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BBC Proms: Les Troyens, Royal Opera House Orchestra, Pappano | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Les Troyens, Royal Opera House Orchestra, Pappano

BBC Proms: Les Troyens, Royal Opera House Orchestra, Pappano

Berlioz's Trojan epic takes time to settle at the Royal Albert Hall

Under Antonio Pappano, the orchestra took a little time to sound comfortable in its skinAll images © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Last night's concert performance of Berlioz's Les Troyens was not a Prom for the fainthearted. After all, if sitting through a five-hour opera had been a daunting undertaking for the Covent Garden audiences last month - who could also enjoy David McVicar's eye-catching staging - then it was inevitable that anyone seated in the Royal Albert Hall for the visually pared-down version was expecting to feel very culturally virtuous by the end of the night.

With its Trojan horses, ballets and massive crowd scenes, this grand five-act opera based on the fall of Troy and establishment of Rome is both a director's nightmare and an audience's dream, demanding high-octane visuals on top of the ravishing music. 

Still, if ever an opera were going to work in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall then it would be Les Troyens. First, there are the sheer forces involved, with its huge orchestra requiring three harps, and the full-scale chorus playing as central a role as the main soloists. Then, there's Berlioz's incredible score encompassing everything from grand operatic through to symphonic style, with far more solo orchestral work than is usual for an opera orchestra to get its teeth stuck into. Lastly, it's just the sheer emotional investment that Berlioz poured into this, his career-culminating homage to an obsession that began in his boyhood Latin lessons. 

Carthage opened up in all its glory as Westbroek paced the stage

“I imagined they knew me, so well did I know them,” he said of the characters of Virgil's Aeneid, and the Shakesperean-scale opera he crafted around them has a range of expression and dramatic power that demands hearing, whether you're into Berlioz or not, and whether you get to see it in its fully staged version or have to content yourself with the music alone. The BBC Proms did a brilliant thing by including it in the 2012 season.

The many who turned up for this epic afternoon-cum-evening experienced both the best and the worst of what a concert performance can do to an opera. While Anna Caterina Antonacci gave one of the performances of the night as Cassandra - dramatically expressive with gorgeous vocals - she was very much a lone agent in the first two acts, which were too marred by the feeling that this was a cast stunted by their new concert environment into half-hearted acting, cursory wooden-hand gestures and a lack of interaction between characters, all in the midst of some of the most thrilling, chilling scenes the opera has to offer. Thankfully however, with the opening of Act Three everything changed.

Perhaps it was Eva-Maria Westbroek's vivacious Dido (pictured right with Bryan Hymel as Aeneas. Photograph Chris Christodoulou), or perhaps there had just been a back-stage pow-wow. Whatever it was, Carthage opened up in all its glory as Westbroek paced the stage with Hanna Hipp as Anna, the two women finally doing what should have been happening all along, concert performance or no, namely, feeling their roles, reacting to each other and engaging with the chorus. It felt like the first duet of the night, and from that moment the opera came to life, as if the rest of the cast were galvanised by the new energy on stage. 

In all, some voices filled their new, huge acoustic better than others. In fact, some of the best and interesting vocal performances came courtesy of the cameo roles, such as Ji-Min Park's Iopas, and the strong vocal and dramatic presence of Hipp's Anna. Under the direction of Antonio Pappano, the orchestra itself took a little time to sound comfortable in its skin, but was pushing all the right buttons far more swiftly than the solo vocalists, glittering, thundering, dancing and making love across Berlioz's myriad of different textures and genres, smoothly changing stylistic tack to deal out fresh contrasts. The one constant throughout were the voices of the chorus, whose brilliance in conveying the range of feelings and dynamics required of them was truly superlative.


As a life long lover of Berlioz, who has never seen the 'Trojans' on stage or in the concert hall, I was completely bowled over by last nights performance! I cannot agree with the above comments about the soloists in the first part, after all its Cassandra who is foretelling doom, and this she did to the full with others playing minor roles - relatively speaking.One does not need scenery and costumes when Berlioz paints such vivid pictures in sound and mood. From where I sat (stalls block H) I thought that the 'off stage' brass, although thrilling, were far too loud in their initial entry in the distant Trojan march - it lacked that tingle factor? A small quibble in what was for me a trully memorable experience. Thanks to you all.

I was also at last night's prom and I agree with the original review that the amount and quality of the acting improved from Act 3 and most of that was down to Eva-Maria who for me really inhabited the part. I think her performance made the others raise their game too. I think it's worth praising Hymel. He came in for Jonas Kaufmann and many there, like me, bought tickets to see Kaufmann specifically. Hymel did not disappoint, he was really good if occasionally drowned by the orchestra. The radio broadcast did better justice to his voice. It was a great experience, definitely worth the 5 1/2 hrs!

How can you purport offer a serious review of the Trojans and omit any reference to the singer of Aenee? I was bitterly disappointed when Kaufmann cancelled but I saw Bryan Hymel on the first night at Covent Garden and heard the radio relay of the Prom and think he did a stunning job. Has anyone any idea how difficult and demanding his music is and yet he surmounted all those challenges with real heroic timbre. Its not a beautiful voice lower down but then neither was Vickers. He was thrilling in his commitment and execution especially at the top (where Vickers heppner and Lake struggled hugely) and I just cannot understand the half hearted responses he has garnered from a number of reviews - we were so lucky to hear him, On the other hand Cassandra with her hammy performance and underpowered vocal delivery with a particularly weak top seems to have got the lovers of hammy scenery-chewing ridiculously over excited. What a strange world.

I felt this was a strong ensemble performance Antonacci did put drama into her presentation (thank goodness she did not writhe in the stage as she did in the staged version. Perhaps Cassandra is a difficlut part for a mezzo soprano without overwhelming power, or just difficult to bring off? - but she did well enough. Westbroek - yes she much enlivened the exerience from Act III onwards, and her performane built to the end, and she captivated the audience. I agree your omission - failure to express appreciation of Hymel was a grievous error. The security of his performance, and the ringing tone, clearly rising above the general sound made it thrilling to hear Berlioz's writing come to life. The length of his final note in "Inutiles Regret..." - absolutley secure (check it out on the iPlayer). I was lucky not to be so far away - and I felt his expression was (of such well deserved) satisfaction of a job well done. I really appreciate an artist who has turned up, to rehearse and perform and achieved the level of performance I heard on Sunday. I thought the orchestra was a revelation out of the pit - for example the clarinet solo was beautfully crafted (Act II or III?) and yes I agree the Chorus was thrilling but there were was much, much more, all through the evening. A tremendous achievement - a night to remember.

Kaufman is practically baritonal - Hymel is much nearer to true tenor. Yes, the 'banda' was far too loud. Also at the end. Loved the first act duet. The hall is unbearably hot - it was a mistake not to install air-conditioning in the renovation. The weather is getting hotter and hotter this time of the year. I find going to the Proms a physical strain - the walk from the tube, the climb to the Circle floors, the toilet queue and the unbearably hot toilets, the queue for the libretto at the Troyens, the shuffle to leave the seats through a narrow staircase. I still love it, but it leaves me really knackered and I am not really so very old yet.

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