to Katja Pieweck’s sympathetic Anna and the mellifluous Hylas of Bernard Richter. The chorus, disciplined in voice as well as movement, was a major contributor to the musical success of the performance.