Five hours of Wagner usually fly by, five hours of Berlioz -- no matter how marvelously sung or staged -- manage to creep! Incredibly three people approached me after the first intermission, totally unsolicited, to confess that they had fallen asleep more than once during the first act. And others admitted the same when we talked later, but announced great enthusiasm for the last act when the action and the music suddenly thrill to a fantastic climax.
Did those of you who attended stay through the finish, or were you among the considerable number that cheated yourselves by walking out just when the going really became most splendid musically, dramatically, and the imaginative staging really paid off?
We are talking of Hector Berlioz’s (1803-1869) super grandiose opera Les Troyens based on Virgil’s “Aeneid.” Berlioz, who was a composer, a critic (a sharp-tongued one, it is recorded,) a conductor and essayist, lived at the height of romanticism in France. A dedicated admirer of Shakespeare on the dramatic end, he felt a great kinship to Gluck where operatic music is concerned.
The story of Les Troyens recalls the fall of Troy to the Greeks, (fully predicted by Cassandra,) via the famous horse. The surviving defending hero, Aeneas, is ordered by the gods to start a new powerful civilization in “Italy.” On the way, he and his sailors are forced to stop in Carthage, where he falls in love with the reigning queen, Dido. His ardor is passionately returned and ends in her fury and suicide after he abandons her to create what is to become “Rome.”
Essentially the opera divides into two parts: The Fall of Troy, and the stay in Carthage and was never performed as a single unit in Berlioz’s time. It is rarely produced in general, because of the enormous expense. There are at least 16 solo voices needed; 7 of them in demanding roles. We learned in one of the wonderful intermission interviews, that Francesa Zambello’s production, at several points has 110 performers on the stage, between supers and ballet alone. And then there is the Met’s marvelous chorus and the full complement of the Met’s world-class orchestra, here under the inspired baton of Fabio Luisi. No wonder the Met needs to charge so much for its tickets…
This production with its truly imaginative sets by Maria Bjornson was first staged in 2003. It took the Met to produce its first Les Troyens as late as 1973!
We have to be very grateful that we are getting the current repeat because of the splendid cast available at this time. And it is to be noted with patriotic pride that most of the singers are American and American trained. The Super-soprano Deborah Voigt who comes from Chicago dominated Part I as the doom-prophesying, but un-believed Cassandra. Her beloved, Coroebus, the always-marvelous baritone Dwayne Croft, is a native of Cooperstown.
And here is big news: We have a remarkable new tenor, a 33 year-old New Orleansian, named Bryan Hymel, who stepped up to the daunting plate of Aeneas, when Marcello Giordani withdrew from the role. One of the few singers who survive into Part II, his absolute triumph was the decision-to-depart aria in Act V. (In a delightful intermission interview, Susan Graham who had sung with him at a gala seven years ago, quoted that at the time she said to him: “You have a great voice. Don’t mess it up!” [She left it up to us to fill in the word she recalled she really used.] He certainly has not, and is a wonderful new addition to the Met roster.)
The stellar roles in Part II fall to Karen Cargill, the Scottish Mezzo-soprano (who bears a remarkable resemblance to Helen Traubel, especially with the particular wig provided.) Iowa’s tenor, Eric Cutler, fairly new to the Met, was the poet Iopas, and South Korea’s Kwangchul Youn, another Met newcomer, doubled as Narbal, Dido’s minister and the God Mercury.
It was another newcomer, the tenor Paul Appleby who stems from Indiana, who caught everyone’s attention as the homesick sailor Hylas. He starts his beautifully performed, plaintive aria on a ladder in the back of the stage, but luckily is allowed to come down-stage to display the full glory of his lovely voice. He, and the other newcomers prophecy fine careers at the Met.
But it was Susan Graham’s day! The great mezzo-soprano from New Mexico is fully in her element in this French genre, though she is one of the most versatile singers around. An expert of trouser roles, currently everyone’s favorite Rosenkavalier, as we all were privileged to experience in her Hd rendition 2 years ago, she absolutely triumphed as the fiery Dido. The highlight of a marvelous performance was her frustration and fury when abandoned by Aeneas. Her vocal and dramatic rendition of this last scene, just prior to stabbing herself, showed that she is truly one of the world’s most remarkable singing/acting/divas.
The uninhibited intermission interviews this time hosted by Joyce DiDonato. displayed, as usual, the refreshing camaraderie among today’s singers. There goes the outmoded myth of the high-strung, ever-envious competitiveness of all opera singers! The discussion of the right tessitura in their roles for their particular voices is so revealing to the sincerity of these great performers.
We all have heard that the Met now is determined to perform all its operas the way the composer planned, “sans any cuts.” But by eliminating some of the interminable ballets in Part I, (if Les Troyens is revived next season,) a lot of nodding off may be prevented by breaking the rule this once!
Don’t let the 5 hours hold you back from the encore of this opera at the WP’s City Center Cinema 15 and New Roc’s City 18, at 6:30 PM on January 23rd, 2013. (Who knows, if the Met does not revive this opera next season, when it can afford to stage it in the future!)
Here are some comments from some of your neighbors:
Selma Levy of Valhalla “enjoyed the performance tremendously.” She thought the opera “a splendid combination of drama, music and dance.” Although admitting she liked Part I the least, she said she “is grateful for the Met giving us Les Troyens.”
Emily Steiner of Scarsdale, is one of the people who said she fell asleep three times during Part I. “Everything was too repetitive and the ballet sequences just went on and on and on…”
Marsha Cirulli of Porchester, a soprano herself, who sounded very well informed, thought “all the singers performed extremely well.” Aware that the Met is now determined to performing the total score as composed, “she took exception, for instance, to the length of time it took in the first act in Carthage for Dido to give out all those medals. Prudent cuts would be in order, to advance the action,” she thought.