Gergiev and soloists provide blazing account of “Les Troyens” at Carnegie Hall

March 12, 2010
By George Loomis

Berlioz’s Les Troyens recently entered the repertoire of the Mariinsky Theatre in a production by the lively and popular Catalan theater company known as La Fura dels Baus. This week the Mariinsky and Valery Gergiev brought Les Troyens to Carnegie Hall, performing the long opera over the course of two evenings (Tuesday and Wednesday), but they left the production back home in St. Petersburg. Few in the audience could have felt deprived, so gripping was the concert performance that emerged.

Gergiev is fond of giving operas in concert. The format allows him to try out works under consideration for full productions. And even when a production is up and running, he will happily revert to concert form if exigencies, such as those of a tour, dictate. As a result, although Gergiev is sometimes criticized for under-rehearsed performances, his operas in concert are often infused by an ensemble spirit born of prior stage experience.

That genuine spirit was much in evidence in Carnegie Hall, especially on the second evening when Acts 3, 4 and 5 of the grand opéra, collectively known as Les Troyens à Cartage (The Trojans in Carthage), were offered. This time all the soloists (not just several, as was the case the previous evening) sang without scores and often interacted with other characters as one suspects they would in the opera house. More broadly, the ensemble spirit embraced orchestra and chorus too.

Another point about the concert format is that it works unusually well for this musically sublime but theatrically challenged mega-opera, which traces both the fall of Troy (Acts 1 and 2) and Aeneas’s dalliance with the Carthaginian queen Dido en route to fulfilling his destiny in Italy. Curiously, the opera’s dramatic pace seems to get slower and slower over the course of the long evening as the tension and violence of the Trojan scenes give way to a more languorous ambiance in Carthage. The progression is logical dramatically inasmuch as the Carthage sojourn is essentially an idyllic love interlude for Aeneas. But it makes for longeurs in the opera house when the opera is performed in a single evening.

Concert performances tend to minimize this problem, since they focus attention more closely on the music. A break between the two parts is also helpful, even though Berlioz conceived Les Troyens as a single opera and agreed to separate performances of Les Troyens à Cartage only because he was unable to persuade any Parisian opera house to stage the piece in its entirety.

As a super-charged Dido, Ekaterina Semenchuk enters the big time with this riveting performance. The valued mezzo, who made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Natasha’s companion Sonya in the house premiere of Prokofiev’s War and Peace, may not possess a voice of resonant beauty, but it is strong, handsome and evenly produced. She sounded lovely in the serene duet with Aeneas, Nuit d’ivresse, but was especially arresting when she could throw herself into the drama, as in Dido’s final confrontation with Aeneas and in her moving solo scene at the end, with its heartbreaking reference to the tune of the duet.

Another fine mezzo, Ekaterina Gubananov sang Cassandra’s extensive but unheeded admonishments with a vibrant voice of alluring richness and a slight but not unattractive edge. Aeneas ought to have a voice of greater heft than that of Sergei Semishkur’s tenor, which sometimes lost body in midrange. But it has much lyrical beauty and a strong top that served him well in his big aria Inutiles regrets, which he sang with welcome intensity.

Baritone Alexei Markov sounded wonderful in the consoling melody with which Corebus attempts to placate his fiancée Cassandra, and bass Dmitry Voropaev brought considerable vocal strength to the music of Dido’s counselor Narbal. Also fine were mezzo Zlata Bulycheva as Dido’s sister Anna and soprano Irina Mataeva as Aeneas’s son Ascanio. Daniil Shtoda and, especially, Dmitry Voropaev brought sweet tenor voices to the irresistible songs of the poet Iopas and the young sailor Hylas.

The music got off to a tremendous start, with pulsating winds and a chorus sounding almost giddy from excitement over the supposed end of the Trojan War, especially in Gergiev’s frenzied tempos. With the entrance of Cassandra the mood abruptly shifted, underscored tellingly by the dark sonorities of the Mariinsky Orchestra’s splendid lower strings. Before long came the unusual pantomime scene for Andromache and her son, supported by Victor Kulyk’s languid clarinet.

And so it went, as the performance moved from peak to peak. Gergiev has a real affinity for Berlioz, as was in evidence here last month in Roméo and Juliette, a work he conducted in New York with the Mariinsky as long ago as 1996. Aside from demonstrating a grasp of Les Troyens‘s overall flow, he knew just when to give it a jolt of energy.

One Response to “Gergiev and soloists provide blazing account of “Les Troyens” at Carnegie Hall”

  1. Posted Mar 16, 2010 at 6:17 am by Stephen Sechrist

    Having attended both concerts last week, I must concur with Mr. Loomis. Les Troyens is my favorite French grand opera, and this was the finest performance I have yet heard. I admit that I have heard better singers in all the roles, (i.e. Ludwig and Troyanos as Dido, Verrett as Cassandra, Vickers as Aeneas, to Polzani as Iopas and Dunn as Anna,) but overall I never felt the power of the drama as I did with the Mariinski forces.