Men and supermen, aristocratic women and suicidal Trojan Wags, ancient Carthage, modern Venezuela, a pre-Columbian tropical jungle and a groovy 1960s-style conga: last week had more spectacle than a Charlton Heston retrospective, more geography and climatics than a Met Office weather map. Hannibal made an appearance, as did the Alps, though not, inconsiderately, at the same time. The Simón Bolívars and Gustavo Dudamel stole hearts – yet again; is there any more to say? – and Mozart, Antonio Pappano and Ann Murray, in no particular order, melted them.
To start with the biggest: Hector Berlioz considered his choice of subject for his five-act epic, Les Troyens, "elevated, magnificent and deeply moving" while knowing that his Paris audiences might find it dull and boring. He worried that the staging would be full of "idiotic obstacles" and that he would never find a woman sufficiently intelligent, "with a soul and heart of fire", for the central role of Dido, Queen of Carthage.
Covent Garden's new staging by David McVicar, done in one evening, as Berlioz intended, instead of the more manageable two, was a valiant effort, and the first in that theatre since 1972. Whatever the longueurs – and on a first night lasting nearly six hours there were a few – you have to praise the enterprise, the risk, the grandeur and the star quality of the cast. Even without Jonas Kaufmann, who would have taken the role of Aeneas to another level of Trojan heroic excitement but pulled out through illness, there was plenty of expert singing.
His replacement, the American tenor Bryan Hymel, scaled all the top notes and had a certain heroic manner, but would you, like Dido, mount a funeral pyre for him? Anna Caterina Antonacci, the foot-stamping crowd's favourite, conjured plenty of vocal magic as the doom-mongering Cassandra, and in the generous, touching performance of Eva-Maria Westbroek, Berlioz's dream of an intelligent Dido was substantially realised.
The music of this misshapen masterpiece, variously martial, lyrical, melodic and thrilling, gleams and blazes then occasionally gutters to a mere flicker. Antonio Pappano, conducting, drew magisterial playing from the Royal Opera House orchestra. At times the pacing felt too leisurely, yet the excitement of the triumphal moments, with top quality chorus work, more than compensates. Among the supporting cast, Brindley Sherratt's wise Narbal stood out.
Straddling all centuries, from antiquity to the second French empire of Berlioz's time to the modern day, the sets are ambitious and effective. As designer of the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, as well as for Take That, U2 and Lady Gaga, Es Devlin has a bold, untrammelled imagination. Troy and Carthage are linked visually, the ugliness of a war-torn city replaced, in the second part, by the golden north African heat of a country at peace. A closely detailed model of the city of Carthage is suspended over some of the action like an omniscient egg or a winking space station. Berlioz's stage directions are taken into account, right down to lightning hitting a tree in the Royal Hunt and Storm music, the flaming branch being carried off by dancers – the best part of some woeful choreography. McVicar has taken the description of scenes as "tableaux" rather too literally, when more action would have helped the pace, but there are no easy solutions to this difficult work.
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