Berlioz despaired of ever seeing his darling Cassandra on the stage. We Brits have done him proud at Covent Garden, first with Rafael Kubelik, then with Colin Davis and the unforgettable Jon Vickers as Aeneas; and now July 2012 with a sumptuous production of Les Troyens pretty well sung. Here was the Cassandra the ageing Hector craved, Anna Caterina Antonacci, statuesque, regal, wonderful voice, thrilling, a Cassandra who died for us, a Cassandra to die for. Pappano in the pit gave her entry music with overwhelming passion and he maintained a powerful grip over his virtuosic band. If Berlioz had lived on, I wonder if he wouldn't have played the famous March in the pit instead of having it sounded only on the stage.
The production visually was all curves and flames. The curtain went up (at five o'clock!) on what one might have thought was a bemetalled Albert Hall. More curves for Carthage, tiered this time. Handsome, imaginative: and long ropes for the departure of Aeneas and his men. Dismay at the withdrawal of master tenor Jonah Kaufmann was more than tempered by the performance of his replacement, American Bryan Hywel, good actor, fine voice, every inch a hero, singing his great final aria with passion and ringing high notes. ("There's no turning back"). Coroebus (Fabio Capitanucci, high baritone) a worthy partner. But, what of Didon, Widow Dido? A cheer for Eva-Maria Westbrook, who is beautiful, tall, acts and sings the notes accurately; she would be the ideal Dido if her voice were more beautiful. Chorus lusty, fine.
Virgil's horse was wooden, in W.C.2 the gee-gee seemed all metal, plates, wheels, rods (with a touch of War Horse), vast and menacing. The greatly talented set-designer Es Sutton has worked at the Garden before and she will shortly have her Robert Devereux on view at the Met. Donald McVicar's production was relatively rational, give or take the nowadays habitual time hiccup. Gods and humans, some would leave their dear ones, others would not.
Some of Berlioz's big works have weak endings (who was it said that he had genius but no talent?) but this five-hour epic shows consistent genius, melodies that carry you along, compelling rhythms, ideas two a penny/franc, blazing sequences (flames in the pit as well as on stage). His orchestration so creative it makes the listener grateful that Hector was no pianist.
Only one blot on Trojan landscape: the ballet numbers were ruined by inept choreography. Otherwise it was a worthy performance of a truly grand masterpiece. Berlioz would have been grateful.