There’s a sense of almost spiralling international and historical vertigo generated by this production of Les Troyens. Sat in Scotland, yesterday, we watched contemporary Russians of the Mariinsky Opera perform Hector Berlioz’s 1858 opera, written in France’s Second Empire, based on books two and four of Virgil’s Aeneid (Rome, 29-19 BC), which in turn owes everything to the stories of ancient Greece (notably Homer, (circa 760-710 BC?)), about a bronze age conflict in Troy (950 BC). Directed by Greek Yannis Kokkos.
The geography of the piece is fascinating too: Kicking off in Turkey, about to be destroyed by Greeks, we then travel to Tunisa, where the city’s Lebanese/Syrian queen falls in love with a young Turkish prince whose destiny is to travel to Italy to found Rome. These, anyway, were the filters through which I found myself watching at least acts one and two of Kokkos’s production.
For the first stage design (also Kokkos, as are the costumes) a vast forward slanting mirror constitutes the whole back of the stage, reflecting the slightly sunken floor beneath it, on which there is a huge composite picture of the city of Troy. A couple of floor sections of this sometimes move to reveal another version of the same picture below this. Once the (vast) cast start filling the stage, their numbers are swelled by the strange, upside-down slanted reflections of themselves above. When the stage is all but empty, we see the principal characters reflected (as we did in Ostermeier’s Hedda, but on a far grander scale) like tiny creatures viewed from above. The mirror also does a version of that “Pepper’s ghost” thing, whereby the mirror proves to be semi transparent, and behind it video projections (Eric Duranteau) play on gauzes and further figures can be shadily glimpsed.
The costuming is also fascinating. I hadn’t checked the programme for the director beforehand, so I watched it through the prism of Russian and Eastern-European-ness. And that certainly works. The men and women look very much like the people we Westerners saw on the news throughout the war in ex-Yugoslavia and the current conflict in Ukraine. Irregulars, partisans, in casual clothing with Kalashnikovs, and women in black wearing head-scarves. But, then, modern dress jackets, trousers, odd jumpers and shirts, look pretty much the same the world over now, you realise, as, when a black flag is suddenly raised (and, Jesus, mate, I’m not sure that was as loaded a decision when you took it as it is now, but, crikey…) you realise that they could equally remind you of those guys rioting in Turkey or the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, or the Kurds and Iraqis fighting ISIS. And it’s that realisation that really brings the rest of this first act home. Just how horrifically resonant the sack of Troy still feels if the clothing and rationale is brought up to date.
I’m guessing we all know what happened at the end of the Trojan war, so I won’t bore you with details. What is interesting here is the number of liberties that Berlioz (or it might be Virgil, I’m more of a Greek man than a Roman) has taken with the versions more familiar to us from Aeschylus and Euripides. The whole thing is very much centred round Cassandra, who here has been given a leaden love-interest for no discernible reason (other than it adds an emotional dimension to the person who’s her excuse for explaining all her thoughts to the audience).
This gets things off to an interminable start. However, it warms up when some messenger or other comes on to relate how the priest Laocoön, trying to lead a crowd to set fire to the mysteriously-appeared wooden horse, is suddenly attacked by two serpents which set fire to him with their breath (!). This is taken as a sign that the Gods have protected the Trojans from making a terrible mistake. It’s like a demonstration of confirmation bias on a national scale. “We must be in the right, therefore everything that happens is proof that the Gods are on our side!” is the implication. And you can’t help but warm to Berlioz/Virgil for his/their cynicism. As the inevitable murder of the Trojans moves inexorably closer, the opera pretty much hits what turns out to be its dramatic high-point.
Anyway: horse, city burns, alarums. Aeneas somehow escapes, and promptly fucks off, leaving behind all the Trojan women but taking the city’s treasure with him to stop the Greeks getting their hands on it. The last scene of Act II sees Cassandra and a whle massive chorus of Trojan women valiantly committing suicide in front of a platoon of Greek soldiers. Which, while basically misogynist, also brings home with depressing force (cf. ISIS, ex-Yugoslavia, the Russians in Berlin, every other war ever, it seems…) that the treatment of women in warfare hasn’t improved or changed in 3,000 years. Christ.
Then there’s a 45 minute interval. We’ve had an hour and a half so far of 5hrs30 of opera (of which 1hr15 is interval). So far I like it an awful lot, in the main. Yes, the script is clunky as hell (“You’ve retreated to the forest like a thoughtful elf!” was the highlight of Act I), and, no, the acting isn’t really all that. The music varies, but is performed well, even if Cassandra (Mlada Khudoley) sounded like she could have given it a bit more oomph. The direction feels, well, slightly all-over-the-shop, but while the costuming and situation remain so pertinent, you’re engaged enough with the overall thing to be optimistic about the oncoming four hours.
And then Acts III and IV happen. Gone is the dark set and vast mirror, to be replaced by, what? A sort of large, low iceberg littered with oversized architects models. A boring, blue, Robert Wilson-y backdrop. All the cast dressed in white. Oh, gawd, it looks awful. I think I’ve got a CD of something by Wagner staged in the mid- seventies, the cover for which looks similar. Just hideous. “Classical” by numbers. The sort of thing that wouldn’t look out of place in Glee. Oh, man.
The plot also gives up. Well, it doesn’t. It’s Dido and Aeneas, which was fine when Purcell wrote it in 1688, and I can’t help feeling it didn’t need an Orientalist update from an imperial Frenchman. Anyway, Aeneas turns up, Dido swoons, and then Aeneas and her mates joyously declare that they’re off to fight “the blacks”. They actually say that. In surtitles. They’re off to bash some Nubian or other, which, I think, by happy coincidence, is what the French were also up to when this opera was written. Still, no need to worry about that, or anything else, right? Jesus.
Then there’s a bunch of projections of a wood, and Dido and Aeneas getting it on. And, oh, whatever. Then Dido mopes a lot. And Aeneas is all like “Well, I did say I had to go and fulfil my manifest destiny and go to Italy, so thanks and everything, but…” And Dido’s all “What?” And Aeneas is all “Well, you can’t say I didn’t warn you. Besides, the Gods told me.”
And then in Act V he’s gone and she kills herself. And the design hasn’t improved much. Perhaps the design in acts III, IV and V is mostly aimed at making us close our eyes and listen to the music. Which isn’t a bad thing to do. The music isn’t half bad and the singing is also pretty good. But, Christ, why not just do a concert performance of III and IV if that design is the alternative. Oh, and at one point there’s about quarter of an hour of pointless acrobatics and perhaps the most racist (cod-“Middle East”) dance I’ve seen this century.
I think the last three acts of this opera could also be good. The music certainly doesn’t sound like it wants to be carelessly thrown away. And, if I’m fair, even if the staging of the final act did appear trapped in the seventies, and even if what passed for “acting” from Ekaterina Semenchuk playing Dido was beyond atrocious camp, there was still at least a bit of dramatic force salvaged from the wreckage.
Indeed, the final chorus, after Dido’s death, is here a declaration of war on Rome by Carthage (as I’m sure it is in Virgil, given that he was writing a simultaneous Roman foundation myth and apologia for the Punic Wars). What’s neat, is that we know – like we knew that the Trojans were just about to come to a sticky end in Act I – that Carthage fighting Rome doesn’t end well for the Carthaginians. Problem is, grim irony tho’ it be, it doesn’t especially feel like Berlioz is making any better point here than he has been anywhere else in what is, really, a faintly repulsive, imperial-fascist tact about manifest destiny, fate as a concept with no irony applied to it whatsoever, and a kind of might-is-right steamrollering of anything more thoughtful; all wrapped round a “love story” rendered here with neither tenderness nor passion, but simply emphatic statement after emphatic statement.
Since Kokkos has pretty much reinforced this “message” with the sort of fit, blonde, white people dressed in ersatz classical garb most popular around the time of the 1936 Olympics, it’s kind of bewildering what the hell message the Edinburgh International Festival is trying to send.
Hopefully not the one it looks like.