La Fura dels Baus strikes again. The object of the Spanish collective's tender mercies this time is Les Troyens, the majestic Virgilian epic of Hector Berlioz. The visual metaphor of ice hockey (complete with body armor, helmets, sticks, but minus the skates) governs the opening two acts on the fall of Troy, where Énée (Aeneas) receives the call to found the new, eternal Troy — Rome — in Italy. The remaining three acts, given over to the Trojans' layover in Carthage and Énée's tragic love affair with Didon (Dido), that city's widowed queen, pose more of a riddle. Scenic elements suggest the crawl space of some colossal piece of architecture, the costumes some fantasy realm bordering on the Japan of The Mikado as well as the Egypt of The Magic Flute. Space helmets and space capsules imply a Star Wars-style epic. The barrage of computer graphics and dismal stage-enveloping projections is never-ending, punctuated by flashes of machine codes and virus alerts. Early on, an enormous vulture jabs fleetingly at corpses strewn on a battlefield, striking a chord of primal awe that is never touched again. There's lots of skin. Led by preening heavyweights, leashed humans of both sexes crawl on all fours, their faces encircled by the inverted plastic cones dog trainers call E-collars (as in Elizabethan).
Yes, it's a real mess. Coproduced with the Mariinsky Theatre and Polish National Opera, the spectaclewas documented at the Palau de les Arts, Valencia, on November 9, 2009, and it is musically a thrilling occasion on many counts. Valery Gergiev, a longtime Berlioz champion but a recent recruit to Les Troyens, is in his element, catching the rough, archaic undercurrents of the score as surely as he does its rapturous refinements. Orchestra and chorus are superb.
Lance Ryan, the phenomenal Siegfried of the Fura dels Baus Ring first shown in its entirety in Valencia five months earlier, is scarcely less impressive as Énée. His ear for the niceties of French diction (a gently rasped "r" here, an expressive liaison there) gives a rich sense of the sheer music of the text, even as his variety of phrase and attack (sculptural yet liquescent in the love duet, like a spear in the calls to action) draws meaning from the shape of the music. The pathos of his facial expressions, from ferocious to tender, recalls his fellow Canadian heldentenor Jon Vickers. Not even the costumes or the Trojans' signature dreadlocks cramp his style.
In Daniela Barcellona's Didon, Ryan has a splendid foil. By conventional standards, her large yet blank features and upturned nose may verge on the cartoonish, but confidence, spontaneity and a generous spirit set them ablaze with radiance from within — this despite a four-pompom coiffure that would shame a French poodle. Her mezzo-soprano is plush yet transparent; the cries in her final scene pierce the heart but never pain the ear. A wobbly vocalist, soprano Elisabete Matos throws herself into Cassandre with wild-eyed abandon. As envisioned here, Troy's clairvoyant virgin princess rolls on in a wheelchair, in black, as if Miss Havisham had traded her decayed wedding dress for widow's weeds. But she makes her last stand in full hockey drag, rallying the Trojan women's team to mass suicide.
As Cassandre's lover, Chorèbe, encased in body armor, baritone Gabriele Viviani struts, eyes glued on the conductor, emitting burly, choppy tone in iffy French. As Énée's son, Ascagne, Oksana Shilova shines with bright eagerness. In the pivotal role of Anna, Didon's sister and confidante, Zlata Bulicheva displays a purple-hued contralto sound that conveys nervous, self-deluding denial, lending fascinating dimension to a character more often played as a cipher. As Narbal, Didon's minister, the eloquent Wagnerian bass Stephen Milling seems to hear legato phrases his instrument will not quite produce. The lyric tenor interludes of Eric Cutler's Iopas and Dmitri Voropaev's Hylas provide oases of nostalgic serenity that haunt the memory. Sharp cameos and even walk-ons — the Trojan soldiers of Yuri Vorobiov and especially Vincent Pavesi, the Greek chieftain of Tomeu Bibiloni, to name a few — point up affinities to Shakespeare, as essential a source for Berlioz the dramatist as Virgil himself.
Matos, Barcellona, Shilova, Bulicheva; Ryan, Viviani, Cutler, Milling, Giuseppini; Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, Gergiev. Production: La Fura dels Baus. C Major 706104 (Blu-ray) or 706008 (2 DVDs), 240 mins. (opera), 21 mins. (bonus), subtitled.