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Lacrimae rerum

05/10/2003 -  and 14, 16, 23, 29, 31 May, 3,7 June 2003
Hector Berlioz: The Trojans at Carthage
Susan Parry (Dido), Anna Burford (Anna), Victoria Simmonds (Ascanius), Iain Paterson (Pantheus), Clive Bayley (Narbal), John Daszak (Aeneas), Colin Lee (Iopas), Barry Martin (Mercury), Christopher Saunders (Hylas), Toby Stafford-Allen, Graeme Danby (Trojan Sentries)

Paul Daniel (conductor), Richard Jones (director)

ENO Orchestra and Chorus

The second part of Richard Jones' production of Berlioz's Trojans at the ENO (seen on 10 May) emerges on the other side of a real-life war that has been as vivid to non-combatants as any in history. In the first part, Jones emphasised that the besieged Trojans were pretty much like "us", in the broadest sense -- city dwellers whose rituals, complex bonds and anxieties are both potentially the basis of a civilisation and its destruction. The Trojans at Carthage confronts the demoralized refugees from the war with a newer, more confident civilization of the same type (in this production Gap denim rather than white trash gear) that seems to have room for them but which might not be where they belong. There is much talk of fate, but the Trojans are really driven by the need for their own city, to conquer and create in their own image rather than to be assimilated. There is a personal cost for Dido, the queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, the leader of the Trojan refugees, who are in love, but there is also a cost for both civilizations, who, having encountered and rejected each other, become mutually destructive doubles. Designer John McFarlane's model Carthage, built by wonderfully bee-like citizens, looks a lot like Renaissance Rome, but the aerial photograph of the "real" city that drops in front of Dido on her pyre at the end also looks a bit like Ground Zero.

The final pseudo-photograph is the last of a range of structural visual effects that begins with a baroque image of Dido towering over the new city and includes modernist backdrops to a Rite-of-Spring-like hunt and storm. As the tragic calm before the storm of history, The Trojans at Carthage is dramatically sedate, verging on static, and Jones and McFarlane bravely work with its pacing on a human scale most of the time and do not try to create the implicit French theatrical spectacle. While the first act has its light and shade -- busy city building, mournful Dido and perky Anna, anxious refugees, heroic Aeneas stepping forward -- the second act is a slow burn to Dido and Aeneas' intense and ecstatic duet, shattered beyond repair at the last moment by Mercury's cry of "Italy", and the third act is a grim downward ritual where the ghosts of Troy come to get Aeneas in force (Hector grabs him from the door of his ship in a coup that almost matches his appearance from the furniture in the first part) and Dido choreographs her own death, finally wearing Aeneas' manky T-shirt over her Hampstead Bazaar outfit. (Aeneas has adopted Carthaginian denim in the meantime.) The orchestra has to maintain the dramatic sweep, particularly since there are long passages of dance which are not quite overwhelming in effect, and they came through powerfully. Paul Daniel did not achieve, or aim for, the often lapidary classicism that Colin Davis did with the LSO in both distant and recent memory, but he and the orchestra got it close to right for this production.

The singers had merits that were mainly dramatic, though they certainly didn't betray the music. Susan Parry was a majestic Dido who thawed and then collapsed into pathological despair very movingly. Her voice is far from beautiful, but her performance was glorious in its power and depth. John Daszak is a similarly difficult proposition vocally, but he too was striking and disturbing as a damaged superhero Aeneas, an ordinary person whose struggles with external forces leave nothing inside him. Their duet, sung high in a dark sky, was edgy and heartbreaking even while the music suggested harmony.

Anna Burford as Anna seemed to be well recovered from the indisposition that kept her from the first performance. She has a richly beautiful low mezzo voice but always sounded youthful and chirpy. Victoria Simmonds had the joyless task of making Ascanius into a stroppy teenager. She is someone you wanted to hear more of. Clive Bayley was a sonorous Narbal, solid and sinister. Toby Stafford-Allen and Graeme Danby were almost funny as the bold Trojan gendarmes. But, almost inevitably, Colin Lee and Christopher Saunders, the two small-role tenors, stood out with their Shakespearian songs.

This part doesn't seem on first viewing to be as coherent as the first. The two parts of The Trojans will be performed together next season, when it will become clear whether the whole production holds together.

HE Elsom



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