Seeing Les Troyens at the Met Monday night, Elizabeth Bishop replaced Susan Graham as Dido, which led me to wonder who’d be singing the role in today’s high-definition broadcast.
Silly me. While it’s possible Graham was unwell Monday, her performance today was one of the most impressive I’ve seen in the Met’s series of cinema presentations. Coupled with Bryan Hymel’s performance as Aeneas, it made Part II even better this time. While it may not be (affect a pompous voice for this) “a performance for the ages”, it’s surely good enough to be released on DVD, one that people will be talking about whether they sound pompous or not.
And forgive me if this blog is starting to look like Troyens R Us. It’s been a great week of Berlioz.
I’d mentioned Graham’s work in a DVD from Théâtre du Châtelet (2003) designed & directed by Yannis Kokkos. Maybe it’s because Graham has matured, has lived. Maybe it’s because Francesca Zambello’s Met production gives Graham something to push back against, including a scene where the Trojan soldiers / sailors seem to turn on her en masse. But the result in Zambello’s production seems oh so much deeper than Kokkos, at least in Part II; my reservations about Part I, as mentioned are unchanged.
Zambello has a couple of recurrent images of heaps: dead/sleeping bodies, booty, arms… We are all eventually on that (scrap-) heap. That’s how the opera opens and closes.
The ghosts or gods who appear in her Les Troyens carry a torch that could be the sacred flame of history or perhaps simply spirit itself. When the Trojans give thanks for their apparent victory it’s with flames. Dido is suppose to end up in a pyre although we don’t see it at the end.
Zambello problematizes both sides. I already mentioned how the Trojans were cruel to Dido upon their departure. We also see Trojans torturing a poor Greek prisoner. In Act II Zambello adds cruelty to the Greeks as we see them begin to rape & pillage even before Aeneas knows they’ve come out of the horse. I’m conflicted about this because, while it’s a fascinating set of images, I feel it steals Hector’s thunder; what’s scary about a ghost when we’ve already seen soldiers carrying off children?
Speaking of horror, watching the chorus response to Aeneas’s news about Laocoon (as the front of the chorus sings, dancers convulsively act out the punishment of Laocoon, whereby he and his two sons are attacked by sea-snakes), I was reminded of the collective media agonies over Newtown. Are we any different, in our repetition compulsion, telling and re-telling the horror over and over? While I was fascinated but resistant at first, seeing it again has me thinking it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.
I am hoping Bryan Hymel can hold up, as such voices sometimes have a very brief shelf-life. At times I could hear traces of John McCracken or Jon Vickers in his sound, although there are other flavours I couldn’t quite place.
The third major singer –the one who is supposed to carry Part I—namely Deborah Voigt as Cassandre—thankfully looked and sounded much better in high-definition today than in the theatre on Monday. Even so I am thinking that all those Brunnhildes over the past few years are taking a toll on the voice, particularly when she sings at the bottom of her range. The high notes are more or less there, but the line is sometimes ragged, with no meat on its bones. Dwayne Croft as Chorèbe in comparison seemed so much richer in his sound.
There are always trade-offs between live and high-definition. In the theatre, the orchestra & chorus have depths that simply can’t be heard in the cinema, particularly when some forces are offstage. But the high-def miking compensates for vocal shortcomings, making a bad voice okay and an okay voice sound good. No wonder Graham and Hymel sounded immortal.
Usually up close camera-work is a double-edged sword that may expose weaknesses in a portrayal. I kept waiting for the camera to get too close to Graham, and it never happened, not even when I started drowning in her eyes. I think it needs to be said that a portrayal is only as good as its context. While I enjoyed her work in Carsen’s Iphigenie en Tauride here in Toronto last year, neither the production nor the opera gave her the scope to show us what we saw here.
I was also thrilled to hear a brief interview with Fabio Luisi backstage, arguably the real star of the production: which is now over. Want to see it again? There’s the encore, or—if there’s any justice—on the DVD when it’s released.