Berlioz / Les Troyens / Paris (Théâtre du Châtelet) 2003 – 3

[Parts one, two, three and four.]

In terms of the production, this Les Troyens has its moments.

Acts I and II are the best in visual terms. The stage is bare and relatively empty. Behind and above it is a large mirror, which sometimes shows us the rooftops of Troy and sometimes reflects the stage. The latter works very well – it makes the stage seem bigger, allows for some visually striking entrances and exits, and at one point provides the audience with the best view of the action : there are some wrestlers/tumblers/dancers who are surrounded by the chorus on stage, but we can see them in the mirror. And it is only in the mirror that we see the horse. The horse looks fierce. When Cassandra pleads with her fellow Trojans to just “search the monstrous horse” already, you sort of feel for the woman. It seems so obvious, right?

Also, the way they’ve filmed this you get a lot of close-ups of members of the chorus, which makes sense. We see a lot of these people, and as noted earlier, they have some narrative as well as musical work to do in this opera.

The production contains a few odd elements. First, the Greeks look like GI Joes. I get this. Americans! Bad Americans! Which is fine. I’m not offended. But still. This seems unnecessary. If you want to criticize US foreign policy a production of Les Troyens is probably not the most effective place to do so.

Cassandra dies via a self-inflicted stab wound, much as Dido will do in Act V. The women’s chorus, who have resolved to die with her so as not to become slaves and prizes for the Greeks, pull a collective Vinvela and drop dead through what appears to be sheer determination. I admire the sentiment, I suppose, but I am skeptical as to the mechanics. (Actually, what I think has happened is that they have been shot by the G.I. Greeks, but this isn’t obvious because the Greeks aren’t in the camera frame right then).

But as I said, Acts I and II look reasonably good and the design of the production reflects the kind of epic scale Berlioz was imagining. No one is required to wear or do anything unjustifiably weird, the horse is scary and the mirror is cool.

In Act III we meet Dido and the Carthaginians. It was at this point that I often found myself listening rather than watching. I was looking not at my computer screen but at my bookshelf, or my fingernails, or I was listening but also playing with my hair.

The Carthaginians’ costumes may have been stolen from a Lutheran Christmas pageant. I am not making accusations; I am merely offering the observation. Carthage itself is a bright white set with a white tree in the background. Carthage contains a lot of acrobats, who are quite skilled and fun to watch.

Dido and her sister and advisors are outfitted mostly in blue and black. Dido has this shiny blue sweater/cape thing and black shoes and her hair twisted tidily up. It’s not a great costume, but the impression you get is definitely “dignitary” or “power-wielding person of some kind” rather than “Salammbô!” so I see precisely why they did it.

There are some awkward moments with the subtitles. When the Trojans appear in Act III, Dido’s second in command refers to them as “agents from an unknown fleet,” which suggests the Carthaginians think the Trojans might be Cylons. But the best example of this is from Act V, when Dido, about to commit suicide, exclaims that “my career is finished!” This is fine and I know what she means, but I think what is intended is something closer to “my life has run its course!”

But I am being picky. The overall impression of Acts III-V is of a large white space inside a large blue space — a kind of abstracted version of sand/Mediterranean city and sea/sky. It makes the robe/blood that flows down the stairs at Dido’s death jump out very effectively. In purely aesthetic terms I didn’t like all of it all of the time, but I think I see what they were going for.

But the center of attention in Acts III-V is not the set. The center of attention is Dido, which brings me to what this production does to/for/with Dido, and by extension, to/for/with Susan Graham. Tomorrow.

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