Les Troyens at Carnegie Hall

Every hearing brings new
beauties to attention, each representation attains new miracles — and
every staging (at least, of the several I have seen) has lacked something
essential, done something inane that ought to have been serious or something
ponderous that ought to have been gossamer.

Berlioz, a traditionalist revolutionary, left none of the tools he made use
of as they stood but developed the traditions on offer. From Gluck (and Lully
and Cherubini) he took a style of declamatory singing that makes up in hieratic
dignity for what it sometimes lacks in the sheer sensuousness of the
contrasting Italian manner — though nothing in opera surpasses the
quintet-septet-love duet sequence in Act IV of Les Troyens for sheer
throbbing passion.

The forms in Les Troyens are traditional: soliloquy aria, aria with
chorus, duet, concertato, ballet interlude, orchestral entr’acte, war
chorus — but Berlioz employs none of them casually. Each verse of a
strophic melody differs from each other, no line of a melody is repeated
without altering an instrumental color, brightening the effect, speeding up or
slowing down to suit the dramatic pulse of the scene. No matter how familiar
the score, it is still full of undiscovered wonders. This is meat only for the
most intent of conductors and the most committed singers.

All this being so, and staged performances being rare (in New York, we see
it once a decade), a concert performance is no poor compromise, especially if
the performers are worthy of the ambitions of a Berlioz. The chorus and
orchestra of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, trained on the
over-the-top grandeur of Russian epic opera, are clearly primed for Les
, and the dynamic Valery Gergiev is a proven hand with this most
idiosyncratic of composers. The only dubious side of the enterprise is the
French accent of the Russian soloists — and those who are used to, say,
Anna Netrebko’s Antonia or Manon will hardly find anything to object to
even here. (Madame Netrebko was in the audience at Carnegie Hall, cheering on
her old pals.)

With no sets to distract the eye and no choreographers to embarrass us
during the ballets — not to mention no director’s follies to
interrupt the orchestral interludes — Maestro Gergiev seems to have felt
it wiser to do the piece in two parts, La Prise de Troie and Les
Troyens ‡ Carthage
, as it often used to be staged. This stratagem kept the
orchestra and the tenor fresh for the second evening. (Berlioz lovers in New
York, to be sure, might have preferred to have it all on Tuesday and repeat it
all on Wednesday, and we would have attended both evenings.)

210007-D_122-R.gifAlexei Markov (ChorËbe) and Ekaterina Gubanova (Cassandra)

First of all: a word about the orchestra, which played five hours of music
without a single brass misfire or a mis-cue of the backstage band on its
several entrances, a lush, various, delirious, precise reading, heartily
theatrical as a theater orchestra should be. The chorus were solid as well.
Gergiev, who leads without a podium, waggles his fingers as much as his stick,
and dances in place, and clearly everyone knows what each wiggle implies. I sat
in the orchestra on both nights, and did wish for an opportunity to
hear the whole score again (immediately!) from the higher reaches of the hall,
where the sound in more orchestrally intricate works like this one can attain a
still more magical imprint.

Ekaterina Gubanova, who has been miscast at the Met (Giulietta?
c’mawn!), sang Cassandra with great distinction and dignity and a
well-managed rise to the top in a role often given to sopranos. Her thunder was
rather stolen on the second night, when Ekaterina Semenchuk, the delicious Olga
of last year’s Met Onegin, gave a passionate, tremendously
involved account of Didon. She never stood still when “acting,” but
emoted fervently, and her eyes grew warm with passion, sick with despair, while
her voice, once it was warmed up, filled the house with urgent appeal —
in very decent French, moreover. When she was not singing, she was
clearly following every word and emotion of the score. There are other ways to
perform this wonderful role — New Yorkers have been spoiled by Christa
Ludwig, Shirley Verrett, Tatiana Troyanos peerless in passion, Jessye
Norman’s hauteur, and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s lieder-singer
attention to the detail of each phrase — but Semenchuk’s turn
matched them in memorability. In the smaller female roles, I especially liked
the glowing low notes of Zlata Bulycheva’s Anna.

Not even Valery Gergiev can conjure first rate tenors out of the thin air of
Muscovy, where — perhaps due to early Russian Orthodox church music
training (although that didn’t hold back Nicolai Gedda) — low
voices tend to be the top grade ones: Russia has always been more famous for
basses and mezzos than for tenors and sopranos. Sergei Semishkur declaimed
expressively and got over the high passes without coming to grief, but his
voice is hardly Heppner pretty or Vickers intense, and as for his French
diction — well, it was clear that this is no longer the second language
of St. Petersburg, as it was in Tolstoy’s day. Daniil Shtoda, an
effective lyric tenor, sang Iopas’s aria with the proper courtly
elegance, but Dmitry Voropaev, though possessing a good basic sound, phoned in
Hylas’s music with a bad accent and none of that air’s delicate
homesick sadness.

Alexei Markov’s ChorËbe was sung with ardent dignity and grace, Yuri
Vorobiev sang a fine Narbal, and Alexander Nikitin and Timur Abdikeyev, who
covered most of the small, lower roles agreeably, were especially charming in
the comical duet for two Trojan sentries.

These were two long, long opera concerts that one wished would never end.

John Yohalem

image_description=Valery Gergiev [Photo by Steve J. Sherman]
product_title=Hector Berlioz: Les Troyens
product_by=Cassandra: Ekaterina Gubanova; Didon: Ekaterina Semenchuk; Anna: Zlata Bulycheva; EnÈe: Sergei Semishkur; Iopas: Daniil Shtoda; Hylas: Dmitry Voropaev; ChorËbe: Alexei Markov; Narbal: Yuri Vorobiev. Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, led by Valery Gergiev. At Carnegie Hall, Part 1 on March 9, Part 2 on March 10.
product_id=Above: Valery Gergiev [Photo by Steve J. Sherman]