It was a tale of two divas. And it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. The Mariinsky Opera‘s Les Troyens was a bold attempt to bring an epic work to the Edinburgh Festival which never quite achieved what it should have done. Though there were flashes of brilliance, an all too clever set and uncertain and variable singing made the whole long evening very much a mixed bag.
The first big idea to confront the audience was an enormous mirrored backcloth at the back of the stage, leaning in over the action. Technically it offered the design team a number of interesting tricks as things could be back-projected onto it and it reflected a moving stage floor made up of two massive slabs which went to and fro carrying singers backwards and forwards.
It was an astonishingly clever thing to do on the stage. There were constantly changing tableaux made all the more interesting because the mirror brought an almost cinematographic perspective to what was going on. Whilst aware of what the company was doing in front of the audience, it was also possible to see what they were doing from above and beyond. It was also conceptually interesting. Les Troyens is often said to be two operas; the first two acts representing the action in Troy and the final three telling a remarkably similar tale in Carthage. The two cities end up being destroyed after foreigners arrive in their territory. Each has a dominant female royal figure who kills herself in the end. The stories of the two cities are mirror images of one another and the presence of this enormous mirror showed that someone was trying to make sense of a story which does not always sit easily within the audience’s grasp. Unfortunately though, no-one had thought through the consequences of such a large mirror and various technical problems were later to unravel much that was good on the stage itself.
So, let us first consider the goings on in Troy.
The first puzzle of the evening was why the chorus were sounding so tired. Had they perhaps been told to hold it back because of the long sing ahead? Whatever the reason, this was not a particularly sparkling beginning to the evening. Whilst being Trojans, the chorus were dressed as extras from Les Misérables. The presence of a few rifles confirmed that we were certainly not in ancient Troy and the waving of a flag centre stage made one rather suspect that we were in Paris and about to climb the barricades.
The first two acts of Les Troyens depend utterly on the figure of Cassandre. If we don’t enter into her passion then we are going to care little about what’s going on in front of us. The role was sung by Mlada Khudoley, a late substitution for another singer. She had been due to sing the part on the following night so it wasn’t as if she had had to learn things at the last minute. She was a bit lacklustre though. There was a beauty to her voice but not really enough power. Much better was Alexy Markov as Chorèbe, her true love. His French sounded a little more secure and the bold power of his voice was much more able to deal with the tricky acoustic of the Festival Theatre. Ms Khudoley tried her best to persuade Chorèbe to leave Troy due to her premonitions of disaster to come, but he wasn’t having it. My sympathies lay with him too – I wasn’t convinced by her either.
Valery Gergiev was doing great work in the pit. Apart from a very brief wobble towards the end of Act I when it wasn’t obvious that the whirling and burling chorus and on-stage band were entirely in time with the orchestra below, all was well. Particularly noteworthy were the lower strings and brass which were simply lush throughout.
It is my view that the best music in Les Troyens is reserved in each act for duets. However, whilst Cassandre and Chorèbe were fighting it out, there was something of a distraction away from the action. Over to the left of the stage, it appeared that someone was checking a mobile phone. First one, then another, then another. Little bursts of light took the eye far away from Troy. It turned out that it was the chorus getting ready to come on stage bearing fake candles in their hands. They were obviously electrically powered and they were glaringly obvious and in the way, whilst they were waiting to come on from the wings. It was clear that a far from perfect blackout was hindering a poor stage design and this was to dog proceedings for the rest of the evening. The fake candles were to prefigure fake lillies later on too. We’ll come back to the technical problems yet again presently.
But first we must consider the goings on in Carthage.
After a long supper break, the audience reassembled to find the cast now transposed across the Mediterranean to Carthage. Instead of the neo-Parisian grunge of the first two acts, now all was Mediterranean blue and white. The costumes now no longer reminiscent of the French Revolution but long flowing white suits somewhat akin to what a well-dressed Mormon might wear to a Latter Day Saints’ Temple Ceremony in the 1970s. It was all visually very rich, wherever we were.
Now, no matter what they were wearing, things were certainly warming up in the singing department. The audience were treated to a surprising post-prandial boost at just the right moment. The chorus were obviously enjoying themselves a little more and the stage had a strong presence dominating it in the form of Ekaterina Smenchuk as Dido. She had everything which Mlada Khudoley had been lacking back in Troy. A glorious sense of determination marked her singing throughout. I overheard someone describe her in the next interval as being a ‘mezzo-soprano profundo’ which captured perfectly the strength of her singing. At last there was something emotional to grasp hold of too. Suddenly one caught a glimpse of how overpowering the whole piece might have been if it had been consistent. Ms Smenchuk blazed whereas Ms Mlada had merely been attempting to fan glowing coals into flame. In this diva-off there was no real competition. Carthage won.
Whenever he felt the audience were beginning to lose interest in the action, director Yannis Kokkos brought out a troop of nubile half-naked male ballet dancers to tumble and wrestle about on stage. The fact that they achieved one of only two smatterings of applause in the whole five hours, shows how appreciative at least some members of the audience were of their lovely homoerotic antics.
There were a couple of notable male singing roles and one further standout female contribution. Yury Vorobiev as Narbal, Dido’s minister of state was doing as well as any amongst the supporting cast, bringing a delicious gravelly tone to bear on his part and Dmitry Voropaev had a lovely pastoral song to sing, though he didn’t play the large concert harp that had apparently been brought onto stage simply for him to stand next to. All was going well for him until an odd intake of breath made him seem to lose all confidence in the upper register. Dido’s love interest Aeneas was played by Sergey Semishkur. His voice was as good as his looks – polished, refined and rather stately singing.
Rather late in the day, I realised that Lyudmila Dudinova was playing a trouser role as Aeneas’s son Ascagnius. It is a fair bet that if you can get three hours into a five hour opera without discerning the gender of all participants then the storytelling is not entirely working.
Ekaterina Krapivina was a knockout as Anna, Dido’s sister. Whereas others on the stage had powerful voices, hers had a clarity that shone out beyond the rather Slavic sound that might generously be regarded as a Mariinsky trademark sound.
Oh but all was not well around the singers.
The mirror reappeared in the final act, having been absent whilst we were first in Carthage. The trouble with a mirror across the back of a large wide stage is that it will not simply reflect what’s going on in front of you. It will also reflect what’s going on to both sides of you too. Thus, even from a good seat in the centre stalls, it provided a clear view of stagehands flapping about in the wings.
The odd glimpse of a fake candle being switched on is one thing but the mirror revealed far more than was good for any production. I did wonder during some of the more static choruses (and a lot of the action did seem to consist of the chorus simply standing around singing) whether the action in the wings was some kind of postmodern ironic commentary on what was going on centre-stage. Whilst someone on stage was singing in a kind of nautical crow’s nest contraption that floated 15 feet in the air for no discernible reason, a burly stagehand waited close by to grasp it and fling black drapes around it in a vain hope that it would make the contraption disappear when it floated within grabbing distance. He was wearing the helpful word CREW emblazoned across his back – reversed in the mirror, of course. At one point whilst Dido was singing about the joys of love under the gentle rays of bright Phoebus, there was the sight of the buttock cleavage of a stagehand, clearly mooning out at us from between his ill-fitting T shirt and scruffy jeans in the wings. During the moments leading up to Dido’s emotional suicide there was a billowing of drapes and the word EXIT appeared on a green sign at the back of the stage. I was unsure whether this should be seen as a deep and rather meaningful meditation on the passion of the dying Carthaginian Queen or the desperation of someone stage-right who wanted us all to leave the theatre as he’d had more than enough and wanted to get home.
The nonsense in the wings was considerably better lit than the action on the stage, where the principals often found their faces obscured in deep shade. Heaven knows what Vinicio Cheli the lighting designer was up to.
Notwithstanding all this, during the final act, I have to admit that I was starting to care about Dido and Aeneas. It took a long time to get there but the passions did billow up from below in the end. Their love duet in the final act was all that it should have been – ravishing and enveloping.
However, the technical and design problems spoiled a rather grand vision. There simply doesn’t seem any excuse for these in such a mammoth and much anticipated Edinburgh Festival Production.
There are many who will view Berlioz’s great work as intriguing but ultimately deeply flawed. The Mariinsky managed to stage a production that lived right up to such an analysis.
(Photos: N.Razina & V.Baranovsky)