OPERA NEWS - Les Troyens
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Les Troyens

Opéra National de Paris

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Dmitri Tcherniakov's production of Les Troyens, "La Prise de Troie," at Opéra National de Paris
© Vincent Pontet/Opera National de Paris
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Stephanie d’Oustrac as Cassandre
© Vincent Pontet/Opera National de Paris
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Brandon Jovanovich as Énée
© Vincent Pontet/Opera National de Paris

THE PARIS OPÉRA'S new Dmitri Tcherniakov staging of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens was one of the most-anticipated events of the current Paris season. The production, conducted by music director Philippe Jordan, celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the Bastille as well as the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death. The new Troyens was also offered in homage to the late Pierre Bergé (1930–2017), who was appointed president of the Paris Opera in 1988.

Tcherniakov’s “La Prise de Troie” was exciting theater. The opera opened in a wartorn corner of a city that could have been Beirut or Sarajevo. An oppressed people rejoiced amid pockmarked concrete buildings at what they believed was the end of the war. On the other side of the stage, the royal family, locked in domestic and political isolation, posed for a family photo. King Priam, sung by veteran bass Paata Buchuladze, rules Troy as a ruthless dictator. The only member of Priam’s family to rebel is his abused daughter Cassandre, who warns that the Trojan victory over the Greeks is not what it seems. An electronic band of news updates reported the events of the day, including the arrival of the fatal Trojan horse, which leads to the graphic murder of the royal family in their palace. 

Mezzo Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s tomboy Cassandre was the best performance of the evening, with clear French and exciting commitment. Baritone Stéphane Degout was equally fine as Chorèbe. As the despairing Cassandre drenched herself in petrol and self-immolated, the curtain fell on what looked set to be an exceptional evening.

Unfortunately, the second half of Les Troyens, “Les Troyens à Carthage,” found Tcherniakov in more perverse mood. The opening of the act was set in a rehabilitation center for post traumatic stress victims of war, where Énée had been checked in as a patient. The functional contemporary clinic was peopled with a mixture of staff and disabled veterans—Tcherniakov had used a similar device for Don José in his Aix-en-Provence Carmen in 2017. The role playing was less effective in Berlioz’s grand opera than in Bizet’s more modestly scaled work, and both libretto and music buckled under the strain. Presumably the idea was to focus on an antiwar agenda that would contrast with the violence of the first half of the evening, but there are more complex human relationships in the mythological tragedy of “Les Troyens à Carthage” than Tcherniakov presented. After the second interval on January 28 (the second performance of the run), the audience became restless when they realized that the opera would play out in the rehab center. Shouted protests began, which were hushed only when Jordan waved a white flag from the orchestra pit—the most convincing message of peace the evening provided. 

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Michele Losier's Ascagne, Jovanovich and Ekaterina Semenchuk as Didon
© Vincent Pontet/Opera National de Paris

The production had suffered two high-profile cancellations: the withdrawal of Elīna Garanča from the role of Didon due to illness was followed by the departure in early January of Bryan Hymel, scheduled to sing the first three performances of the run as Énée. The handsome tenor Brandon Jovanovich, originally scheduled to share the run with Hymel, sang fearlessly and was convincing as a mentally disturbed figure, but could not disguise the vocal challenges the role had for him. Ekaterina Semenchuk, his Didon, has a sumptuous mezzo and playacted the queen gallantly. Tcherniakov had Didon commit suicide from an overdose: she was a PTSD patient for whom role playing had not worked. Neither protagonist, despite laudable efforts, captured the poetry of the French language. For this one had to look to the excellent supporting cast, including Cyrille Dubois, who sang Iopas’s aria sweetly, and Aude Extrémo, a rich-voiced Anna.

Jordan was the hero of the evening. He drew great playing from the orchestra and confident singing from the all important chorus. His reading, which offered exceptional care for detail, was more classical than Romantic, and was a fascinating exploration of the textures and orchestration of Berlioz—who might not have found this production a suitable commemoration, despite his own personal eccentricities. —Stephen J. Mudge 

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