Composer: Hector Berlioz
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Producer/Director: Francesca Zambello
Aeneas: Bryan Hymel
Dido: Elizabeth Bishop
Cassandra: Deborah Voigt
There was an unforgettable look of mixed horror and incredulity on the faces of most people when I told them that I had suddenly decided to treat myself to my own end-of-year gift by spending some of my hard-earned money and over five hours of my busy life to attend a French opera about The Trojan War. Then they categorically turned me down when I offered them to join me (Nothing personal, of course). Never mind. I was perfectly capable of getting myself to the Metropolitan Opera on Friday evening to get a ticket for yesterday's matinee of Les Troyens and - Surprise! - there were still some left.
I am not a die-hard fan of Hector Berlioz, although I've always thought that his Symphonie Fantastique is without a doubt one of the most fantastic works of music ever composed. On the other hand, his inexplicable preference for Gluck over Bach as well as his soft spot for pompous showiness can at times really rub me the wrong way.
However, I also figured that I should grab a chance to watch this not often performed opera, especially with Susan Graham getting rave reviews for her Dido and young newcomer Bryan Hymel getting rave reviews as the last-minute stand-in for an apparently ill-at-ease Marcello Giordani in the role of Aeneas. Moreover, I would still have three days off afterwards to digest it. Even better, it was supposed to snow all afternoon.
So after a marathon-worthy breakfast (Come to think of it, in my running heyday it took me way less time than the duration of this whole performance to complete a marathon, even as an eternal mid-packer) I eagerly walked down Broadway and into the Met lobby only to find myself face-to-face with a sign saying that Susan Graham had called in sick! Noooooooo!!!!!!!! Regardless, I still decided to soldier on and hiked my way back up to the good old Family Circle, where I hadn't been in awhile after interludes in the Parterre (Sigh) and the Orchestra. Sometimes there's nothing like coming home. I just wish the Parterre were home.
Based on Books I, II and IV of Virgil's Aeneid, Les Troyens is a majestic lyric opera in two big parts divided into five acts. No matter how you slice it - and the willing but inadequate Théâtre Lyrique in Paris certainly did its best to repeatedly slash the last three acts after completely eliminating the first two - it is a big endeavor from every possible angle: length, size, cast, score, themes. So much so that poor Berlioz never got to fully see what he considered the culmination of his eminent career. Luckily for us, the world has since come to its senses and, while the work's monumental scope has prevented it from becoming a steady staple of the répertoire, its unique might can be experienced live if you look around for it long and hard enough, and a chance to witness it is apparently not to be missed.
After Marcello Giordani's announced withdrawal and Susan Graham's sudden indisposition, Deborah Voigt turned out to be the only familiar singer on that stage. As the Trojan prophetess Cassandra, she cut an imposing figure and made good use of her impeccable bright high notes to express anguish, powerlessness, and eventually resignation. Her low range was not quite as assured, but there was no distinct wavering either. After all, it took a truly convincing force to entice the vast majority of the conquered Trojan women to commit suicide rather than to become slaves, and she persuasively embodied that uncompromising figure.
The stand-in for Susan Graham was Elizabeth Bishop, who not only bravely stepped in without batting an eyelid, but also did it with much commitment and aplomb. Whether sweetly singing the many splendors of love or powerfully exploding into a psychopathic rage, her Dido went through a lot over the course of three acts, and all those gripping emotions were compellingly conveyed.
The best surprise of the day, however, was Bryan Hymel, who has quickly appropriated the challenging role of Aeneas and obviously never looked back. Blessed with a robust and versatile voice he fully controls, he was effortlessly switching from sweeping heroic passages to more subtle moments like the lovely love duet with Dido, a little jewel of exquisite refinement, which was one of the undisputed highlights of the performance. The other highlight was his long and tortured soliloquy at the beginning of Act V, which earned him the one and only spontaneous and enthusiastic ovation of the whole afternoon.
The other unquestionable star yesterday was the reliably fabulous Met chorus, which had many opportunities to shine and did not miss a single one of them. Some other members of the cast, such as Karen Cargill as Anna, Dido's sister, and Kwangchul Youn as Narbal, Dido's minister, distinguished themselves particularly well. Also to be remembered was the simple aria sung by Paul Appleby as the home-sick sailor Hylas, which stood out as an eerily poignant moment in the middle of all the dramatic turmoil.
So the singing was pretty much satisfactory, but what about the production? It was adequately massive, not overly original, but it served the opera well by leaving enough open space for the numerous crowd scenes and incorporating some movable divisions for the more intimate encounters. For once, I was actually happy to be perched in the penultimate row of the Family Circle because it gave me a winning overall view over the often busy stage.
As a grand opera - and Berlioz would not have had it any other way - Les Troyens also includes a lot of ballet. In the current Met production, even more dance has been added for purposes not always clear. So the audience spends a lots of time watching dance numbers, which fit in with various degrees of success. When the entertainment of dancing is an integral part of the story, as in Act IV, you grit your teeth and bear it. When we're talking about a few silhouettes gesticulating in the background during Dido and Anna's conversation in Act III, you wonder what it is about (although at least it does not slow down the action).
Berlioz's sprawling score is of course what keeps all the various elements together. Constantly alternating between dramatic grandiosity and economical restraint, the music faithfully emphasizes the stories and the characters. Fabio Luisi kept a firm control over the orchestra for a muscular and colorful performance. He let the arias breathe and take a life on their own while the big choral numbers were tightly turned out.
Although the audience was fairly subdued during most of the afternoon, as if they were saving their energy to be able to reach the finish line, they eventually showed their approval with a long and warm ovation, which was all the more remarkable considering how many departures had taken place. But this finish line was worth waiting for, especially as the hysterically predicted - and eventually harmless - snow had not managed to actually materialize yet when we finally returned to reality.