Royal Opera/Pappano: Les Troyens

Date: July 8, 2012
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Director: David McVicar
Location: Covent Garden, London.

Les Troyens is a brilliant symphonic piece that, in the hands of a fine orchestra who could express Berlioz’s majestic musical integrity in full, can bring absolute thrill to the audience. In this case, Antonio Pappano delivered an enriching program filled with Berlioz’s famously lush sounds. Pappano’s tendency to emphasize dramatic bits, occasionally allowing the orchestra to roam free, further allowed the piece to come to life in an otherwise mundane, rain-soaked Sunday afternoon in London.

In David McVicar’s production, Troy’s wall curved outwards to form what essentially became a metallic Coliseum. The Trojans were dressed and armored in such a way that seemed to place them in a Crimean War setting. The majestic choral celebration of the Trojans’ liberation, followed by Aeneas’s forceful entrance and his forward-looking interpretation of what was to be, reminded the audience visually, if not also dramatically and historically, of Jean Valjean’s pre-exile scene at the end of Act I of Les Mis the musical. If that association was an unnecessary distraction, McVicar’s vision of Carthage was not: it was a beautiful miniature Indiana Jones set, wrapped around by a wall of Carthaginian passageways and illuminated with a beautiful, rustic yellow tinge. McVicar’s production worked not only because it didn’t obstruct the storytelling but, perhaps more importantly, by utilizing a walled design to place the choral members, whether in the metallic Coliseum in Acts 1 and 2 or the wall of passageways in Act 3, the chorus could spread across the vertical and horizontal spans of the proscenium opening, resulting in a wider, more direct projection of the choral sound.

The showpiece of the production was the Trojan horse, which was made with scrap artillery and metallic tools. To stunning and unforgettable stage effect, it self-immolated in a ball of pyrotechnics at the end of Act 2, and smartly morphed into a humanoid caricature of Hannibal at the end of Act 5, thereby allowing McVicar to link the two stories in Les Troyens together through a connection of their respective symbols of transformation. If there was any serious flaw in McVicar’s concoction, it was his lack of reserved space for the dancers and acrobats in the offer scene at the beginning of Act 3. The Royal Opera dancers and acrobats, as good as they were, simply weren’t given enough room to display their craft.

Anna Caterina Antonacci, as Cassandra, was dramatically involved by virtue of her intense on-stage demeanor and vivid vocal colors. Her dark but controlled timbre allowed her to project a Cassandra that was respectively grievous but authentic. Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Dido effused maternal strength as well as a conscientious leader’s frailty. Vocally, Westbroek’s well-supported voice and meticulous phrasing was a reminder that, if she nurses her voice wisely, she could very well become the next great Wagnerian heroine.

Bryan Hymel’s French diction was horrendous. He often chewed away the Romantic syllables in seeming unease and agony. That said, everything else about Jonas Kaufmann’s replacement was superlative. As Aeneas, he stamped his mark as a dramatic high tenor with crisp and secure top notes, delivering a gorgeous and ringing B-natural in Nuit. Even towards the end, he had so much power in reserve that he practically slashed through the orchestra with his final “Italie”. This valiant ending provided the fuel to Pappano’s orchestral fire.

Elsewhere, Brindley Sherratt had a fine outing as Narbal, fully projecting a fatherly and stentorian sensibility and providing much vocal warmth to the lower registers. Ji-min Park phrased Iopas’ legato lines with a flowing grace. In the song of the fields, his high C first appeared with a slight wobble but ended with the kind of ring and comfortable support that left the audience close to the edge of their seats.

Each of the vocal, orchestral and visual bits had their individual moments of glory, but a full realization of Berlioz’s vision of a cohesive grand opera came up just short. The determination to introduce the two-storey Trojan horse, no matter how visually stunning, unfortunately gave rise to the chronological misplacement of the Troy scenes and the corresponding confusion (e.g. not-so-subtle references to the mid-19th century Crimean War preceded subtle references to 1832 Paris uprising). The Carthaginian scenes were generally glorious, but whether it was due to Dido’s questionable appearance (an entire curtain from Marie Antoinette’s Versailles seemed to have fallen all over her) or the lack of breathing space for the offerors, the concept of the whole just fell short of unreserved triumph.

Acts 1 and 2: the metallic Coliseum.

Act 1: This metallic Coliseum reminds me of Act 1 of Les Mis. Photo from Royal Opera’s website.

Act 3: Carthage.

Act 3: Carthage. Photo from Royal Opera’s website.

Westbroek's drapery.

Westbroek’s questionable drapery. Photo from Royal Opera’s website.


Met Opera/Armiliato: Il Trovatore

Date: October 30, 2010
Conductor: Marco Armiliato
Production: David McVicar
Location: The Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Verdi’s Il Trovatore, based on a 19th century play by Antonio García Gutiérrez, gives opera directors a serious headache: it seems to be a jumbled-up, incoherent drama because much of the historical background and the storyline are either buried between scenes or deep inside the libretto –how should the director unpack and elaborate this information, even as the music uninhibitedly rolls on?

David McVicar, in the MET’s newest Trovatore production, does not attempt to explain the morsels of history associated with the opera. The built set and costumes don’t readily reveal its moment in history (15th century) or its location (Spain). If anything, McVicar seems to consciously smudge these facts away from the visual delivery, as if to declare that in the dramatic art of storytelling, at least in this production, theatrics trumps the nuances of context. In other words, in McVicar’s vision, Trovatore is not merely an operatic equivalent of the foregoing play but a metaphor through which the timeless sentimentalities of love, jealousy and honor are theatrically realized. By doing so, McVicar frees the mind away from any unnecessary iconographic analysis to focus on the character relationships and, more importantly, Verdi’s immensely rich and sweeping musical lines and the theatrics associated with them.

Armiliato was a great timekeeper, only occasionally swaying aside to give singers extra room to deliver the treacherous phrasings and bel canto-like fiorituras of Trovatore. In the Anvil chorus, he was able to glue together the chorus, the orchestra and the metal-banging forgers into a coherent punch line. That said, he did not appear to be the consummate Verdian conductor, as his voicing was flat and uninteresting – and lacked serious undulating drama and the sort of mind-wrecking exclamation points for which Verdi’s music is famous.

Patricia Racette, as Leonora, sang the first two acts before becoming indisposed with tracheitis. She did not appear strained or sick at the beginning, and she had no audible breath-control issues. Her Tacea la notte, beautiful and full-voiced, painted a definitive statement of one person falling in love with another. If there was any indication that she was ill, it was that some of her top notes appeared forcibly squeezed. Her replacement, Julianna di Giacomo, emerged after intermission and plunged right into Leonora’s difficult music. Di Giacomo proved to be an agile singer with the kind of vocal athleticism on which the role depends. Her trills were impeccably crisp, while her top notes were secure and confident. In D’amor sull’ali rosee, her acting gift was in full display as she imbued the role with a sense of honor and piety just as she was about to offer herself, perhaps as opera’s most famous sacrificial lamb. Her heroic effort received the largest applauses from the audience at the curtain calls.

Marcelo Alvarez, as Manrico, had a lackluster evening – uninspiring, though with no glaring mistake. He was essentially Aldebran in that famous poster with Ben Hur on a chariot when he really should step forward and be Ben Hur — in other words, Alvarez lingered dramatically and vocally in the background when he really should be in front and take charge. Granted, he was able to hit all his notes in the pira cabaletta (albeit transposed down a semi-tone to make the execution more bearable), but otherwise didn’t carry along any emotional gravity that is so often associated with this music. Zeljko Lucic, as di Luna, had a soft-grained voice with no excessively decorative vibrato, but his legato had this matter-of-factly confidence that enabled him to navigate through the difficult Il balen passage with apparently little effort. Marianne Cornetti’s Azucena was a superb actress who knew how to place herself in the midst of the moving drama. Her voice was like an untamed lioness – plump and strong, but had the tendency of going sharp at the top notes, especially in the flashback passages of the Act II canzone.

The star of the evening was the stagehands, who managed to set up McVicar’s enormous set within the four hours between the last curtain of the matinee’s Boris Godunov, at 4:30pm, and Trovatore’s first curtain, at 8:30pm. This kind of turnaround time proves that for all the wonderful musicians who pass through the front doors of the Met, this pantheon of opera can’t be as good as it is without the enormously talented and super efficient backstage crew, for whom I have nothing but utmost respect.