In one of its most ambitious undertakings in the San Francisco Opera’s 93 years of existence, the company mounted Sir David McVicar’s massive production of Hector Berlioz’ “Les Troyens”.
The opera was presented with a distinguished cast of international rank, consisting mostly of American artists (the Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci sang the role of Cassandra), led by New Mexico mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as Did0 and Louisiana tenor Bryan Hymel as Aeneas.
[Below: Queen Dido of Carthage (Susan Graham, left) has fallen in love with the Trojan hero Aeneas (Bryan Hymel, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Physically larger that any production previously presented at the War Memorial Opera House, and weighing 32 tons, the McVicar production presents Berlioz’ affectionate rendering of Virgil’s 1st century BCE classical epic, The Aeneid, virtually uncut.
With four hours of Berlioz’ sweeping musical score and two half hour intermissions the performance lasts five hours (although its performance length does not exceed that of several of Wagner’s often-performed music dramas).
[Below: Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
A co-production between San Francisco Opera and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and Teatro alla Scala, McVicar’s production previously triumphed in London and Milan and, after the San Francisco performances, will travel to the Vienna Staatsoper.
McVicar teamed with British set designer Es Devlin and German costume designer Moritz Junge to present two contrasting worlds – the distressed city of Troy, showing the ravages of years of siege and the sunny environs of Carthage.
Junge’s costume designs reflect France’s Second Empire (during the time of the Crimean War), when Berlioz’ work was completed. Devlin’s Trojan sets often incorporate what appear to be the waste products of the early years of the industrial revolution.
Part One: The Conquest of Troy
Arguably the most gifted French composer, Hector Berlioz had a lifelong obsession with Virgil’s Aeneid. His affinity for the Virgilian epic was inherited from his classically-0riented father, who named his son after the greatest of Trojan heroes.
Frustrated by the unwillingness of the Paris Opera to commit to it, Berlioz only lived to see parts of the opera performed, but his mid-19th century confidence in the opera’s greatness has begun to be embraced also by 21st century opera companies, artists and audiences.
[Below: The Trojans assemble at the city gates to observe the giant horse built by the Greeks; edited image, based on a Tristram Kenton photograph for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The first third of the uncut opera takes place at the end of the siege of Troy, when the Greeks have apparently built a giant horse as an offering to the goddess Athena and then seemingly have abandoned the site of their siege and returned to Greece.
[Below: a giant figure of a horse, believed abandoned by the Greeks, is brought within the city gates of Troy; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
We the audience know that Cassandra, Hector’s sister, has seen through the Greeks ruse and that the horse spells disaster for the Trojans.
Yet no one, not even her husband Chorebus (elegantly sung by baritone Brian Mulligan), believes her.
[Below: Chorebus (Brian Mulligan, right) disastrously ignores the warnings of his wife, Cassandra (Anna Caterina Antonacci, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Antonacci’s acting performance was absorbing, her gestures, her body movement, having a theatrical, even cinematic quality.
Antonacci is scheduled to sing four of the six performances in a three week period in which she is creating the principal role in the world premiere of Tutino’s opera, “La Ciociara”. [Michaela Martens will sing the other two performances.]
[Below: Cassandra (Anna Caterina Antonacci, bottom center) commits suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Greek conquerors as their horse burns; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Ultimately, with the aid of the apparition of Cassandra’s brother, Hector (sung impressively by Washington State bass-baritone Jordan Bisch) the hero Aeneas is persuaded that the destiny of the remaining Trojans is to found Rome. With Aeneas, a band of Trojans escapes.
Part Two: The Trojans in Carthage
The latter two-thirds of the opera take place in the sunnier environment of Carthage, where Phoenician Queen Dido has established a North African refuge after fleeing with her supporters from a murderous coup in the Eastern Mediterranean city of Tyre.
[Below: the Kingdom of Carthage in Sir David McVicar’s production of “Les Troyens”; edited image of a Tristram Kenton photograph for the Royal Opera House, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Prior to the McVicar production’s 2012 unveiling in London, performances of the opera would often excise Berlioz’ abundance of dance music.
But McVicar’s production embraces the integration of dance envisioned by opera reformer Christoph von Gluck and advanced by Berlioz. Both ballet and acrobatics are used, acrobats in early scenes in the Trojan court and lively ballet and acrobatic sequences in the Carthagenian scenes.
The dances were originally choreographed by Tony-nominee Lynne Page, with assistance from Gemma Payne and the acrobats were choreographed by David Greeves.
[Below: Queen Dido (Susan Graham, center, carried by acrobats) joins in the court entertainment; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Bryan Hymel as Aeneas
In a previous review I observed how Bryan Hymel’s large and beautifully-toned voice would fit the French heroic tenor roles [see Santa Fe Opera Gets Gounod At Last: Hymel, Pérez Soar in Spectacular New Production of “Faust” – July 1, 2011.]
Aeneas is just such an heroic role. Hymel, whose early career has centered on roles at the border of the lighter lyric and weightier spinto tenor parts, showed that he has not just the power but the control and expressiveness to explore other parts of the French repertory that are too rarely done today.
[Below: Bryan Hymel as Aeneas; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Sasha Cooke’s Anna and Christian Van Horn’s Narbal
Two artists that have made important contributions to recent San Francisco Opera performances performed the roles of characters within Dido’s inner circle, her sister Anna, sung by Sasha Cooke [see my review of her title role in Warm Reception for Adamo’s “Mary Magdalene” – San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2013] and her adviser Narbal [see my review of his villains in Matthew Polenzani Triumphs in Pelly’s Take on “Tales of Hoffmann” – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2013.]
Although both roles were comparatively brief, each was well-sung and authoritatively acted.
[Below: Narbal (Christian Van Horn, left) expresses his concerns to Anna (Sasha Cooke, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
René Barbera’s Iopas
In an example of luxury casting, the role of the poet Iopas was assigned to the estimable lyric tenor René Barbera, whom I have associated with the cadre of specialists in early bel canto operatic works that I refer to with a special designation [See Review: Rossini Royalty Present Brilliant “Barber of Seville” – Los Angeles Opera, February 28, 2015.]
[Below: Dido (Susan Graham, right) listens intently to the poetry of Iopas (René Barbera, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Barbera performed Iopas’ principal aria with a finesse that persuaded the San Francisco audience, that had observed the tradition not to interrupt the music with applause throughout virtually the entire performance, to break into the quiet orchestral postlude with an ovation for Barbera.
Other Cast Members
In the Trojan scenes the royal family was sung by Buffy Baggott was Queen Hecube and Philip Skinner as King Priam. Brook Broughton was Hector’s widow Andromache.
Philip Horst was Pantheus, Rachel Speidel Little was Polyxena, Tol Wassman was Astyanax,
Among the Trojans traveling with Aeneas to Carthage were Ascanius, Aeneas’ son, who was played by Chinese mezzo-soprano Nian Wang. William O’Neill and Jere Torkelsen were Trojan Chiefs.
Appearing in different roles in Troy and Carthage were Matthew Stump as a Trojan Soldier and a Trojan Sentry) and Anthony Reed as a Greek Captain, as the Voice of Mercury and as a Trojan Sentry. Helenus was Chong Wang (who was also Hylas in Carthage).
In Carthage’s celebratory rituals, Brandon Kazen-Maddox was Mercury and Angela Nguyen was Stag.
Donald Runnicles and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus
The conductor, Donald Runnicles, whose appearances in San Francisco, since he left the company’s Music Directorship in 2009, have been reserved for such major events as Francesca Zambello’s production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”, conducted with an obvious love for the score.
The 72 piece regular orchestra was augmented by a backstage orchestra of 23 additional instrumentalists. A 90 member chorus was led by chorus director Ian Robertson. The sound emanated by the combination of San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus was spectacular.
Susan Graham’s Dido
Yet, although the opera was brilliantly sung throughout, the performance truly belonged to Susan Graham.
In the first of Dido’s great arias Cher Tyriens Graham proved once again her incomparable command of Berlioz’ melodic lines [See Berlioz’ Faust Fantastique: Lyric Opera Does “Damnation” – Chicago, March 8, 2010]
Her love duet with Hymel’s Aeneas was awe-inspiring and her range of emotions from despair to anger that seized Dido on learning of Aeneas’ decision to leave Carthage and her, as he was always fated to do, for Italy.
[Below: Susan Graham as Queen Dido; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
At the performance’s conclusion, the theater remained darkened while General Director David Gockley presented Graham with the San Francisco Opera Medal for her supreme artistry, in recognition of her 25th anniversary of her San Francisco Opera debut.
The Trojans in San Francisco
The San Francisco Opera has an historic relationship with Berlioz’ massive opera “Les Troyens (The Trojans)”, staging its first North American performances in 1966, repeating it in 1968, and reviving it for one performance in Los Angeles in Spring 1969 as part of the celebration of the opening of the Los Angeles Music Center.
Having seen both the 1966 and 1968 mountings of director Louis Erlo’s production, created in the 1960s for the Paris Opera (with San Francisco Opera’s sets by Wolfram Skalicki), I can testify for the powerful impression the music and story made, even though the “abridgments” in that early attempt to understand the opera excluded virtually all the dance sequences and many of the elements that made the respite in Carthage such a pleasant experience for the Trojan hero and his company.
The artist performing both the roles of Cassandra and Dido in 1960 was the great French soprano Regine Crespin, who preceded Graham as Queen Dido on the War Memorial Opera House stage by nearly a half century.
The Berlioz Didos – Crespin and Graham – deservedly are two of the small number of artists to have received the San Francisco Opera medal.
I recommend the performance, cast and production enthusiastically.