Times are tough for American opera companies right now, with high-risk artistic projects being canceled right and left. Even the mighty Met is feeling the pinch, but one would never guess that from the new production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens, an epic undertaking planned back in a more bullish operatic era and probably the last Met extravagance we’ll be seeing for some time. The rather star-crossed Berlioz—who never saw the complete opera staged—would surely rejoice that his long-neglected masterpiece just made it under the fiscal wire in time for his bicentennial this year.
The musical quality of the performance is high—superb, in fact. I hold the heretical opinion that not everything James Levine conducts is sheer perfection, but his way with Les Troyens comes close. The proportions of this long opera have been astutely gauged, carefully presented, and stunningly realized by the orchestra, especially the woodwinds for which Berlioz wrote so exquisitely. Each section of the score follows the other with measured inevitability and seamless precision. The musical sequence of Act Four, for example, unfolds quite literally breathlessly, as each set piece melts into the next. The quirky court dances, Iopas’s lyrical paean to peace and plenty, the playful quintet in which the love of Dido and Aeneas is publicly acknowledged, the serene septet that blesses their union, that heart-stopping love duet—all absolutely gorgeous.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s Dido is exactly what one had hoped for from this great singer, an artist to her fingertips. It’s difficult to know what to admire most, her sovereign musicianship, finished vocal technique, or mesmerizing stage presence as she develops the character from a caring queen to a desperate woman in love and finally a figure of tragic stature. As Cassandra in part one of the opera, Deborah Voigt gives a comparable performance, vocally majestic and a figure of poignant alienation in her vain efforts to warn the Trojans of incipient Grecian treachery. A dramatically slimmed-down Ben Heppner is the Aeneas we have been waiting for, equally effective as an ardent lover and a martial hero. And so what if he missed that awkwardly exposed high C in his last-act aria? Most tenors come to grief here, except perhaps Georges Thill, that paradigm of yore in his classic recording of the piece. The smaller roles are all in capable hands, in particular the Iopas of Matthew Polenzani and Hylas of Gregory Turay, sweet-voiced tenors who make the most of their lovely arias.
No production of Les Troyens will solve all of its challenges, but the new one, directed by Francesca Zambello and designed by the late Maria Bjørnson, does represent an improvement over the clumsy compromises of the Met’s previous staging. The successes and misfires come in about equal measure. The basic shape of the set is cannily structured to serve the composer’s dramatic purposes, an upper level with a circular opening in the rear to accommodate processions and rituals with the front stage floor reserved for more intimate scenes. Although architecturally practical, the metal-and-plastic appearance of the set is disappointingly antiseptic, while many of the accoutrements are downright ugly. The weird object in Dido’s apartments, possibly a huge terrarium containing repulsive green plants that look vaguely radioactive, is bad enough; worse, Aeneas’s sacred relics on Dido’s funeral pyre look like a pile of junk that might have fallen off an Okie jalopy. The wooden horse, on the other hand, is cleverly managed, first entering on the upper ramp and then reappearing on a drop curtain as a gigantic, threatening silhouette—an effective solution to an almost impossible bit of stage business.
Many of the set’s accoutrements are downright ugly. Aeneas’s sacred relics on Dido’s funeral pyre look like a pile of junk that might have fallen off an Okie jalopy.
Zambello’s direction scores best in the crowd scenes, where she finds ingenious ways to characterize and contrast two very different societies, the fated Trojans and the prosperous Carthaginians. The individuals of the drama are less confidently handled, and some of the details are peculiar, to say the least. Dido and Cassandra both melodramatically drag a curtain across the stage as a preface to their respective suicides, thereby suggesting a symbolic relationship between two characters where none exists. Turning Ascanius from a playful adolescent into an obnoxious juvenile delinquent seems gratuitous, and singing that divine love duet to an onstage audience of spooning Carthaginian-Trojan couples is truly a ghastly idea. Equally misconceived is the awkward aerial ballet during the Royal Hunt and Storm interlude, as dancing doubles for Dido and Aeneas perform a high-wire act.
New Met productions are seldom carved in stone, and many of the ideas that fail to come off in this ambitious staging of Les Troyens will surely be reconsidered and eventually replaced with something more appropriate. In the meantime, the miraculous score is nobly treated by Levine and a superior cast of singers, and for that alone, the Met’s efforts on behalf of Berlioz deserved all the opening-night bravos.
The second salvo in the Berlioz Bicentennial celebrations came a few nights later, when the New York Philharmonic presented the mammoth Requiem, astonishingly the only commission the composer ever received (in 1837 at age 33) throughout his entire career. This one-time-only event actually kicks off a two-season-long tribute to Berlioz planned by the Philharmonic, a mini-festival that promises rarities as well as the more familiar scores. For those who cannot get enough Berlioz, today’s most admired conductor of his music, Sir Colin Davis, arrives in Avery Fisher Hall next month with the London Symphony Orchestra to play La Damnation de Faust, the Roméo et Juliette Symphony, the Symphonie Fantastique, and Harold in Italy.
Charles Dutoit, a noted Berlioz specialist himself, guided the Philharmonic and the Westminster Symphonic Choir through the Requiem, and a handsome performance it was. Perhaps Dutoit’s most impressive achievement lay in his ability to express the music’s austere eloquence without in any way compromising its dramatic force or instrumental grandeur—not many conductors are able to pull off this tricky balancing act. The singing, both the choral work and Paul Groves’s plangent tenor solo in the Sanctus, rose to the occasion in fine style. Perhaps the sonorities of the Berlioz Requiem will always sound best in the huge resonant space for which it was designed and where it was first heard, the Chapel of Les Invalides in Paris, but I daresay the composer would have had few complaints about this stimulating performance.
Opera by Hector Berlioz, at the Metropolitan Opera.
By Berlioz. New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall.