By Lynne Gray, PhD
Please note this opera can be streamed at www.metopera.org
Thursday, May 28
Berlioz’s Les Troyens ~ 4Hrs. & 20Mins.
Conducted by Fabio Luisi, starring Deborah Voigt, Susan Graham, Bryan Hymel, and Dwayne Croft. Transmitted live on January 5, 2013.
In this week’s second Berlioz epic, the ever daring and innovative French composer begins with the ending of the Trojan War and then follows Aeneas, a Trojan hero, to Carthage where he stops on the way to his ultimate destiny in Italy. The inspiration, of course, is Virgil’s Aeneid, and the libretto was written by Berlioz himself. The story is packed into a five-act magnum opus (yep – over 4 hours – which was not performed as one unified piece until more than 20 years after Berlioz’s death!) The work still stands as one of the most ambitious undertakings in the operatic canon. Berlioz himself said of it, however, “The principal merit of the work is, in my view, the truthfulness of the expression….” and if you heard the great mezzo, Susan Graham, talking about her appreciation of Berlioz in her introduction to La Damnation de Faust, she definitely agrees with him. For Berlioz, the composer, and Graham the singer, the truthful representation of passion is the highest goal of dramatic art. Director Francesca Zambello rises to the challenge with a striking production that gets to the heart of the story in sophisticated, modern visuals that remind us of the background details many of us already know without overpowering the drama.
Based on the second and fourth books of Virgil’s epic, “The Aeneid,” the opera deals with the fall of Troy as the result of the Trojan horse ruse and the subsequent mass suicide of the Trojan women led by the prophetess Cassandra whose warnings of impending disaster went unheeded. The drama then shifts to Carthage and the ill-fated love affair of its Queen, Dido, with Aeneas, leader of Troy’s survivors.
Tenor Bryan Hymel, in his Met debut, stars as the hero, Aeneas – the only real bridge between these two very different tragedies – who has been charged by the gods with leading the remaining Trojans to found the city of Rome. Susan Graham (who sang Berlioz’s Marguerite on Monday, is tonight’s Dido, Queen of Carthage, who gives Aeneas shelter and then becomes his lover. In the first two acts in Troy, Deborah Voigt (we’ve seen her recently as Brünnhilde in the Ring and Minnie in Fanciulla) sings Cassandra, the Trojan princess whose prescient warnings about the impending destruction of Troy go unheeded. The production, featuring choreography by Doug Varone, is led by then Met Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi.
We begin in Troy, where the Trojans are celebrating what they think is the withdrawal of the Greeks after 10 years of siege and leaving an offering to Pallas Athene of a large wooden horse. Only Cassandra is suspicious since she has seen her dead brother, the hero Hector, in a dream. Neither her father, King Priam, nor her fiancé, Coroebus, will listen as she foresees death for all of them. Aeneas arrives with news of the deaths of the priest Laocoön and his sons (he was the only one to take Cassandra’s side – and that’s a whole different story – plus a really beautiful sculpture!). Aeneas and Priam order the horse brought into the city. That night, however, Aeneas is also visited by Hector’s ghost who warns him to escape the city as it is his destiny to found a new empire that will someday rule the world.
As the Greeks ravage the city, Aeneas does what he can, but in the end, escapes with the treasures of Troy, leaving Cassandra to lead the women in mass suicide in order to avoid rape by the conquerors.
After the dramatic carnage in Troy, we are relieved to be in the flourishing new kingdom of Carthage, ruled by Queen Dido who fled Tyre following the murder of her husband. When the refugees from Troy arrive, they are welcomed but are almost immediately called into service to defend Dido from Iarbas, the Numidian king who is invading Carthage. When the victorious Aeneas returns to Carthage, the legendary love affair begins. There is much beautiful music to be heard, a lovely ballet (required in French grand opera) and the wonderful duet, “Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase” (Night of intoxication and ecstasy). But as is so often the case in opera, their happiness is not to last long — Aeneas continues to hear Mercury, messenger of the Gods, remind him of his duty – and his final destination – Italy.
Aeneas’ men and Dido’s sister and courtiers all worry that both are neglecting their duties in favor of their love. When Aeneas finally accepts his fate, he decides to see Dido once more but the ghosts (from 3 hours ago!) of Priam, Hector, Coroebus, and Cassandra appear to him, urging him to leave immediately. In the dramatic finale, Dido appears and curses Aeneas even as he swears he loves her. When he has gone, she orders a pyre built of all his gifts and remembrances of love. In yet another dramatic soprano (mezzo, actually) death scene, she stabs herself with his sword as the Carthaginians curse Aeneas and all his descendants.
1. Deborah Voigt as Cassandra in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” at the Met. Photo: Cory Weaver / Metropolitan Opera.
2. Deborah Voigt as Cassandra in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” at the Met. Photo: Cory Weaver / Metropolitan Opera.
3. Bryan Hymel as Aeneas (Énée) in the Metropolitan Opera production of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens.” Photo Credit…Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
4. Susan Graham as Dido (Didon) in the Metropolitan Opera production of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens.” Photo Credit…Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.