We can say this about Hector Berlioz's five-hour French grand opera, Les Troyens: compared to the presidential political epic that citizens in the contemporary US have just endured, it is positively lightweight. Berlioz's epic, divided, like a Russian novel, into two separately subtitled parts, links together the various subplots of Virgil's Aenid that more sensible opera composers treat separately. Beginning with the Greeks' equine incursion into Troy, and ending with the death of Dido (better known in Purcell’s often excerpted setting), what results on the stage is an account of political upheaval and generational persistence that no one singer, no one story, encompasses.

Christine Goerke (Cassandra) © Todd Rosenberg
Christine Goerke (Cassandra)
© Todd Rosenberg

So it’s fitting that this production, directed by Tim Albery and with sets and costumes by Tobias Hoheisel, has more than one megastar. Christine Goerke, who sang a devastating Elektra in the Lyric’s 2012-13 season, returns here as the fretful Cassandra, who is the only person in Troy suspicious of the gift horse that is not eaten by a giant serpent. Goerke’s voice is big and urgent, with a certain darkness of tone around the middle register that conveys a worry not felt by her fiancé or the crowds celebrating around her.

Berlioz’s orchestration emphasizes her separateness from the rest of the city: Sir Andrew Davis kept the celebratory brass muted below her urgent warnings, emphasizing the distance of her voice from deaf ears. As metaopera, Les Troyens’ first act reverses the usual relationship between soloist and chorus. Here, the chorus does not respond to and reinforce the individual’s heroic exclamations; rather, her attempts to sway and convince are rendered useless by the force and conviction of the crowd. Michael Black’s usually excellent choral direction continues to hold here, especially when the chorus came to the front of the stage in the first act finale. If I had to nitpick, I would point out the sibilants in long-breathed passages, which were often less attentively synchronized than harder consonants and tended to produce an effect of stereophonic hissing across the stage.

Susan Graham (Dido) and Brandon Jovanovich (Aeneas) © Todd Rosenberg
Susan Graham (Dido) and Brandon Jovanovich (Aeneas)
© Todd Rosenberg

The other star is, of course, Susan Graham, who replaced Sophie Koch at the last minute as Dido, star of the opera’s second half. But as the Queen of Carthage, appearing before an assembled citizenry that looked to be primarily female, she was channeling another woman too, standing in the spotlight with a blonde bob and an outfit of presidential blue. Graham’s voice always seems to be more dynamic than the orchestra that supports her, and though she seemed to mark some of Dido’s early high notes, the variety and quality of enunciation that she brought to the role’s dramatic peaks made her occasionally stilted acting entirely forgivable. The two halves of the opera are threaded together by the presence of Aeneas, sung by Brandon Jovanovich, who escapes Troy in the opening acts to fall in love with Dido in the later ones. Jovanovich’s voice is bright and ample, with a stunning high register and a canny ear for the orchestra.

<i>Les Troyens</i> © Todd Rosenberg
Les Troyens
© Todd Rosenberg

As for the set, it must be difficult to fundraise for an opera like this under present conditions, and perhaps even more difficult to know how to spend the money. This production opted for a gigantic, rotating, coliseum-shaped structure of rebarred concrete, which generates its own limitations as soon as it appears. The problems should be immediately obvious: what do you do with it, now that it’s there? How to create dynamism and visual variety, especially across the opera’s exhausting running time? Aside from some fanciful and lovely projections in the second half, there is indeed not much one can do, and the set is condemned to simply turn and turn for five hours, transforming the Lyric stage into the world’s most expensive microwave oven. It is a lesson about the hubris of building great empires – one that Aeneas might do well to remember.