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Weeping for Dido

09/24/2004 -  and 27, 29 September, 3, 5 October
Hector Berlioz: The Trojans
Mark Richardson (Pantheus), Susan Bickley (Cassandra), Robert Poulton (Chorebus), Anne Marie Gibbons (Ascanius), Carole Wilson (Hecuba), John Daszak (Aeneas), Gerard O'Connor (Priam), Naomi Watts (Andromache), Daniel Opie (Astyanax), Christopher Gillett (Helenus/Iopas), Brindley Sherratt (Ghost of Hector), Fiona Canfield (Polyxena), Simon Kirkbride (Greek Captain), Sarah Connolly (Dido), Anna Burford (Anna), Clive Bayley (Narbal), Mark Padmore (Hylas), Roland Wood, Henry Waddington (Trojan Sentries)

ENO orchestra and chorus

Paul Daniel (conductor), Richard Jones (director)

Berlioz' final opera The Trojans is epic not only in the colloquial sense – the ENO's production lasts five and half hours including intervals and doesn't fit nicely into anyone's working day – but also in its source and subject, the human cost of a world order that regards itself as divinely ordained, as related in Virgil's Aeneid. Berlioz translates Virgil's descriptive set pieces into great choruses and dances and like him sets off the human agents in emotive detail. The musical and emotional territory are similar to that of Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide, austere and tragic, but with Rameau-like formal bravura, all decidedly old-fashioned looking for 1867. But the orchestration and romantic-"Shakespearean" dramatic fluidity are notably modern, at times resonant of that other long-planned epic, Götterdämmerung, and the conclusion, the symbolic triumph of the Roman empire in a militaristic march over a funeral pyre, lacks any hint of redemption in love but shares Wagner's historical pessimism. Berlioz, though, was in London in 1848, when Wagner was on the barricades in Paris, and he died before the Franco-Prussian war, but he had grown up in a country permanently at low-level war, and his sense of tragedy seems more based in sympathetic imagination and a close reading of Virgil than in any cosmic philosophy.

Both parts of Richard Jones' production of The Trojans were presented at the Coliseum last year, before the refurbishment. The Roman-themed decor of the theatre is now much more prominent, and its more aggressive elements – the lion chariots and military standards – were picked out in lights to provide a neat visual complement to the Roman march at the end, and perhaps to suggest an analogy with the British Empire, only decades old in 1904 when the theatre was designed, and with the early twentieth-century empires that emerged from the romantic nationalism that informed aspects of both Berlioz and Wagner. The production itself, though, focuses on the everyday misery caused first by war and then by Aeneas' driven sense of destiny. Jones began planning well before September 11 2001, but the sight of crowds in modern dress who first celebrate the greatness of their city and are then overwhelmed in its ruins was inevitably resonant.

Seen together, with a few adjustments, the two parts present an elegantly structured drama of vision and self-delusion: the first part is dominated by Cassandra, as before magnificently and movingly sung by Susan Bickley, and her pained certainty looms painfully over the Trojans' fragile illusions of life and glory after the death of Hector and her lover Chorebus' personal hopes; Aeneas, originally deceived – he urges Priam to bring the horse into the city – emerges with a mission whose purpose cannot be verified except by divine prompts; and Dido, a musical sister of Cassandra, replays with him the relationship of Cassandra and Chorebus, against the authoritative but ignored warnings of Narbal, a resonant Clive Bayley. The city building of the Carthaginians seems more solidly based than the Trojans' royal rituals, but the new city is blown away just as the old one was.

Sarah Connolly as Dido gave a performance that made this production worth a detour to see, masterful in repression, love and grief and stunningly beautiful. John Daszak's Aeneas didn't quite look glamorous (he is getting a bit chunky) and his voice isn't lovely, but he conveyed pain and confusion, and he and Connolly sounded glorious together in the nighttime duet at the end of act 3. Anna Burford was again a luscious Anna, fully of joie de vivre, but with a beautifully womanly voice, and Mark Padmore was deeply moving and ultra-luxuriously cast as Hylas, the homesick young sailor. The rest of the ensemble was well cast and well sung, and the ENO orchestra played excitingly for Paul Daniel, catching Berlioz' passionate imaginative urgency as well as his formal originality.

HE Elsom



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