United States Berlioz, Les Troyens: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of San Francisco Opera, Donald Runnicles (conductor), War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 20.6.2015 (HS)
Cassandre: Michaela Martens
Didon: Susan Graham
Énée: Corey Bix
Ascanius: Nian Wang
Anna: Sasha Cooke
Chorèbe: Brian Mulligan
Narbal: Christian Van Horn
Pantheus: Philip Horst
Iopas: René Barbera
Helenus, Hylas: Chong Wang
King Priam: Philip Skinner
Queen Hecuba: Buffy Baggott
Andromaque: Brook Broughton
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Production: David McVicar
Director: Leah Hausman
Set Designer: Es Devlin *
Costume Designer: Moritz Junge
Choreographer: Lynne Page
Opera doesn’t get much bigger or grander than Les Troyens. It’s Berlioz’s most ambitious work, calling for an enormous cast. The full five-act score takes more than 5 hours even with only two intermissions. The composer never got to see the whole opera staged in his lifetime, only a cut-down version of the “Carthage” acts (III, IV and V). San Francisco Opera has not mounted a Troyens since the 1960s, when it presented was billed as the first “professional” staged performance in the U.S. (although the New England Opera Theater got there first in 1955), and the cast included Regine Crespin and Jon Vickers in a severely trimmed three-hour version.
They got it right this time. The five hours flew by in this performance at the War Memorial Opera House. The pit orchestra of 72 musicians and an offstage band of 23 lavished power and essential definition on the music under conductor Donald Runnicles, who also managed to tailor the sound to each singer.
Vocal riches abounded from the cast of 16 principals and 90 choristers, especially the lustrous Queen Didon of mezzo-soprano Susan Graham. She seemed able to make her voice and body do anything. Portraying serene nobility, she leavened her tone with warmth, turning sensuous as she finally succumbed to Ènée, finally exploding with righteous anger (and a sensational curse) when spurned, all the while delivering the score with precision and style.
The story, adapted by the composer from Virgil’s Aeneid, begins with the Trojans celebrating a military victory over the invading Greeks, who leave an enormous wooden horse in apparent tribute. Ignoring Cassandre’s warning, they wheel the horse into the city, only to be routed by Greek soldiers hidden within. The remnants of the Trojan forces take to the sea, believing Cassandre’s prophecy that the gods want Énée to lead them to a new homeland, and a noble death, in Italy. Their navy battered by a storm, they are welcomed in Act III into Didon’s sunny court. After helping the Carthaginians repel an invasion, Énée gets Didon to fall headlong in love. But when he decides to leave for Italy and the noble death promised by the gods, an infuriated Didon prophecies a Rome victory. (We all know how that turned out.)
The production, borrowed from Royal Opera Covent Garden, was first seen in London in 2012 and more recently at La Scala in Milan. A 64,000-pound rotating set faced its dark side toward the audience in the Troy acts (I and II), and a sunrise-colored bright side when it portrayed Carthage. A 23-foot-tall steampunk Trojan Horse burst into flames. Costumes ranged from traditional garb worn by Trojan, Phoenician, Tyrian and Carthaginian people of the time, the warriors wearing Crimean War-era military uniforms, a neat comment on how we humans can’t help going to war.
Berlioz’s libretto and score, completed in 1858, takes advantage of a big stage. The enhanced chorus of 90 singers made its presence felt throughout: the women in a powerful scene when they decide to commit suicide in Troy rather than let the Greeks take them as slaves, and the men in the final act when they hurry to leave Carthage for Italy before dawn.
Among the biggest treasures, however, were individual moments. Aside from Graham’s phenomenal Didon, there was mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as her faithful sister, Anna—her vocal range seamless from top to rich bottom. There was also a remarkable turn by mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens as Cassandre. (Anna Caterina Antonacci sang the opening performance and is scheduled to sing all but one of the remaining ones.) Martens dominated the first two acts, offering range, power and point without devolving into hectoring, as she repeatedly warned everyone of the dangers of their decisions. Yet another mezzo soprano, Nian Wang, carried the role of Ascagne (Énée’s son) with clarity and aplomb.
On the men’s side, strong performances included bass Christian Van Horn as Narbal, an advisor to Didon, bass Philip Skinner as a stentorian King Priam, and baritone Brian Mulligan as Chorèbe (Cassandre’s betrothed). Tenor Chong Wang as Hylas was notable for his lyric phrasing of the Phoenician sailor’s song that opens Act V, and René Barbera as Iopas, Didon’s court poet, had a show-stopping song that preceded Act IV’s big Didon-Énée love duet.
The one speed bump was tenor Corey Bix, substituting for an indisposed Bryan Hymel as Énée. Bix seemed to be having vocal difficulties, sounding quavery at times and uncertain of pitch, coming into focus only for occasional high notes. He barely held his own when the role requires a heroic voice with lyric qualities, which Hymel usually delivers in spades.
A troupe of 18 talented tumblers and dancers gamely tried to breathe life into some undistinguished choreography, but it hardly slowed down the grand sweep of a brilliantly sung, dramatically staged, memorable mounting of an opulent opera full of musical riches. Performances continue through July 1.