BBC Proms 11: Berlioz: Les troyens

The Royal Opera/Antonio Pappano

Royal Albert Hall, 27 July 2012 4.5 stars

Antonio PappanoThere is no other opera that can legitimately match Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens for its sheer musical and dramatic ingenuity, creative prowess, and magnificent scale. Berlioz’s epic is genius: he wrote the libretto himself to create a truly unique work; an opera that is both loosely based on (Acts I and II and the end of V) and strictly conforming to (Acts III, IV, and V) Virgil’s The Aeneid. It is in a small group of operas that take literary works and transform them into something wholly different—Verdi’s Otello immediately springs to mind, for example.

As part of the BBC Proms, the Royal Opera transplanted the singers from their recently triumphant production of Les Troyens to the Royal Albert Hall, where the collective ensemble performed Olympic feats of musical performance. The stamina demanded of the singers alone is truly extraordinary, and this international first-rate cast absolutely delivered.

As the proud and resolute Cassandra, Anna Caterina Antonacci sang her heart out with verve and finesse: her aria “Non, je ne verrai pas” (Act I) was strikingly moving. Her chemistry with the Chorèbe (Fabio Capitanucci) was slightly cold, however. Perhaps this can be attributed to Capitanucci, who is sounding as Italian as ever since his performance of La bohème in May.  Although he sings Puccini extraordinarily well, he was perhaps the most forgettable singer of the evening, his strong and vibrant bass-baritone notwithstanding.

To move to the opposite end of that spectrum, Bryan Hymel (replacing the indisposed Jonas Kaufmann) owned the portrayal of Énée. His voice is bright, full, and well controlled at the top, yet he still has a great deal voice in the middle and lower registers. He is far better suited to the role than Kaufmann, whose dark timbre and extraordinarily heavy top would be slightly out of place in Berlioz’s music. His best moment (and he had many great ones) was certainly his Act V aria “Inutiles regrets! Je dois quitter Carthage,” in which be brought both tender phrasing and emotional force to the fore. For me, the Royal Opera’s production of Robert le diable cannot come quickly enough,

The full-voiced Eva-Maria Westbroek had fantastic rapport with Hymel, but brought the performance to an entirely different level with both her acting and singing. From the minute she walked on stage she was in character—unusual for a concert performance, but indicative of an interesting observation: that the music and drama of Berlioz’s epic are exquisitely intertwined. Their love duet (“Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie”) oozed sensuality throughout. She was impressive over the course of the evening, but especially fantastic in her final scenes as she bitterly impaled herself on Énée’s sword. The desperation and dishonor surrounding her suicide was palpable (and, more impressively, audible) as she sang her final line.

The supporting cast was very good as well; Hanna Hipp was in much better form than when she sang Emilia at Covent Garden a few weeks ago. Her vibrant mezzo rang clearly throughout the hall and she sang with strong commitment. The booming voice of Jihoon Kim was a pleasant surprise, and the sweet lyric tenor of Ji-Min Park was happily arresting. As Ascanius, Barbara Senator added her colorful phrases to the ensemble, and Robert Llyod was a short-lived but well-sung Priam.  

 Strangely, the only major issue during the performance was the execution of Berlioz’s French text (from everyone except the chorus). The only real French phoneme that the singers seemed able to successfully grasp was the nasal “ah.” Perhaps this phenomenon is due to the relative lack of French operas in the canon; indeed, there were several moments when, had someone simply tuned-in to the performance by chance, they might have believed that they were listening to an Italian opera. Hence, slightly more consistency in pronunciation from all the singers would have been appreciated, especially in a genre like French grand opéra.

The Royal Opera Chorus played a major role in keeping the musical standards high. They were in top form; blend was consistent, cut-offs were miraculously clean, and the French diction came through ringing and clearly.

The most interesting character of the evening was Antonio Pappano, however. He is often buried in the pit of the Royal Opera, so it is refreshing in the extreme to watch him periodically during five hours of music. One could do without his idiosyncratic noises (that often precede a significant downbeat or epic bar of music), but alas, that’s what gives his performances their charm. Pappano was at his best for the entire evening, bringing absolute dynamite to the fantastically complex music; even in the tender moments (Énée and Didon’s love duet, for example). Pappano managed to elicit beautifully defined colors with just enough grain of texture to give the music a distinct edge.

The Royal Opera would do well to put this cast, chorus, and conductor at the disposal of EMI: after all, it would be nice to have a recording of Les Troyens conducted by someone with an excess of flair.

By Mike Migliore