It’s very difficult to write about Berlioz’s Les Troyens without mentioning its length. Tonight’s cinema screening of Fransesca Zambello’s lush production was billed at 341 minutes – that’s 5.6 hours. But beamed live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, those 5.6 hours entailed spectacular operatic entertainment. Several times larger than life, even the indulgent or unnecessarily long episodes (of which there are many) were engrossing.
As has been mentioned before on Bachtrack, the opera feels as if it should be split into two; the first two acts in which Troy is destroyed, followed by the next three, which document Aeneas’ time with Dido in Carthage on his way to Italy. In Berlioz’s lifetime, Les Troyens was never performed in its entirety; on reflection this was very sensible. The five-act plot begins with the citizens of Troy rejoicing over the departure of their Greek besiegers. When prophetess Cassandra arrives to darken the mood, chirpy woodwind gives way to heavy, foreboding strings. Berlioz’s dramatic use of the orchestra continues throughout the opera, spanning the emotional spectrum from torment and love, while singers fight to conquer a tessitura that goes up pretty high and down pretty low. In general, the cast and the orchestra, conducted by Fabio Luisi, were up to it all.
Deborah Voigt was competent as Cassandra, who dominates the first two acts with her accurate predictions of doom before committing suicide with the women of Troy. Anna Caterina Antonacci set the bar incredibly high at Covent Garden last year with her vocal energy and on-stage charisma. Voigt did not pose a challenge in either department, while Dwayne Croft was a strong Chorebus. The presence of both, however, was forgotten when the curtain came up for Act III and Susan Graham took the stage as Dido. Her honeyed mezzo was strong and sweet at the same time, although her characterisation did not earn much sympathy until her chastisement of Aeneas in Act V, which was angry enough to cut even an Virgilian hero down to size. Bryan Hymel as Aeneas looked suitably scared.
Les Troyens seems to be a lucky charm for Hymel. Twice in a less than a year he has been called in as a replacement Aeneas, the first occasion being David McVicar’s production at the Royal Opera House in summer 2012. Here in his debut Met production, he displayed considerably more confidence and power as a replacement for Marcello Giordani. He clearly put his all into his Aeneas, which made use of his elastic vocal range, his stamina and his acting ability. As he warmed up, Hymel eventually rose to the challenge on all counts. From barely being noticed in the first two acts he owned the stage by the fifth. The power of cinema to inflate the size and volume of singers definitely helped, but judging by the audience’s reaction in New York, he made quite an impression in the flesh as well. Hymel is, at 33 years old, young to take on Berlioz's unique Aeneas. Tonight he showed that, though he is not yet a complete dramatic tenor, he is well on the way.
All sumptuous purples and lustful lighting, Act IV deserves special mention. Having defeated Carthage’s enemies, Aeneas’ men grow comfortable in the city and the hero succumbs to his feelings for Dido. Here, Hymel and Graham displayed physical and vocal chemistry, although at moments Dido seemed more maternal than amorous toward her Aeneas. This notwithstanding, the passionate love duet at the end of the act was outstanding, with Aeneas’ son cheekily played by Julie Boulianne.
Musically, the many different sides to the opera all came across, from the dramatic to the romantic, from luxury and love in Carthage to despairing crowds in the chorus numbers. The chorus were admirable throughout, showing flexibility and stamina and, it would seem, negotiating a lot of costume changes. They were over-choreographed to the point of being distracting in the scene where Laocoon’s fate is described and I can’t say that the balletic interludes added anything to the action, despite being beautifully scored and danced. Maria Bjornson’s set design produced mixed successes. The first two acts were visually dull, and the wooden horse rolled across the backdrop inexplicably fast. In the last three acts, gorgeous costumes didn’t quite compensate for the forgettable set on the Met’s vast stage – and let’s not dwell upon either the ghosts or the Greek soldiers, who were laughably costumed and decidedly unfearsome.
The Met deems it necessary to give its cinema showings a host. Tonight’s was Joyce DiDonato, rather obviously reading from an autocue. Cameras gave us an insight into backstage goings-on. It’s a matter of personal taste whether you like this manner of presentation – I think it shatters the illusion which makes opera, or theatre, so enthralling. More irritating though were the constant interviews of singers as they left the stage and the bold funding pleas. In a cash-strapped age the latter is perhaps inevitable, but the undisguised commercialisation of the experience felt uncomfortable. This is a shame when the singing on display was of such quality; on the evidence of tonight, the Met will likely have no trouble at all selling out any future performances in which it casts Bryan Hymel. The other elements in this production were, however, hit and miss.