Thursday, June 18, 2015

Opera review: In San Francisco, a Berlioz blockbuster

Trojan Horse
Photo: ©Cory Weaver, used by permission
Who: San Francisco Opera
What: Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz
Where: War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
When: June 7 - July 1, 2015

"Once in a Lifetime!" proclaims the poster for the San Francisco Opera's lavish production of Hector Berlioz's mammoth 1858 drama "Les Troyens" ("The Trojans). For many of us in the Music Critics Association of North America attending the June 12th performance as part of our annual conference, that was the literal truth. Which still put us one up on Berlioz.

By the time Berlioz died in 1869, only the last three of his five acts had been performed, and then only in a drastically truncated and badly produced version by the Théâtre Lyrique, the Paris Opéra having dithered over it too long. The first full production didn't take place until 1890, and even then it languished for most of the 19th and early 20th century, taking on the reputation of (in the words of Berlioz biographer Ian Kemp, quoted in the program) "a monster so unwieldy that it had to be split in two and trimmed to size."

Act I Chorus
Photo: ©Cory Weaver, used by permission
That reputation wasn't entirely undeserved. Running five hours or so (depending on the number and length of intermissions) and requiring a huge cast, massive orchestra, and elaborate stage machinery (including, of course, the Trojan horse), "Les Troyens" requires pockets and a talent pool of considerable depth.

Happily the current SFO production—which originated at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in 2012 and will go on to La Scala and the Vienna State Opera—has musical, dramatic, and technical talent in abundance. It has all the spectacle, heart, and fire (including actual pyrotechnics) needed to bring Berlioz's sweeping musical canvas to life. It's utterly engrossing and the shortest five hours I have ever spent anywhere.

The story of "Les Troyens" begins on the eve of the fall of Troy, as the Greek army has apparently fled the scene, leaving behind only the fabled horse, which despite the dire warnings of Cassandra, the Trojans take into the city. The opera goes on to chronicle the fall of Troy, the suicide of the Trojan women, and Aeneas' tragic affair with the Carthaginian queen Dido. It ends with Dido's suicide and a chorus of vengeance by the Carthaginian people.

Entrance of Didon
Photo: ©Cory Weaver, used by permission
Through it all Berlioz (who wrote his own libretto, after Virgil's "Aeneid") cannily mixes intimate solos and duets, massive choral scenes, elaborate ballet sequences, and vivid instrumental writing (he was, after all, a master orchestrator) in ways that are guaranteed to keep the viewer engaged. "Les Troyens" gives us the great sweep of historical events and the implacable hand of fate, but never lets us lose sight of the intimate human relationships that are at the core of the story.

Heading the cast are mezzo Susan Graham as Didon (Dido) and tenor Bryan Hymel as Enée (Aeneas). Ms. Graham's voice has a full, silky quality that has won her international praise and matches it with tasteful acting that makes her character's heartbreak all too real. Mr. Hymel makes Enée's conflict between the demands of his heart and the dictates of his destiny completely credible, and does so with flawless vocal technique.

Mezzo Michaela Martens was Cassandre (Cassandra) the night we saw "Troyens" (she alternates in the role with Anna Caterina Antonacci). She is a vivid presence on stage, with an emotionally dark and rich voice and fiercely committed acting that projects her character's rage and despair with tremendous force. Baritone Brian Mulligan is equally convincing as Cassandre's doomed lover Chorèbe (Chorebus).

Love scene from Act IV
Photo: ©Cory Weaver, used by permission
Mezzo Sasha Cooke (who was so impressive in the San Francisco Symphony's "Missa Solemnis") is a warm and sympathetic presence as Didon's sister Anna, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn (a first-rate Karenin in Opera Theatre of St. Louis's "Anna Karenina" back in 2007) is an imposing Narbal, minister to Didon.

There are a host of other fine performances in smaller roles, but there are a few I feel compelled to single out, beginning with an irresistible cameo as the poet Iopas by tenor René Barbera (a thoroughly ingratiating Nemorino in Opera Theatre's "Elixir of Love" last summer). Berlioz has given the character one enchanting little number—a hymn to the goddess Ceres—and Mr. Barbera sang it in a clear, fluid, and utterly lovely way that produced spontaneous shouts of "bravo" as soon as the last note died out.

Bass-baritone Matthew Stump and bass Anthony Reed also deserve praise for their brief star turn as the only real comic characters in the opera—a pair of Trojan sentries who grumble about being forced to leave the comfort of Carthage and schlep off to Italy. The scene comes at a point in the opera where a little comic relief is welcome, and both singers hit the dramatic sweet spot—funny but not too broad and expertly sung.

Dido and Ascagne
Photo: ©Cory Weaver, used by permission
Backing up all these exemplary performances is Ian Robertson's chorus, singing with precision, clarity, and often overwhelming power. The chorus is kept quite busy in "Les Troyens," so the importance of their work can't be overstated. The huge orchestra (95 players, includes 23 backstage and offstage) performs brilliantly under Donald Runnicles, giving a thoroughly compelling reading of Berlioz's wonderfully varied and bracing score. That includes many exotic touches such as offstage brass choirs and unusual instrumental combinations.

Ballet plays an important role in "Les Troyens" as well. The French always loved seeing dances in their operas, but Berlioz uses dance for narrative purposes as well as for sheer spectacle. The famous "Royal Hunt and Storm" of Act IV (often heard as a stand-alone concert piece), for example, tells almost the entire story of the courtship of Didon and Enée without a single word being sung. The choreography of Lynne Page and David Greeves is executed here with tremendous flair by a skilled corps de ballet.

This production's original director, Sir David McVicar (Leah Huasman is credited as Revival Director), moved the action of the opera up to 1855, with Troy designed to resemble the battle of Sebastopol in the Crimean War. That vision is vividly realized by Es Devlin's sets and Moritz Junge's costumes. Troy is all dark colors and metallic surfaces, for example, while Carthage shines in bright desert hues (the Carthage set of Act III generated applause as soon as the lights came up). The 23-foot-tall Trojan horse is the stuff of nightmares: an imposing skeletal monster bristling with wheels and gears.

Act IV finale
Photo: ©Cory Weaver, used by permission
The intent, according to the SFO press release, was to make "a strong statement on how throughout history humanity is destined to repeat its mistakes." That's not as revisionist as you might think; to quote Mr. Kemp again, Berlioz's opera "is Virgilian in countless ways" including "the sense of fatality, of obscure inimical powers that lie in wait for man, and of the madness that can strike a people and drive it blindly to its own destruction." Both Virgil and Berlioz lived in times of great political upheaval; it seems entirely reasonable for a production of "Les Troyens" to reflect that. When, during the final chorus of vengeance, an armed giant composed of the same industrial components as the Trojan horse rises up behind the singers, it feels more inevitable than imposed.

"Les Troyens" is both a tragic love story and a commentary on the stupidity of war, and deserves to be seen. It runs through July 1 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco in rotating repertory with "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Two Women".

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