Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Trojans At Carthage @ Coliseum, London

8, 10, 14, 16, 23, 29, 31 May, 3, 7 June 2003

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: Grant Smith)

After the frankly awful production of the first half of Berlioz’s Les Troyans, The Capture of Troy, the second half had to be approached with trepidation. The good news is that while The Trojans at Carthage has its problems, it’s well worth seeing if only for the ravishing second act.

Carthage is in serious building mode when we join the action, made manifest by the chorus busily assembling a charming scale model complete with running water. The backdrop is a simple asymmetric wall in warm terracotta, supporting a ceiling frescoed with a charming vaguely eighteenth century female face – Dido?

The chorus in soft blue leisure wear, for want of a better word, harmonise and the visual picture is much easier on the eye than anything Richard Jones earlier production had provided, for which relief much thanks. The direction is still bizarre however in that the chorus either stand around looking uncomfortable or indulge in hyperactive bouncing.

This court doesn’t stand on ceremony, and Dido’s first entrance is very unregal. It doesn’t help that she wears a rather unbecoming black dress: as with poor Cassandra in Troy, the costumes do nothing to flatter the singers. Susan Parry is a stately figure, however, and combines dignity and a powerful, authoritative mezzo to impressive effect. Maybe it’s just as well she isn’t overdressed, because the wandering Trojans arrive more or less as we left them in January, in baggy shorts and T-shirts.

Which brings us to Aeneas, ably sung by John Daszak, but struggling against the same difficulties as Dido in direction and costuming when it comes to portraying a hero. He is at least allowed to change into a shirt and long trousers for the second act, but he never achieves the magnetism or stage presence that one would expect of this pivotal character – a Queen is going to give up all for him, for goodness sake.

It’s not Daszak’s fault. Jones seems to have a problem with natural movement for his cast, with the result that like the chorus, the principals stand stiffly a lot of the time before bursting into wild and sometimes bizarre behaviour (Dido’s sister Anna suddenly covering her head and neck in kisses, for instance – I wondered whether we were in for a serious change of plot at that point).

In the case of two heavyweight characters that must meet, fall in love, suffer agonies of divided loyalties and come to final tragedy, it simply won’t do. And you can’t pretend that Dido and Aneas are ordinary people by dressing them down, and then not let them behave as normal people would. There is no apparent feeling between Dido and Aeneas: even when kissing her his arms remain at his sides. What are we supposed to glean from this? That he never loved her? That he was having premonitions of leaving? When they shelter in the cave from the Act Two storm, presumably a climactic moment in their relationship, they emerge po-faced and the only clue we get to any change is that Dido unties her hair. Gosh. Any red-blooded male would have done that for her in the cave, one would have thought…

In Act Two, Scene Two all is forgiven, if only temporarily. Dido’s ‘gardens by the sea’ are visualised in brilliant orange and blue, with her palace a jewel-box of a structure decorated by two outsize geckos (very Gaudí). There are triumphal dances, a wonderful aria for Dido’s court poet Iopas (Colin Lee – a young singer with a great spinto tenor: one to watch), Aeneas telling stories of Troy. And then they are left alone together as night falls, and Berlioz takes over. Paul Daniels always gets the best out of the ENO orchestra, and the lush orchestration, the gorgeous, sweeping, romantic sounds, as the pair climb to the roof and stand among the stars singing of the beauty of the night – well, it was breathtaking. One could almost believe at that point that they really were in love.

There is good singing throughout, including Anne-Marie Gibbons replacing the indisposed Anna Burford (Anna), Clive Bayley as a stern Narbal, complete with eye-patch, and a delightful cameo from Christopher Saunders as Hylas, a young sailor dreaming of home. Barry Martin, like Colin Lee a member of the ENO Jerwood Young Singers Programme, had about two lines to sing as Mercury, but impressed nonetheless with his extraordinary bass voice – more, please. The ENO chorus is also on form, with particularly good diction for Hugh Macdonald’s clear translation.

The real star of the evening though was Berlioz, his innovative scoring, use of instruments such as trombones to add richness and warmth, his sublime feel for emotion, wonderfully brought to life by Daniels and the ENO orchestra. And this staging is a huge improvement on the first instalment, when the production was so distracting that I found I hadn’t actually been listening to the music. That really was a tragedy.

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