Francesca Zambello’s production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens has returned to the Metropolitan Opera. When it premiered a decade ago it was Deborah Voigt as Cassandra, Ben Heppner as Aeneas and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Dido, conducted by James Levine.
A decade later? Lieberson passed away, Levine stopped conducting for awhile (although he’s gradually coming back), and for awhile Heppner stopped singing (although he’s back now, coming to Toronto at the end of this month). In the Met’s current incarnation of Troyens, it’s Fabio Luisi who is now the conducting workhorse rather than Levine. Susan Graham began the run as Dido, but was replaced January 1st by Elizabeth Bishop. Marcello Giordani began the run as Aeneas, but was replaced by Bryan Hymel early in a run that began Dec 13th. The one hold-over from a decade ago is Deborah Voigt as Cassandra, although based on what I heard January 1st, it’s hard to believe she sounded this way a decade ago.
Zambello’s production manages to be true to the text without worrying about verisimilitude. The opening image is echoed at the end: a cluster of corpses on a stage, mutely telling us of the futility of war. When the opera begins it’s from an amorphous composition of scattered bodies who arise as if awaking from a bad dream, to celebrate the end of their great war. At the end, they’re planning vengeance against Aeneas for the death of Dido, before collapsing into another heap.
In between, Zambello skillfully manages large numbers of people on a huge open stage. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, led by Fabio Luisi, are the biggest stars in this wonderful opera, truly an epic presentation of a story after Vergil’s Aeneid. We see a mobile chorus unafraid of genuine acting, while singing this wonderful score, and two dozen ballet dancers appearing in several divertissements throughout this grand opera, and assorted supernumeraries.
At times Maria Bjørnson’s set calls for two levels of action, with a curved passageway or lookout upstage at the back, above the main stage area. They invite us to fill in the gaps with our imaginations instead of spoon-feeding us literal representation although Bjørnson’s design includes an actual horse. Zambello did seem to under-estimate our intelligence in the moments when Laocoon’s death is not just described but re-enacted by the listeners; yet i loved this spell-binding moment. I found the entry of Hector’s widow Andromache more of the same unsubtlety, a moment that has made me cry in other productions. I say this as someone who desperately wants to like this (Berlioz is my favourite composer). Zambello seems to want to turn this scene into a funeral, which is not a violation of the music, but seems sadly literal. We should actually be seeing a crowd abashed in their celebration, chastened when they notice the widow Andromache and her son. And Andromache and her son usually comport themselves with restraint, recognizing that this is a victory celebration. Zambello gives us an over-the-top display of grief that I found very unsympathetic and wrong-headed.
Less is more in this scene.
Throughout Part I, I was hungry for direction to my emotions, seeking someone to lead me to something clear & meaningful. I was certainly ready to be led by Voigt, a singer to whom I surrendered all my disbelief last season in Die Walküre. But I found her unconvincing for most of her performance. Her last moments were perhaps her best, but curiously Voigt –the one remaining holdover from the 2003 version—looks and sounds miscast.
Part II is a sunnier series of tableaux, full of celebration, joy, and yes eventual calamity, a great deal of fabulous orchestral music and exquisite singing. Where Part I worked only intermittently in its large-scale set-pieces for chorus & orchestra, and was otherwise a pale shadow of what Berlioz wrote, Part II burst through the clouds of gloom, a transcendent piece of ensemble singing, dancing & theatre.
Bryan Hymel is a solid dramatic voice and would appear to be a huge discovery with a great career ahead of him. Marcello Giordani has been the Met’s workhorse over the past few seasons, reliably singing spinto roles in Italian & French, but has reached a point where he needs a break. I wonder if Giordani even at his best would have been up to Aeneas, a heavier role for instance than (Berlioz’s) Faust. Hymel brings a heroic demeanour to the stage in the battle sequences, and a lovely line that reminds me of a young Jon Vickers (as dry as Vickers but with a better top).
Elizabeth Bishop started slowly, although from what I heard, she may not have had a great deal of time to assimilate the staging. At one moment in her first scene –where she’s presenting awards to her assembled people—with a scary misstep she almost fell. Bishop built steadily from there, reaching all her high notes easily on pitch. Hers is a gentler Dido than the woman she replaced, namely Susan Graham, at least judging by Graham’s portrayal on the 2003 Théâtre du Châtelet DVD. Bishop’s Dido warms quietly to Hymel’s Aeneas, so that when he leaves, I felt a great deal of sympathy for her, as she erupts in a gradual display of outrage & anger.
In an unexpected benefit from the casting change, Bishop, who is much shorter than Susan Graham, happens to closely resemble Karen Cargill, who plays her sister Anna; on the other hand, the change throws off the ballet in Act IV, when a very tall dancer stood in for Dido: likely the same height as Graham. Cargill’s voice has the stunning colorations of a latter day Marilyn Horne, a wonderful contrast to Bishop throughout.
Kwangchul Youn (Narbal) and Eric Cutler (Iopas) added to the vocal glories of the second half of the opera, stylishly sung & persuasively acted.
In the love-scene “Nuits d’ivresse”, we see debauched sailors paired off with Carthaginean women as if in a bower all around Aeneas & Dido. It makes for a much more complex decision process for Aeneas than you might find in a purer version that only shows Dido with Aeneas; when Aeneas seeks to mobilize his army we see genuine human emotions from this chorus. The departure sequence itself –when the music seems all duty & Trojan honour—has a nasty side that is quite wonderful, leaving Dido buried on the stage under a pile of ropes, as if some of the sailors have acted out their disrespect. It’s ugly yes, but it’s powerful and a wonderful embellishment that makes perfect sense. Bishop’s Dido is very human and very broken. I’ve never felt quite so much affection for a Dido before.
Saturday’s high definition broadcast is the last performance of the run. I’ll be interested to see whether Graham returns or not.