San Francisco Opera pushed grand opera to the hilt with an inspiring, massive production of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” (“The Trojans”) at the War Memorial Opera House on Friday (June 12). An all-star cast that featured Susan Graham, Bryan Hymel, Michaela Martens, and Sasha Cooke sang up a storm around the production created by David McVicar with huge, evocative sets designed by Els Devlin. The production also benefited from the incisive conducting of Donald Runnicles and deft playing by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, making this “Les Troyens” a superbly grand spectacle.
With five acts and two intermissions, “Les Troyens” is a colossal undertaking that lasts five hours. It’s really two operas in one: the first two acts deal with the destruction of Troy as foreseen by Cassandra. The remaining three acts take place in Carthage, where the escaped Trojan prince Aeneas has fled. The Carthaginian queen, Dido, falls in love with Aeneas, but he is fated by the gods to sail away to Italy where he is to found a new home. The story is based on Virgil's "Aeneid," which fascinated Berlioz so much that he not only wrote all of the music but also the libretto.
Set in the time of the Crimean War (1853-1856), the first two acts (fall of Troy) of this production were stark and dark as they depicted a people and city under siege. When the story moved to Carthage in the second half, the scenery and mood lighten up considerably. The denizens of Carthage wore colorful robes and threw confetti from the city’s walls, which were painted ochre and burnt umber. That seemed to convey a more ancient and legendary time, and it worked well with Aeneas’s departure to found Rome
Michaela Martens made a solid company debut in the role of Cassandra, the Trojan princess who prophesied the city’s doom although no one believed her. Martens’s Cassandra was forceful, yet she didn’t play the character as one madly possessed. Still, she convinced the Trojan women to commit suicide rather than become slaves of the Greeks.
The imposing and rich voice of Brian Mulligan made Coroebus (Cassandra’s fiancé) an equally forceful presence. The urgent and heroic singing of Bryan Hymel (in his company debut) in the role of Aeneas provided enough thrills to fill a highlight reel on the evening news. Yet while his high notes were absolutely stellar, he also showed off a lovely, smooth tone for the passages that required less volume.
Susan Graham gave Queen Dido regal luster with beautiful, golden tones. Her voice impressively became full of anguish and venom when Dido tried everything to prevent Aenas from leaving for Italy. Sasha Cooke was mesmerizing in the role of Anna (Dido’s sister), imploring Dido to give love one last chance with Aeneas.
Also making her debut with the SFO was Nian Wang who sang movingly as Ascanius (son of Aeneas). Tenor Rene Barbera as Iopas was also outstanding. The chorus, prepared masterfully by Ian Robertson, sounded magnificent throughout the evening.
In the hands of Runnicles and the musicians of the orchestra, Berlioz’s music sparkled. The brass and woodwinds, in particular, played with an ear for the singers so that even the loudest passages didn’t run amok over the voices. This resulted in a roller coaster of emotional bursts, especially in the first half with the fierce warnings of Cassandra clashing against the expectations of the Trojan citizens who had become giddy while celebrating the going-away present from the Greeks. Among the many orchestral high points in the second half of the opera was the “Royal Hunt and Storm,” which featured exception playing by the horns.
The dancing during the Carthage scenes was very appealing. In one dance section, the young men of Carthage vied for the honor of carrying Dido about. In a later passage, they cavorted with a bevy of young female dancers, intoxicated perhaps by the atmosphere of love between Dido and Aeneas.
Another star of the show was the Trojan horse, which stood 23 feet tall and looked like a freestyle steam punk metal war machine. It impressively burst into flames during the scene in which Troy was sacked by the Greeks.
Weighing in at 32 tons, this production is the largest and heaviest production ever to be staged at the War Memorial Opera House. It requires 134 artists on stage, including several to manipulate the gigantic Trojan horse, and 95 musicians in the orchestra pit and backstage. It is a co-production between several opera houses and the SFO, opening in 2012 at Covent Garden and moving to La Scala before arriving in San Francisco. After the final performance on July 1st, it will travel to Vienna State Opera. Hopefully, some day it will be seen in Paris.
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