Thursday, December 27, 2012

Metropolitan Opera – Berlioz’s Les Troyens. December 21, 2012.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Balcony, Seat B114 ($97.50).

Conductor – Fabio Luisi; Cassandra, Trojan Prophetess, daughter of Priam – Deborah Voigt; Coroebus, engaged to Cassandra – Dwayne Croft; Aeneas, Trojan hero - Marcello Giordani, Dido, Queen of Carthage – Susan Graham; Anna – sister of Dido – Karen Cargill; Narbal, Dido’s Minister – Kwangchul Youn; Iopas, poet at Dido’s court – Eric Cutler; Ascanius, son of Aeneas – Julie Boulianne.

Story.  The first part of the opera (Acts I and II: La Prise de Troie) talks about how the Greeks invaded Troy by leaving a wooden horse behind.  Cassandra warns her father King Priam and her fiancé Coroebus to flee the city, but she is ignored.  The Trojans bring the wooden horse left by the Greeks into the city as a way to appease Athena, the Greek deity.  The ghost of Cassandra’s brother Hector visits Aeneas and asks him to flee to Italy.  As the Greeks overrun the city, Cassandra and many other Trojan women commit mass suicide instead of being submitted to rape and enslavement.  The second part of the opera (Acts III, IV, V: Les Troyens a Carthage) centers around events in Carthage after the Aeneas and other Trojans arrived in Carthage.  Seven year prior, Queen Dido – whose husband was murdered -  and her people fled from their native Tyre and settled in Carthage.  They take in the Trojans after they are shipwrecked in a storm.  When the Numidians attack Carthage, the Trojans help the Carthaginians to repel them, thus earning their gratitude.   Aeneas and Dido eventually fall in love, and Dido begins to neglect her duty as Queen.  However, Aeneas is reminded of his mission by Mercury in a vision, so they set sail for Italy, leaving Queen Dido behind.  When she realizes what has happened, the queen ordered a pyre to be built to burn everything that reminds her of Aeneas, and she also commits suicide by stabbing herself on the altar.  Before she dies, she predicts Hannibal will avenge her against Italy.

The headline artists of this performance are Deborah Voigt and Susan Graham, both well known for their respective roles as a soprano and a mezzo-soprano.  I also generally enjoy Berlioz’s music, in particular his Symphonie Fantastique and Faust (which I also saw as an opera).  My expectations for the evening were thus quite high.

This is a long opera, lasting about four hours, five hours with two intermissions. Worried about gridlock during the holiday season, we got into the city quite early, and managed to find free off-street parking!  Dinner was at East Szechuan.  Our trip home was equally smooth.

I didn’t get to write this blog until today (December 26) because we spent Christmas in Boston with family, so I will probably end up with some very general observations.  The first thought that comes to mind was the opera didn’t have to be this long.  This is particularly true of Part II.  There were just many dance numbers that take up a lot of time (to illustrate how Dido and Aeneas are enjoying themselves).  The dancing was probably of high quality, and so was the music, but they didn’t add a lot to the drama.  Someone defending the work would say they added a lot to the overall experience (which I won’t argue with), but to me they do not add to the story much.  I guess it’s a debate similar to the one in Strauss’s Capriccio: is opera about music or about drama?  To my considerable surprise, I was quite awake for the entire performance, and actually quite enjoyed it.

The other surprise was that Deborah Voigt didn’t sound as strong as I expected.  She actually sounded weaker than Dwayne Croft (Coroebus) who according to the announcement at the beginning of the performance was still recovering from a cold.  Voigt was adequate, and actually was quite convincing as Cassandra.  Susan Graham, on the other hand, sang extremely well, her voice carried well into the balcony.

One main voice that spans both Parts was that of Marcello Giordani, playing Aeneas.  He could have shone as the anchor of the show but unfortunately was not quite up to the task.  I found his acting skills a bit on the wooden side also.

Most of the “supporting cast” did great jobs.  Eric Cutler, as Iopas the poet, got quite an enthusiastic applause from the audience.  Karen Cargill and Kwangchul Youn as Dido’s sister Anna and minister Narbal sang clearly and beautifully.  I also like Ascanius, son of Aeneas, as sung by Julie Boulianne.

The production calls for a large chorus.  I counted as many as 160 people on stage at the same time (probably under-counted, if anything.)  At the beginning of the show, they were all lying on the ground, and as the music progressed slowly moved about and eventually all got up.  I thought that was really effective.  The chorus appeared on multiple occasions and I enjoyed their singing.

Despite my opinion that there was too much extraneous dancing, the dancers actually did a great job, and the dances well choreographed.  The color theme for the Carthaginians was white, and the white clothes on the dancers certainly made for a beautiful sight.  Strangely, many of the dances were “unisex” in that the pairings were not always boy-girl.

The staging had as its foundation a nest-like structure built of slats, with a second level platform that served multiple functions, such as the path the Trojan horse was brought into the city, or the cave where Dido and Aeneas declared their love for one another.  Overall, the staging was effective and interesting.

The orchestra put in a great performance.  The music is quite pleasant, but as with my other Berlioz experiences, I probably will enjoy it more as I get more familiarized with it.

Overall it is an enjoyable experience.  However, the overall performance doesn’t quite live up to the grand scale that one would expect given the story and the length of the opera.  Contrast this with my experience with Prokofiev’s War and Peace or even the Broadway show Les Miserables, which brings to mind the word “epic.”

I found both a New York Times review that says the score lasts 4 ½ hours and is quite critical of many aspects of the performance - comparing it with Levine's performance in 2003; and a Huffington Post review that gives quite a bit of detail of Les Troyens history at the Met.

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