ENO @ Coliseum, London, 27, 31 January, 5, 12, 15, 21, 25, 27, February 2003
This first part of Berlioz's Les Troyans is billed by ENO as 'The Capture of Troy' but Richard Jones's arrogantly inconsequential production of this difficult work just about gives it the coup de grace. Occasionally this staging rises to the artistic equivalent of the gutter, but most of the banal goings on take place on a plane well beneath the gutter - and frankly beneath any sentiment so articulate as contempt.
Berlioz did not have a natural appreciation of what would work in opera, and his penchant for big choruses proved a big drawback to credible staging of his works. Ironically, The Damnation of Faust, never intended for the stage, received a brilliant airing as opera by ENO not many years ago. But Les Troyans is a considerable challenge, consisting of alternating choruses and dramatic vignettes by soloists - and the Chorus is more than the commentator of Greek drama but less than the integrated participant in the action, as in (e.g.) Massenet.
This production does little or nothing to address this problem. Instead, the Chorus was regularly subjected to '80s post-modern German choreographic excesses, which did little to enhance their singing. The experience sadly reminded many in the audience of the glory days of ENO when such movement was fresh and appropriate to the mood - Mazeppa aside.
This opera is not aided by performance in English. Many French words end in a sneering suffix that does not exist in English. The consequence is that most of the singing in English sounds staccato. Hugh Macdonald's translation is at best serviceable, but in places it seriously fails this production in manner and meaning. Presumably the opera will be sung in French when it moves to San Francisco. Then, most of the audience will remain in ignorance of the discords between libretto and Jones's intentions.
There is a great deal of de-constructivist tosh in the production, including the intrusion of escapees from Disney's version of Turandot's executed suitors, and acoustic guitars that suddenly appear at - and demolish - a moment of potentially great dramatic intensity; and, seriously, does Cassandra have fleas? The introduction of Jackie Kennedy and John-John was tasteless and wholly irrelevant to the main thrust realised. The problem with post-modernism is that it rejects negative criticism as invalid, referring to an absence of values for corroboration. So, the critic can't win, since there are no standards. Well, there sure aren't!
Susan Bickley justly received a warm ovation from the first night audience. Her singing deserved it. She ought to have had an award for wearing the airline stewardess outfit got up for her. Unfortunately, Jones does not seem to have the remotest handle on Cassandra. She is pretty nearly a stock character in western drama; indeed 'Cassandra' has entered the English language as a synonym for a harbinger of doom. In this production she proved little more than a neurasthenic. The portrayal of her relationship with Priam was at best inept; all tenderness had gone - from both sides.
Robert Poulton's Chorebus was melodious and secure. He was lucky! He didn't have to don any of the more outlandish costumes other principals wore. The overall production concept, the movement, the translation, the costumes - all served to limit the singers' expressiveness.
Paul Daniel's orchestra was in fine form. After all, they couldn't see what was going on over their heads. The first night audience was warm in its appreciation of all except the production team. We go to ENO to see what they will come up with next; we applaud new ideas. But we have the right also to reject what is bad. This is a bad production - not as bad for opera in this country as Martin Smith and Caroline Felton - but bad! One hopes that for Part Two, not scheduled till May, there may be some relief - and coherence and fidelity to the composer's intentions.