Arts & Events

Berlioz’s LES TROYENS at San Francisco Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Thursday June 11, 2015 - 07:00:00 PM

Dramatizing the story of the Fall of Troy and the subsequent voyage of Aeneas and his Trojan refugees to Carthage, then to Italy, Hector Berlioz’s epic opera Les Troyens is rarely given in the form Berlioz conceived it. The composer himself was fated never to hear the complete version of Les Troyens, for at its première at Paris’s Théâtre-Lyrique in 1863, only the second part, known as Les Troyens à Carthage, was performed. Berlioz died six years later. Now San Francisco Opera has mounted, for the first time in this company’s existence, the full five-hour plus version of Les Troyens.  

This is a monumental and expensive undertaking. The complete Les Troyens demands a large orchestra, full chorus, huge cast, a ballet corps, and elaborate stage sets. This production, directed by David McVicar, assisted by revival director Leah Hausman, features monumental sets designed by Es Devlin. According to program notes, the total weight of the production is more than 32 tons, and the Trojan horse is made of steel and stands 23 feet tall. (More on the Trojan horse later.) 

My own prior experience of Berlioz’s Les Troyens was limited to the much abridged version San Francisco Opera performed back in 1968 in Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. That production featured soprano Régine Crespin as Dido, (she also sang Act I’s Cassandra), and tenor Guy Chauvet as Aeneas. The fact that both of these artists were singing in their native French language made that performance particularly effective, for French opera places a premium on clearly heard diction. However, in the current San Francisco Opera production of Les Troyens, the total absence of native French-speaking singers was a drawback, resulting in much of this opera’s text, drawn from Vergil’s Aeneid in a libretto written by Berlioz himself, to pass unheard in delivery, no matter how well it was sung by the excellent cast. 

As Les Troyens begins, a chorus of Trojans rejoices at the withdrawal of Greek troops after a ten-year siege. Singing from the multi-tiered walls of Troy, the Trojans note that the Greeks have left behind a giant horse, which the Trojans believe is a gift-offering to the gods. However, the prophetess Cassandra, daughter of King Priam of Troy, foresees impending disaster for her countrymen. As Cassandra, Anna Caterina Antonacci was vocally and dramatically a compelling figure. Her dark-hued soprano perfectly rendered the darkly ominous portents of Cassandra’s prophecy. However, Antonacci’s diction in French was either not well shaped or, more likely, her singing was simply overwhelmed by Berlioz’s orch-estration. In any case, Cassandra’s words were barely discernible. This was true also for Coroebus, her fiancé, ably sung by American baritone Brian Mulligan. King Priam, sung by bass-baritone Philip Skinner, and his wife Hecuba, sung by mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott, briefly accepted the thanks of the grateful Trojans.  

In Act I, only Aeneas, sung by tenor Bryan Hymel, managed to vocally project the French text when he recounted the horrible death of Laocoön, who threw a spear into the wooden horse left by the Greeks and was immediately devoured by two serpents arising from the sea. In this regard, among others, kudos go to American tenor Bryan Hymel for his stirring portrayal of the hero Aeneas. Priam and Aeneas order the horse brought inside the city walls, as Cassandra inveighs in vain against this decision and foretells Troy’s doom. 

In Act II, Aeneas is visited by the ghost of Hector, sung by bass Jordan Bisch, who advises Aeneas to flee. Hector’s speech is set to a descending chromatic octave, each phrase delivered on one note a semitone below the previous one. Aeneas’s destiny, says Hector, is to found a new empire that will one day rule the world. As Hector’s ghost disappears, Pantheus, sung by baritone Philip Horst, runs in to re-port that Greek soldiers have emerged from the horse and are ravaging Troy.  

Now this production’s Trojan horse enters the scene. It is a huge horse’s head apparently made of scrap metal. As it advances, it lowers and raises its head. The Trojans hear the clanging of armor inside it, although we in the audience hear nothing and can clearly see that this horse is hollow with no troops inside it. Why David McVicars and Es Devlin opted for a futuristic version of the famed Trojan horse is anyone’s guess. In any case, as the Trojan horse spits fire, the Trojan women gather around Cassandra, who advises the Trojan women to kill themselves rather than submit to rape and enslavement by the Greeks. Cassandra herself, on learning that her fiancé Coroebus has been slain, stabs herself with a sword and dies. 

After an intermission, Part II begins in a public amphitheatre in Carthage, where Queen Dido, sung by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, celebrates the building of Carthage after her escape from her native Phoenician city of Tyre. Susan Graham, who was honored after Sunday’s performance marking the 25th anniversary of her debut with San Francisco Opera, possesses a beautiful voice that can easily conquer soprano roles as well as those written for mezzo-sopranos. However, Susan Graham, too, had difficulty projecting clear enunciation of the French text. In her case, at least, given her past triumphs in other French operas such as Gluck’s Iphégenie en Tauride, Massenet’s Werther, and Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, this had to be the result of Berlioz’s heavy orchestration rather than any defects in Susan Graham’s French diction. Perhaps the diction problem, which pervaded this pro-duction of Les Troyens, may be as much the responsibility of conductor Donald Runnicles as of any limitations on the part of the non-native French-speaking singers. In any case, the issue of making the French text clearly heard in Berlioz’s Les Troyens has to be one of opera’s most daunting tasks for conductors. In all other respects but this, I found the conducting of Runnicles to be outstanding. 

After a chorus sings the praises of Dido, a dialogue ensues between Dido and her sister Anna. In the role of Anna, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke sang beautifully as she counseled her widowed sister to open herself to love and find a new husband to share with her the throne of Carthage. Dido, who cherishes the memory of Sychaeus, her dead husband, vigorously rejects Anna’s advice. Iopas, a Carthaginian, rushes in with the news that a foreign fleet has anchored in the harbor and asks to meet Queen Dido. The Queen generously invites the foreigners to approach. It is Aeneas and his refugees from Troy. Soon Dido’s advisor Narbal enters. Ably sung by bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, Narbal warns Dido that Numidian troops from the desert are now encircling Carthage itself. Aeneas proposes that his Trojan warriors join forces with Dido’s Carthaginians to repel the African hordes. Dido accepts this offer, and their combined forces rush off to defend Carthage. 

As Act IV begins, Les Troyens enmbarks on its most problematic material. In this production, the problems were blatantly emphasized by the inexplicable staging. As the curtain went up, what looked for all the world like a giant soccer ball was seen front and center amidst Carthaginian buildings. (Given the latest news in the soccer world, I half expected to see the acronym FIFA inscribed on the giant soccer ball.) Then, as if filled with helium, the soccer ball levitated above the stage and assumed an oblong shape as it hung ominously over Carthage. What in the world this bit of stage scenery was supposed to signify is beyond me. A friend saw it as a space-ship! This was as stupid a bit of staging as could be imagined!  

To make matters worse, the ensuing music, known as “The Royal Hunt and Storm,” was staged in a confusing manner, as dancers raced around pointing bows and arrows at unseen prey. Were they fighting Numidians or simply hunting stags? Nothing was clear; and it seemed a flimsy excuse for a ballet number. Moreover, in the midst of this confusing ballet, Aeneas and Dido came together mid-stage and enacted their growing passion for one another. Was this happening in the midst of battle with the Numidians, or was it during a royal hunt? And if the latter, what happened to the Numidians? None of this was clear in director David McVicar’s staging. When yet another tedious ballet ensued, I wished this entire act had been deleted. (Interestingly, when Dido interrupted the second long ballet number by saying, “Enough. This revelry unnerves me,” someone sitting behind me in the audience let out an appreciative but discreet clap. I laughed out loud and found myself in total agreement with both Dido and the anonymous audience member who applauded Dido’s request to cut short this totally extraneous ballet.) 

Dido now asked for a simple song of the fields, which was beautifully delivered by tenor René Barbera as Iopas in the aria, “O blonde Ceres.” In fact, this tenor aria was one of the highlights of the opera. Soon Dido and Aeneas, left alone onstage, sang their famous love duet, “Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie” (“Oh sweet night of unending bliss and ecstasy”). Tenor Bryan Hymel, who was making his San Francisco Opera debut as Aeneas, sang beautifully; and he, for one, generally managed to project the French text with excellent diction. When Dido and Aeneas exited exited arm-in-arm, a winged Mercury appeared onstage reminding Aeneas of his destiny -- “Italie! Italie.” 

In Act V, the scene is Carthage harbor at night. Seated in a crow’s nest high above the ships at anchor, Hylas, a young Phoenician sailor sung by tenor Chong Wang, sings sadly of his long lost Phoenician homeland. Two Trojan sailors on guard nearby voice their resentment against the talk of “Italie,” and rejoice in the women and wine of Carthage. Suddenly, Aeneas appears and offers a soliloquy in which he admits his conflicted feelings. In spite of his overwhelming love for Dido, he recognizes the call of the gods who insist that he fulfill his duty to push on to Italy. Aeneas orders his Trojans to prepare for a pre-dawn departure.  

Suddenly, Dido appears onstage, confronting Aeneas. Weeping and pleading, Dido begs Aeneas to stay in honor of their love. Aeneas tries ineffectually to explain that though he will always love Dido, he must follow the destiny the gods have ordained for him. Dido is aghast at this. “Isn’t our love enough for you?” she asks. “For me,” she adds, “our love would override even Jupiter himself.” Aeneas is almost moved to relent; but the music of the Trojan march, heard already several times in this opera, inspires Aeneas to quickly board his ships. 

The next scene takes place with Dido alone before a drawn curtain. Her sister Anna enters and tries to assuage Dido’s torment by noting that the departure of Aeneas has been decreed by the gods. When Iopas enters and describes the Trojan ships leaving the port, Dido bursts out in fury. She wants the Trojans slaughtered and regrets she ever gave them asylum in Carthage.  

The last scene takes place at the harbor, where Dido mounts a funeral pyre larded with all the gifts she received from Aeneas. These gifts seem like mangled pieces of scrap iron salvaged from futuristic (and anachronistic) war machines, mingled with a few shoddy pieces of royal fabric. Atop the pyre, Dido prophesies that her people will one day be avenged by a Carthaginian warrior named Hannibal. Then, clutching the material debris of her love affair with Aeneas, Dido plunges a sword into her breast. Dying, she tells of a vision of Rome triumphant. Behind the funeral pyre of Dido, a huge scrap iron statue of Aeneas as sword-bearing warrior rises to confirm Dido’s vision of the future ascendancy of Rome. Thus ends Berlioz’s epic opera Les Troyens, an intrepid if not altogether successful French alternative to Richard Wagner’s similarly ambitious but perhaps equally overstretched Ring cycle of the same period. 

(Les Troyens continues through July 1.)