Dmitry Tcherniakov is a brilliant, mind-blowing director who can take a familiar opera, say, Don Giovanni or Bizet’s Carmen – and turn it into something fresh and astonishing. Try a Don Giovanni, dramaturged into a family drama with a vastly different hero or Carmen set in a psychiatric hospital. Not to everyone’s taste but there is not just shock value but the thrill of this is out of this world.
Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens is a massive opera (or two or more) and its almost unmanageable size alone discourages frequent productions. It took him three years to put it together and it was produced in parts begore getting a full staging in 1920. The Paris Opera took the plunge again in February 2019, just before the pandemic struck, and produced the opera at the Opera Bastille to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the opening of the latter theatre. Three years later the production is being streamed worldwide for about $10 and you can watch it for a month.
Tcherniakov delivers a production that is unexpected in its conception and execution. The myth is well known to most people. The Greeks conquer the city of Troy after a ten-year siege by using the subterfuge of the Trojan Horse. The Trojans think that the Greeks have departed and left them the huge wooden horse as a gift. In fact, it is full of men who burn the city and slaughter much if its population. But Aeneas, the son of King Priam, and his men escape and sojourn in Carthage before going to Italy to found the Roman Empire.
Tcherniakov sets the story in a modern city showing the ravages of war. But it starts in a moment of triumph as the Trojans celebrate their “victory” in the streets while the royal family headed by the arrogant King Priam, is shown in a beautifully paneled room in the palace lined up for a photo shoot.
Cassandra, one of Priam’s daughters goes before a camera in the street and announces that the Greeks have not left. She has been blessed with the gift of prophecy and the curse of not being believed. She warns the royal room in the palace of the imminent danger of a catastrophe but no one believes her.
Mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac as Cassandra dominates the first half of the production. She pleads, cajoles, appears demented, courageous and defiant but is unable to convince her family that catastrophe is looming. D’Oustrac has a marvelous, rich voice and gives an outstanding performance. In her final appearance, she douses herself with gasoline and sets herself on fire. In one of Tcherniakov’s master touches, we see her crawling across the stage engulfed in flames. He does the same thing with appearance of the ghost of Hector.
Baritone Stéphane Degout excels as Coroebus, Cassandra’s fiance. Degout’s Coroebus is an upstanding man in love and in valor but he does not believe his fiancée. Too bad for the character but kudos to Degout for his singing and acting.
More than the individual singers, the whole of Les Troyens has lush orchestral music and superb choruses. It can be produced as a choral work and thoroughly enjoyed.
After some dramatic scenes, including the very brief celebration of the “victory” over the Greeks, we see the royals paying homage to the dead Hector where the family dynamics are illustrated. The authoritarian Priam (Paata Burchuladze), waves Cassandra away because she is the bearer of bad news. She leaves and defiantly returns. Hector’s son is raised as an indication that he is the heir to the throne and Priam’s son, our hero Aeneas leaves in a huff. A finely staged and directed scene.
We spend the second half of the opera in Carthage where the beloved Queen Dido has been ruling for seven years after escaping from tyranny and murder in the city of Tyre. (I don’t know how or what exactly happened but this is an opera review and not ancient history.)
We expect to find ourselves in the palace of a prosperous and happy kingdom. Instead, we arrive at a psychiatric centre for war victims. The large room has a vending machine and colourful walls and chairs where people are led in therapy sessions. But they have balloons, and streamers, and there is a party celebrating the good life in Carthage even if they still need therapy.
You may expect Dido to be a beautiful woman for the heroic Aeneas to fall in love with and (almost) disobey the gods and not go to Italy. Tcherniakov in his anti-heroic mood has Belarusian mezz-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk’s Dido fall short of satisfying our imagination. She is dressed in a yellow pantsuit of sorts and wears a cardboard crown. She sings gorgeously and her love and then hatred and anger towards Aeneas are convincing but that could be because he is not too well either. Do we have two people with post-traumatic syndromes meeting?
Tenor Brandon Jovanovich sings movingly of his love for Dido and we see him in extremis emotionally when he must abandon Dido. A superb performance. Mezzo-soprano Aude Extrémo as Dido’s sister Anna and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Narbal deserve kudos for their performances.
For his anti-heroic and original interpretation, Tcherniakov had to make some cuts (almost all productions do) to the opera and there are some inevitable incongruities especially in the scenes in Carthage. Radical changes to an opera can often misfire and infuriate the audience. In the hands of Tcherniakov, however, the result is a thrilling production.
Berlioz’s music and choruses sounded spectacular as played by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Paris National Opera conducted by Philippe Jordan.
Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz is being streamed by https://chezsoi.operadeparis.fr/