That other Aeneas and Dido story

It was a funny coincidence. When I ran into David Fallis the other day –an encounter I mentioned in my recent review of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas—I showed him a DVD I was returning to the library, the Fura del Baus version of Berlioz’s opera Les Troyens. At one point I thought of putting a headline on it of “La Fura del Baus vs Berlioz”.

I used the DVD to illustrate new approaches to opera in a recent class. After talking about new opera texts from Tapestry, Canadian Stage, Fawn Opera and Soundstreams (to name a few), I went on about adventurous stagings of existing operas. And so we pulled up Tcherniakov (watching some of his Wozzeck), Lepage (his Ring operas), Bieito (that famous gangsters on toilets shot) and still shots from the Against the Grain Mozart-da Ponte transladaptation cycle (ha: autocorrect doesn’t believe “transladaptation” is a word, imagine that!).

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One of the most exciting demonstrations was to make head-to-head comparisons in class between different versions of the same scene. We compared two different videos of the Zeffirelli Pagliacci, (Zef being our touchstone for conservative fidelity to a text) first Domingo then Pavarotti, both opposite Teresa Stratas as Nedda. We did a very different sort of head to head, comparing the old 1980s Met Troyens to the Gergiev production from the Fura dels Baus collective, known for their aerials and adventurous design. If you were looking for a textbook illustration of the good and bad of director’s theatre, of the ridiculous and the risible in Regietheater, have a look at this DVD.  There are some startlingly good moments alongside others that are at least puzzling if not aggravating.

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Les Troyens (Photo GVA)

Here’s how La Fura dels Baus describe themselves on their website

La Fura dels Baus is eccentricity, innovation, adaptation, rhythm, evolution and transgression. Such characteristic and unique essence led the company to pioneer the reconceptualization of two of the most significant aspects of the dramatic art: the theatrical space and the public. Thus, respectively, they redefined the space by moving it to non-conventional ones – and changed the public role from passive to active, which meant a breaking of the “fourth wall”. And it is that there is no creation without risk – a compiled premise from the beginning, since their first street shows, where the authentic essence of La Fura was born.
The incessant curiosity and the need to explore new artistic trends have developed, through a process of collective creation, a unique language, style and aesthetic. Nowadays, this is called “Furan language”, which has been implemented in different artistic genres, such as opera, cinema and large-scale performances.
The ability to bind and adapt carnality and mysticism, nature and artifice, rudeness and sophistication, primitivism and technology, in every performance, has given La Fura dels Baus its international success and prestige.

Notice that instead of a Trojan Horse, they have something they’d identify as a virus. It’s a very modern understanding, unsentimental.  The images in this little video (rehearsals) give you a glimpse of how radical they can be.

I will let others judge whether they are truly influential or derivative. That is not a question I can answer and I am not sure such questions are or were ever answerable. We tend to understand Mozart as genius & inspiration, not necessarily admitting influences,  the many things he must have seen and absorbed from his milieu &  his contemporaries: who are no longer heard. I am less interested in “who thought of it” (that over-rated question of originality) than in understanding questions such as “how does it work” (dramaturgy) and “how does it feel” (reception).

We’re in a very different kind of story from what we saw in that Met production that stars Tatiana Troyanos as Dido and Jessye Norman as Cassandre. The scene I chose to explore and highlight differences of approach was the Act I celebratory ballet and subsequent pantomime. The old version is actually danced, a group of dancers looking exceptionally manly. The new version erects a boxing ring, across which we see women strut to announce round 1 or 2, while the pugilists go at it. It’s time for a celebration, which is supposed to be fun, right?  While it’s not precisely solemn, the mood makes a ton of sense. It’s been modernized to a kind of space-station setting, involving costumes resembling a sci-fi hockey league.

The subsequent pantomime is one of the unforgettable scenes of the opera, where Andromache and her son come out, suddenly damping the joy of the (supposedly) victorious Trojans, reminded of the recent death of their great hero Hector, Andromache’s husband. In the older production the boy carries his father’s helmet, while the mother’s grief is larger than life, and I challenge anyone with a heart not to get a bit teary eyed watching it. In the new one the boy steers his toy car, more or less oblivious to the solemnities (see it briefly at roughly the 23rd second of this little excerpt, right after we see that boxing ring).

Yes it might be realistic, but it begs the question. Are we no longer permitted to enjoy the rapture of visuals and music that are in harmony? Is a big opera so suspect as a fascist apparatus, so dangerous that we must deconstruct it and even mock the story we’re telling? That’s how it feels much of the time.

And yet the production has its rewards, and its critique of the opera has merit.  When Dido and Aeneas sing their great Act IV duet “Nuit d’ivresse”, they are each suspended in the air, only meeting for a little kiss at the end, reminiscent of the solipsistic humans in Wall-E.

Considering that this has at times been one of my absolute favourite texts to play and (attempt to) sing, it’s especially hard to face something verging on parody, mocking my beloved duet.   Yet considering the text they are singing –as each talks on and on about the great loves of history, infatuated less with their partner than with the poetry of this moment—they could be in separate carrels in a university research library, for all the real intimacy of their duet. They are in love with the idea of their great love, the greatest love story ever written. And so the staging is a brilliant critique anticipating much of what Berlioz seems to inspire, oxymoronic approaches to staging that seem to recoil away from real life.

The moment when Aeneas describes the death of Laocoon is shown with gory detail, as is the mass suicide that ends Act II. Those two moments emerge out of the cool surface of the production to have a powerful impact. Hylas’s little Act V lullaby is a sad version of Space Oddity, as the sailor tells us of his homesickness, floating above a spinning planet, except Major Hylas doesn’t drift away mysteriously. When Aeneas announces the departure from Carthage, we get a rocket launched, a nice visual. Yes I was impressed with the technology and the beautiful images, but no I wasn’t moved much of the time, or if I was –as in “nuit d’ivresse”—it was with the intellectual justification for their clever vandalism.

As far as the singing is concerned, Canadian Lance Ryan shows great promise as Aeneas. I hope we hear him singing in Canada while he still has a voice, but right now it’s a formidable talent. Elisabete Matos gives Cassandre a passion that resembles something approaching madness, and is the most vividly human thing in the whole opera, making her death doubly tragic. Daniela Barcellona has a luscious sound as Dido, often hanging from wires in the production, in typical Fura dels Baus fashion.

Their final needling question for Berlioz at the end puts Dido onto a virtual pyre, dying above pictures of fire on a myriad of laptops. Is that so odd, though, when this opera is so firmly concerned with what’s written and spoken about the characters, a self-conscious collection of heroes living out their larger than life myths?

In a world where we are less and less living authentic lives and more and more sinking into our devices, this is a fascinating take on the ancient story.   I recommend this video with the huge caveat, that you be certain you’re clear about how you feel about the distance this production offers from the romantic approach seen in productions such as the Met production from the 1980s. Valery Gergiev’s conducting is itself almost worth the price, as he moves things at a fabulous pace. Earlier generations have sometimes let Berlioz be too slow, even lugubrious, but that’s not what you get here. And the images are always stimulating, thought provoking and occasionally heart-breaking.

This entry was posted in Opera, Reviews, Theatre & musicals, video & DVDs. Bookmark the permalink.

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