Berlioz, Les Troyens. Metropolitan Opera, 12/17/2013. Production by Francesca Zambello (revival), conducted by Fabio Luisi with Susan Graham (Didon), Deborah Voigt (Cassandre), Marcello Giordani (Énée), way too many more, see hereFrancesca Zambello’s production is fairly traditional, with a few Virgilian Easter eggs and non sequitur insertions that pass for vision. Maria Bjørnson’s multi-level George Tsypin-esque set is neither particularly effective nor intrusive, though its textured strips of metal make it resemble a high-end corporate lobby. (The sight lines are bad, too. In Act 2 I couldn’t see the ghost of Hector at all.) The costumes are traditional colorful robes and armor in the Troy portion and in the Carthage half consist of lots of all-white robes and royal purple. Zambello tends towards the heavy-handed and cluttered. Some plot points are underlined and circled, such as Ascagne taking Dido’s ring and Andromache’s screaming, while other developments seem quite badly timed, such as Dido and Aeneas finding love at the beginning of the Hunt kind of robs the rest of the act of its point.
After having seen three different productions of this opera live (this one, David McVicar’s in London,* and David Pountney’s in Berlin), I have come to three conclusions (besides that Troy is far, far easier to effectively stage than Carthage):
1. The Carthaginians don’t have chairs. They lounge on cushions.
2. The Carthaginians always look like the members of a New Age cult. White robes, little in the way of gender differentiation (apparently a side effect of having a queen?).
3. The dancing is usually awful, and goes on for far too long.
The problem with a lackluster Troyens is that you become acutely aware of how uneven the piece is. It’s not that much of it’s bad (I think it’s 98% genius, and the 2% is mostly the Dance of the Nubian Slave Girls), but it doesn’t fit together without consistent energy and vision. In this performance, I was not convinced that we really needed two peripheral beatific tenor arias, plus, well, I adore the whiny soldiers in Act 5. They’re my second favorite whiny soldier duo in opera, beat only by Nero’s guard in Poppea. The glance into their lives, plus the respite of Hylas's music, are what gives the opera its epic quality. But if they don’t have some spirit you just want to get on with it.
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Besides the chorus, Susan Graham is the star of this production. Her Didon is absolutely beautifully sung and acted, with more depth and intensity than I remember in her performance on the Châtelet DVD. She expertly balances musical grace with the text, giving her Didon dignity and stature, convincingly regal but also human. Her voice is bright but also slightly grainy, a perfect size for this role and by the end she becomes a real tragedienne at the end. Her only issue is high notes: the big and prominent B flat in “Chers Tyriens” simply entirely failed to come out both times, leading to a somewhat anticlimactic end. I’m guessing there isn’t a lot of time with Octavian in her future (which is a shame, because she is otherwise outstanding there!).
I wonder if Marcello Giordani took the widespread rumors of his imminent replacement personally. (How could you not?) For the first three acts he seemed to be giving it his all, and managed a little better than I expected. His voice is aging, the high notes extraordinarily loud but not very pretty, the disconnected lower range hollow-sounding and weak. It was in Act 4 where the problems really began to show, with a can belto “Nuit d’ivresse” that completely drowned out Graham’s more appropriately nuanced efforts, and his Act 5 “Inutiles regrets” were indeed regrettable, involving something resembling a high C and some B flats but also a lot of vaguely rhythmic, somewhat pitched shouting towards the end. His acting is acceptable but not exactly dashing or charismatic. I would not at all be surprised if he were sent packing to, uh, Italie before the HD broadcast (“he’s not Italian! he’s Sicilian!” -my relatives, my family comes from southern Italy). The rumored replacement is Bryan Hymel, who, with indisputable competence if not terribly much beauty, sang the role earlier in London this year.
The army of supporting cast was strong, for the most part. Karen Cargill's warm, rich low mezzo as Anna was a highlight, and she made an excellent contrast to Graham. Paul Appleby sang Hylas with a sweet tenor and honest, simple phrasing. In contrast Eric Cutler was a Iopas with a large but uneven voice and fussy phrasing (with a fussy staging from Zambello), somewhat miscast and unaware that less is sometimes more. Julie Boulianne sounded clear as Ascagne with some strange flirty direction. Stephen Gaertner stood in for Dwayne Croft as Chorèbe and showed a strong, full dark baritone. The two most prominent basses, Kwangchoul Youn (long time, no see!) as Narbal and Richard Bernstein as Panthée, were both excellent.
There’s great stuff in this production, but it requires patient waiting through considerable quantities of not so great stuff to get to all of it. Still, recommended under the general “come on, it’s Troyens” rule.
Les Troyens continues through December with an HD broadcast on January 5.
*Like the set of David McVicar’s London production, this Met one (which came first) also features, in the Carthage set, a raked circular thing center stage that has little buildings on it (these look more like building blocks while McV’s were very clearly a city). Unfortunately I have no pictures of the NYC incarnation; here is the London one:
Photos copyright Met.