Musikfest 2: Fantastic Voyage

Jesse Simon
jueves, 14 de septiembre de 2023
Estreno de 'Los troyanos' de Berlioz © 1863 by Philippe Chaperon / CC Estreno de 'Los troyanos' de Berlioz © 1863 by Philippe Chaperon / CC
Berlin, viernes, 1 de septiembre de 2023. Philharmonie Berlin. Berlioz: Les Troyens. Alice Coote (Cassandra), Michael Spyres (Aeneas), Paula Murrihy (Dido), Lionel Lhote (Chorebus), Adèle Charvet (Ascanius), Ashley Riches (Pantheus), Beth Taylor (Anna), Laurence Kilsby (Iopas/Hylas), Rebecca Evans (Hecuba), Alex Rosen (Narbal), Tristan Hambleton (Priam), Graham Neal (Helenus), and Sam Evans (Soldier). Monteverdi Choir. Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Dinis Sousa, conductor

The touring production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens featuring the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir ended up attracting higher-than-average levels of international press attention after news of an alleged altercation between conductor John Eliot Gardiner and bass William Thomas started doing the rounds. By the time the opera had reached Berlin, both Mr Gardiner and Mr Thomas had withdrawn from the production. With conductor Dinis Sousa in the driver’s seat and all hints of contentious backstage drama far in the rear-view mirror the audience at Berlin’s Musikfest were able to devote their full attention to a majestic performance of a work that, more than a century and a half after its composer’s death, still enjoys nowhere near the stature it deserves.

Admittedly Les Troyens has been making steady inroads since Rafael Kubelik’s centenary production and the 1969 recording by Sir Colin Davis, in which the work was presented complete for the first time; in the first decades of the twenty-first century it has become less of a rarity on stage as opera houses display a greater willingness to embrace its difficulties. Yet cautious acceptance has done nothing to diminish the fact that Les Troyens remains a singular work, seemingly beholden to none of the conventions that governed nineteenth-century opera. Not that this should come as any surprise: whether Berlioz was constantly on the search for new forms or merely dissatisfied with the old ones, most of his major works issued formidable challenges to both the popular tastes and playing standards of his day.

With one operatic failure behind him, Berlioz embarked upon his adaptation of the first four books of Virgil’s Aeneid unhindered by the practicalities of production. If the resulting work – a five act grand opera on an heroic theme with ballets, battles and other scenes of grand spectacle – sounds passingly similar to the Meyerbeerian fare that was then at the height of its popularity, Les Troyens occupies a world structurally and musically apart. The first act introduces a group of characters who will mostly be dead by the end of the second, while the final three acts – set in Carthage – treat the titular survivors with notable suspicion. If Aeneas is the thread that runs through the drama’s two halves, he is far from the central protagonist, eclipsed in the first part by Cassandra and in the second by Queen Dido. Certainly the tale of Dido and Aeneas would, on its own, have made for a far more unified drama – and, indeed, early performances divided the work into separate operas or, in some cases, simply omitted the first two acts – yet it is difficult to imagine the tragedy of the second part being as potent without the tragedy of the first.

The disregard of dramatic conventions and the absence of a strong narrative centre can make Les Troyens seem far more sprawling than other operas of a similar length, and the romantic filter through which Berlioz views Virgil’s epic can occasionally result in scenes of uncertain tone. Ultimately the opera succeeds as a work of drama only to the extent that the viewer is willing to rationalise or accept its peculiarities, and it is perhaps for this reason that it has been slow to find an audience.

The music, however, is another matter, and it is here that we find the greatest argument for hearing Les Troyens in a concert hall rather than an opera house. Although the evening was described as ‘semi-staged’ it was essentially a concert performance: the singers delivered their lines without scores, and were free to interact with one another in ways that matched the tone of the scene; but most of the costumes could have passed for evening dress, and there was little attempt to illustrate the story in any traditional sense. This worked to the evening’s advantage: without the burden of action one was free to focus on the sustained invention of the opera’s individual scenes, the restless vigour of the orchestration, and the astonishing mastery with which Berlioz assembled moments of vast emotional and thematic diversity into a rigorously cohesive whole. What emerged from the singers and orchestra under Mr Sousa’s direction was neither sprawling nor unwieldy, but a work of near-symphonic integrity in which the drama was shaped less by the traditional interaction of well-defined characters than by the architecture of the music itself.

Berlioz’s gift for creating unconventional scenes of complex emotional extremes was made apparent in the opening moments of the first act: the jubilant choir of Trojans soon gave way to the chilling prophecies of Cassandra, but the disparity of moods was woven tighter in the extraordinary duet that followed; here the orchestra shuttled back and forth between the confidence of Chorebus and the tragic visions of Cassandra, until finally resolving into something that resembled a love duet in its cathartic power, but that sacrificed none of the foreboding that gave the scene its distinctive unease. (The fact that Berlioz applied a similar structure to the duet between Anna and Narbal early in the fourth act – in which Narbal’s fears for Dido are insufficiently challenged by Anna’s assertions that love will triumph – only reinforced the notion that the work’s two halves were united more by musical than dramatic structure).

Pieza enlazada

The success of the evening was due in large part to Mr Sousa’s ability to convey the musical and structural essence of each scene – he had a remarkable feel for the dramatic purpose of each brass swell and woodwind intrusion – without trying to downplay their ambitions or smooth over their peculiarities. While the opera features its share of arias and duets, Berlioz was also inclined towards scenes on the grandest possible scale, and the work’s human drama is forced to contend with marches, dances, choral tableaux and other moments of pageantry; yet instead of overwhelming the work, such scenes were revealed to be essential to the overall plan. The octet with double choir in the first act was, on this evening, as thrilling as any scene in nineteenth-century opera; and while the succession of divertissements in the fourth act – starting with an extended pantomime of the royal hunt, moving through a succession of dances, and concluding with a song from the Carthaginian court poet – could have come across as unnecessary padding, their relative frivolity only served to highlight the depth and intimacy of the duet between Dido and Aeneas that brings the act to such a hypnotic conclusion.

The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique – who gave such a memorable performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis at last year’s Musikfest – are an ensemble who apply period performance practices to works from the nineteenth century. While Berlioz himself would undoubtedly have welcomed the technical advances of the modern orchestra, the sound of the ORR’s massed forces – especially the bright, unvarnished tone of the brass – brought an immediacy to the score that might well have been sanded away by modern instruments. Indeed, so many of the evening’s greatest moments achieved their emotional impact through sound alone.

The evening’s vocal performances were equally alive to the unusual dramatic potential of the work. Alice Coote had both the commanding voice and charismatic presence to let Cassandra assume her rightful place at the centre of the first two acts: her opening scene, a gripping recitative followed by a charged ‘Malheureux Roi’ started the evening at a high level of intensity, but the levels of tragic portent in her voice only grew greater in the subsequent duet with Chorebus; when she spoke of dark omens in the sky, it was hard not to believe her. If her second aria in the first act was similarly haunted, she was possessed of fiery purpose in the second act finale, exhorting the women of Troy to kill themselves before the arrival of the Greeks.

As Queen Dido, the central figure of the opera’s second half, Paula Murrihy built her performance with stealth and patience. Her first aria in the third act, ‘Chers Tyriens’, was a model of refinement, delicate in its phrasing but delivered with unconcealed nobility; yet beneath her regal bearing one could sense a reserve that didn’t quite disappear even with the arrival of the Trojans. The full magnitude of her performance started to reveal itself in the magnificent duet with Aeneas at the end of the fourth act, but it was in the emotional turmoil of the fifth act that she reached her greatest heights: after the convincing anger in her final meeting with Aeneas and her desperate summoning of the Carthaginian fleet to destroy the Trojan ships, the sudden calm that overtook her farewell scene – as though returning to her natural royal state – was all the more compelling.

As Aeneas, Michael Spyres had a strong opening scene describing the death of Laocoön, but his performance shifted into a higher gear in the third act. His arrival at Dido’s court in the Finale of the third act brought a level of energy to the stage that had been missing since the death of Cassandra, and he lost none of his heroic urgency even when pausing to give advice to Ascanius. He revealed an equally convincing lyrical side in the fourth act, luring Dido outside with gentle phrasing and joining with her in a duet of sustained elegance. His emotional range expanded even further in the fifth act when the tenderness of the fourth and heroism of the third were eclipsed by agitation and doubt.

The work’s numerous smaller roles were also well cast. It was difficult not to be entranced by the rich lower register of Beth Taylor who, as Anna, offered tonal contrast with Dido in their excellent third act duet, and whose faith in love was a worthy counterforce to Narbal’s fears in the fourth. As Ascanius, Adèle Charvet delivered a charming presentation of gifts to Dido, Lionel Lhote was convincingly ardent as Chorebus, the lover unperturbed by Cassandra’s dark visions, and Alex Rosen, who also served as the evening’s two ghosts, was at his best as the troubled Narbal, unable to rescue his queen from her fate. And it would be impossible to overstate the contribution of the Monteverdi Choir whose room-filling sound and focussed ensemble gave so many of the evening’s scenes their elemental power.

Even in the face of such devoted advocacy, Les Troyens remains a daunting work and anyone who comes to it looking for the familiar pleasures of nineteenth-century grand opera may leave disappointed. On this evening, however, the combined forces of the soloists, choir and orchestra under Mr Sousa’s spirited direction offered eloquent proof that, given the right performance, the works rewards far outweigh its potential difficulties, and that anyone willing to approach Berlioz’s epic on its own terms will discover a musical world no less intoxicating for being so unique.

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