Sunday, January 13, 2013

Les Troyens

Who can describe the havoc of that night?
Who can tell its deeds of death? Who can with tears
Equal in sorrow its calamities?
Our ancient and imperial city falls.
All around, on streets, in homes, at temples
sacred to the gods, lifeless bodies lie.
Nor is it only Trojan blood that flows:
The vanquished too at times with courage burn,
And conquering Grecians fall. On every side
Are cruel wailings heard, and everywhere
Is fear, with countless scenes of death.
—Virgil, The Aeneid, Book II, lines 361-369
(translated by Benjamin Hall Kennedy and Pessimisissimo)

Hector Berlioz's Les Troyens (The Trojans, completed 1858) portrays episodes from Books II and IV of Virgil's Aeneid: the fall of Troy, Aeneas' escape with a handful of men to Carthage, the love of Aeneas and Queen Dido, Aeneas' departure for Italy and Dido's anguish and death. The opera is suitably epic in scope. The five acts, which include symphonic and ballet interludes and require huge choral forces, take more than five hours to perform.

The difficulties of staging Les Troyens are so daunting that Berlioz never saw a complete performance. The last three acts were presented in a heavily edited version in 1863 as Les Troyens à Carthage, but the full opera wasn't produced until decades after Berlioz's death. Since then, complete performances have remained rare, and only larger opera houses have the resources to contemplate a production.

The Metropolitan Opera in New York is one of those houses, and after the work's Met premiere in 1973 it has staged the opera every decade since. On January 5, 2013, we went to see the Met Live in HD broadcast of this season's remounting of Francesca Zambello's 2003 production. While I had mixed feelings about aspects of the production, I was grateful to have the opportunity to see the opera at all (it hasn't been staged by the San Francisco Opera since the late 1960s).

And in one respect the production was revelatory: young American tenor Bryan Hymel (pronounced EE-mel), who, we learned, had stepped in for Marcello Giordani on short notice in mid-run, proved to be an absolutely thrilling Énée. Here is an audience-shot video of Hymel singing the Act IV love duet with the Didon of Yvonne Nafe from the 2010 Amsterdam production. Even with not-great sound and image, it will give you at least an idea of what we heard:

The words, written by Berlioz himself, are: "Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie! / Blonde Phoebé, grands astres de sa cour, / Versez sur nous votre lueur bénie; / Fleurs des cieux, souriez à l’immortel amour!" (Night of rapture and boundless ecstasy! / Golden Phoebe, and you, great stars of her court, / pour on us your enchanted light; / Flowers of heaven, smile on our immortal love!)*

As this excerpt suggests, Berlioz's music for Les Troyens, particularly in the more intimate or inward moments in the second part, is often exquisite (another example is Hylas' wistful lament for his Trojan homeland which opens Act 5, and which was sung beautifully by Paul Appleby).

Susan Graham was Hymel's Didon, and while her voice does not have the opulence of her 2003 predecessor, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, she was admirable in this emotionally and physically exhausting role. Deborah Voigt reprised her role as the prophetess Cassandre from the 2003 production, and seemed somewhat taxed in the lower-lying reaches of the music (the part was written for a mezzo-soprano). The Met has resources other opera houses can only envy; the secondary roles were taken by singers of high caliber, including baritone Dwayne Croft (Chorèbe, Cassandre's betrothed), contralto Karen Cargill (Anna, Dido's sister), and bass Kwangchul Youn (Narbal, Dido's advisor). Fabio Luisi conducted with apparently inexhaustible energy, though I couldn't help but wish we could hear what James Levine would have brought to the score.

Lorraine Hunt was also a deeply affecting Dido in the recording with Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra of Henry Purcell's 1689 chamber opera Dido and Aeneas. To give you a sense of the scale of Les Troyens, to perform the entirety of Purcell's opera takes less time than any one of the five acts of Berlioz's sprawling epic.

I'll close with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson performing Didon's lament after she learns of Énée's betrayal, "Je vais mourir" (I am going to die); note the return of "Nuit d'ivresse" as if in a memory:

This excerpt is from the 2003 Met production; could there be a more compelling case for an official release of the full-length performance?

Update 8 June 2015: Yesterday we attended the opening performance of Les Troyens at San Francisco Opera, the first fully staged production of this work here since 1968 (that's 47 years). This production featured Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre, Brian Hymel as Enée, Susan Graham as Didon, and Sasha Cooke as Anna, Didon's sister. As you might expect from this partial cast list, the opera was superbly sung. The secondary characters were also strongly cast. Didon's advisor Narbal was sung by Christian Van Horn, excellent as the four villains in the SF Opera production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman two years ago; Brian Mulligan, whom we've seen at SF Opera as Marcello in Puccini's La Bohème and as Sharpless in Madama Butterfly, also impressed as Cassandre's lover Chorèbe.

While it's difficult to single out particular moments from such a beautifully realized performance, highlights included every moment the fierce Antonacci was onstage, Enée's anguished realization that he must betray Didon, "Intuile regrets" (Futile regrets), and Didon's final lament, "Je vais mourir" (I am going to die). The exquisite love duet between Enée and Didon, "Nuit d'ivresse," simply stopped time.

Less well-realized was the production by David McVicar, which was often incoherent. The first two acts, "The Capture of Troy," feature costumes and war materiel that suggest the Crimean conflict of the mid-1850s, but this suggestion seems to be largely abandoned in the last three acts, "The Trojans at Carthage." There are unfortunate directorial choices: at the end of the first act, Cassandre collapses onstage; when after a brief pause the scrim rises for Act II, there is a body lying in just about the same place. Cassandre? No—it turns out to be Enée. There is some unfortunate choreography (originally by Lynn Page, re-created by Gemma Payne): during the Act IV revels that precede "Nuit d'ivresse" I turned to my partner and whispered, "Someone has seen Mark Morris" (attempted borrowings from his Dido & Aeneas and L'Allegro were particularly apparent). She whispered back, "Yes—but not enough." And there are unfortunate design choices (Es Devlin did the sets): the onstage model of Carthage in the last three acts (an element that also appears in the Metropolitan Opera's Francesca Zambello production; perhaps it's called for in the libretto) should be cut immediately, the appearance of the Trojan Horse is initially effective but its rocking movement and unimpressive pyrotechnical effects soon replace awe with eye-rolling, and at the end of the opera the vision of Roman triumph over Carthage that arises from a continually smoking heap of metal is just...bad.

The ineffective moments in the production, though, can be ignored. The sublime singing of the cast and the inspired playing by the SF Opera Orchestra under conductor Donald Runnicles are memories we'll treasure.


* Berlioz's complete libretto for Les Troyens can be found can be found on The Hector Berlioz Website.

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