Second half, seen in London, shows promise, says Joshua Kosman, San
FranciscoChronicle Music Critic:
London -- The advance word on director Richard Jones' new production
of Berlioz's epic "The Trojans," a co-production by London's English
National Opera and the San Francisco Opera coming to the War Memorial
Opera House in 2005, promised plenty of controversy and provocation,
abetted by a hefty dose of modern-day political allegory.
Turns out that's only half the story.
Berlioz's mammoth five-act adaptation of Virgil's "Aeneid" is in two
parts, one treating the Greeks' capture of Troy and the other the
short-lived romance between Aeneas and Dido, the Carthaginian queen.
And although the composer meant for the opera to be conceived and
heard as a single integrated work, as it will be in San Francisco,
Jones -- to judge from a performance here last week of the second
half, and from press reports of the January premiere of the first
half -- seems intent on drawing a marked dividing line down the
center of the piece.
On the one hand, there is the gritty updated imagery of "The Capture
of Troy," which reportedly recast the Trojans as post-Sept. 11
Americans under siege. In contrast, "The Trojans at Carthage" offers
a deliberately nonspecific pastoral -- sweetly reflective and at
times almost bland in its emotional tenderness.
Even the visual aspects of the two parts diverge sharply, with two
different designers called in for the task. The CNN realism of
Stewart Laing's "Capture of Troy" is a far cry from the painterly
pastels that John Macfarlane has created for "The Trojans at
The San Francisco production promises to be the next major project of
the Pamela Rosenberg era, the company's most ambitious undertaking
since last season's North American stage premiere of
Messiaen's "Saint Francois d'Assise. " And how the two parts will
mesh when they join up side by side is anybody's guess.
One possibility is that the expansive lushness of Part 2 will come as
welcome relief from the jangly force of Part 1 -- if nothing else, it
will certainly mollify anyone put off by the politicizing aspects of
the early acts.
Alternatively, the divergence in tone could wind up seeming
incongruous, as though two entirely different operas had been
shoehorned into a single evening.
And of course the odds are that Rosenberg may call for changes to
either part or both before "The Trojans" lands in San Francisco.
In any event, Jones (whose Welsh National Opera production of
Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" was a vibrant, imaginative success
at the War Memorial Opera House last fall) is an inventive and often
canny creator of stage images.
RAVISHING LOVE DUET
Dido's creation of the North African mini-utopia of Carthage is
depicted with beguiling energy, as the chorus assembles a scale-model
city under a golden glow to the accompaniment of one of Berlioz's
most exquisite musical passages.
The final disruption of this idyll -- as the ghostly spirits of his
fallen Trojan comrades call Aeneas away to found Rome -- deftly
reprises the military themes of Part 1, dominated by the hull of a
large iron battleship.
But the most ravishing part of the production is the great love duet
for Dido and Aeneas, set atop a little royal bungalow against the
backdrop of a starry summer night. The scene is so beautiful it
borders on sentimentality but never succumbs.
The ENO cast -- none of whom will be making the transition to San
Francisco -- sang capably under the leadership of conductor Paul
Daniel without quite matching the vitality of the staging. John
Daszak (Aeneas), Susan Parry (Dido) and Anna Burford (Anna) took the
The likelihood is that this production will be dramatically honed
even further before the two halves are assembled and the entire thing
ships out to San Francisco. But even in its current state, the
auguries look good.
E-mail Joshua Kosman at jkosman@...