'Virgil shakespearized' -- Berlioz describing 'Les Troyens'
I agree with everything already said here by reviewer T.C. and just wanted to add a few comments. I have been unable to find any weaknesses in this DVD of a live performance at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, in October 2003, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Berlioz' birth. From a technical standpoint the sound, lighting, stage set, costumes, stage action are simply above criticism. It is hard to imagine singers better suited to this so human, so universal opera. Susan Graham is in glorious voice and rises to the challenge in the final scene ('Je vais mourir,' 'Adieu, fière cité') with acting worthy of Broadway or the West End. One simply can't take one's eyes off her. Gregory Kunde, an American tenor best-known for bel canto and lyric tenor rôles, sings a lyrical Aeneas while not sacrificing the heroic quality so needed for the part. I cannot remember ever hearing a more ravishing account of 'Nuit d'ivresse et d'extase infinie,' the duet of Dido and Aeneas in Act IV. His ease of production allows him to negotiate its high tessitura and yet blend his voice with that of Graham's Dido as I've never heard it. Add to this their ecstatic acting and you have one of the highlights of any filmed opera scene ever recorded. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.
Anna Caterina Antonacci's Cassandra in Acts I and II is of equal power and impact. I'd never heard of her before, but you can be sure I'll be watching for other things of hers. She is a beautiful woman, a powerful actress, has a gloriously rich voice and when she returns, in a coup de théâtre, as Clio in the final Act V tableau to utter 'Fuit Ilium. Stat Roma' ('What once was Troy is now Rome.') there were goosebumps again. [This slightly truncated scene, by the way, is not how the piece is usually ended, but Gardiner and his colleagues cite, in an included marvelous 'extra' hour-long documentary about this production, precedent for this revised ending, I was convinced of its rightness.]
There is not a weak singer among the secondary roles. I would like to single out Ludovic Tézier (Chorébe), Laurent Naouri (Narbal), Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Ascagne), and Renata Pokupic (Anna) for special praise. Singing one of the most beautiful arias in all of opera, Hylas's 'Vallon sonore,' the song of the homesick sailor that begins Act V, is a wonderful young lyric tenor, Topi Lehtipuu.
John Eliot Gardiner has long been known as a fine Berlioz conductor. His original-instrument Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique (which here uses Berlioz's original orchestration including saxhorns) plays with clarity, grace and lightness, but is able to provide the pomp and ceremony in the martial, minatory and celebratory scenes. The 'Royal Hunt and Storm' is particularly fine, as is the recurring 'Trojan March.' The combined singers of Gardiner's Monteverdi Chorus and the chorus of the Châtelet not only sing with wonderful precision and diction, they also display ingeniously individualized acting. Yannis Kokkos's set design, costumes and stage direction are stunning. I still don't know how he managed what appears to be a mirror-image upstage that often shows us the backs of the actors, but often can be seen to be showing action interesting but different from the downstage action. Is this back-projection? I don't know, but whatever it is, it is hugely effective.
I have not seen the two other DVDs of 'Les Troyens.' I can easily imagine that they must be fine. This one, which emphasizes, partly because of the small size of the Châtelet, the human side of the opera, will satisfy me for a long time to come I suspect.
TT=5hr 12min, 3 DVDs