More is less. But don’t try telling David McVicar, director of the new Royal Opera staging of Berlioz’s Trojan war epic. The more the newly knighted McVicar becomes part of the international cultural establishment, the less interesting his work gets. When the Scottish director first tackled an opera about antiquity (Mozart’s Idomeneo in 1997), it was all truthfulness, simplicity and poetry. Those were the qualities Berlioz sought in Les Troyens (The Trojans). He wanted intense emotional expression within the tight framework of 18th-century Gluckian opera – classical and dignified, albeit with the balletic add-ons demanded by 19th-century Paris.
In McVicar’s version you can’t get away from the décor (Es Devlin). It’s cluttered, it’s clunky and it’s everywhere, stifling the imagination and denying the drama space to breathe, while conveniently masking the director’s lack of interpretative ideas. In the first two acts it takes the shape of a charred, convex citadel and a monstrous piece of metallic “artwork”, aka the Trojan Horse, shooting fire through its nostrils – a triumph of empty spectacle. Exactly why the action is set during the French Second Empire, roughly the period of the work’s composition, is anyone’s guess. There is not the faintest correlation with events in the opera, but it does give McVicar an excuse to troop out the generic 19th-century frocks and shawls (Moritz Junge) that have become as predictable a part of his stagework as the Andrew George aerobics (sorry, “choreography”).
The three Carthage acts are a desert pageant – a sort of touristic Arabian Nights, dominated by colourfully fake costumes and another semi-circular arena, this time concave. The lighting (Wolfgang Göbbel) is atmospheric, but there’s not a whiff of Eros in the Dido-Aeneas scenes, and the finale is an anti-climax.
Chorus and orchestra, immaculately prepared and passionately corralled by Antonio Pappano, deserve a more sympathetic showcase. The only singer to transcend her surroundings is Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Cassandra – half-witch, half-goddess, a glorious impersonation of riveting stature. The redoubtable Eva-Maria Westbroek is miscast as Dido: she looks mumsy and never sounds at ease. Bryan Hymel’s confidently sung Aeneas is an unconvincing hero, but Brindley Sherratt makes an excellent Narbal.