‘Troyens’ Triumphs In San Francisco’s Splendid Staging

The opening chorus in the San Francisco Opera production of 'Les Troyens.'  (Photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)
The opening chorus in the San Francisco Opera production of Berlioz’s ‘Les Troyens.’
(Photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)
By John Rockwell

SAN FRANCISCO — David Gockley is ending his penultimate season as general director of the San Francisco Opera with a three-opera spring season. It has consisted of an undercast, mostly tepidly received Le Nozze di Figaro; a mostly poorly received (and deservedly so, thought I) world premiere of Marco Tutino’s Two Women; and Berlioz’s Les Troyens.

Anna Caterina Antonacci  is a "wild-eyed, prophetic" Cassandra.
Anna Caterina Antonacci is a “wild-eyed, prophetic” Cassandra.

Of the three, Les Troyens was clearly the centerpiece, and it lived up to expectations at the June 16 performance. As someone currently involved in a forthcoming Oxford University Press book about the evolution of the operatic canon, I found the fate of Berlioz’s masterpiece a fascinating case study. Composed in the mid-1850s, it had to wait until 1890 in Karlsruhe for its complete world premiere. The conductor was the Wagnerian Felix Mottl, who revived it over the next few seasons, sometimes in two nights, sometimes in one, and subsequently there were periodic other productions, mostly in Germany.

New England Opera Theater put on a truncated, reportedly ramshackle version in 1955, and San Francisco Opera did it in 1966 and 1967 (billed as the “professional stage premiere,” a swipe at Boris Goldovsky in Boston and presumably meaning the U.S. premiere), with a run-out down to Los Angeles in 1968, but that production was also severely cut. Boston re-entered the lists in 1972, with a mostly complete version courtesy of Sarah Caldwell, and the Met came on board in 1973, also complete. But productions and revivals are still sparse, given the enormous effort and cost of any responsible staging.

San Francisco’s new Troyens, which receives its final performance on July 1, was more than responsible. This was a co-production with the Royal Opera, La Scala, and Vienna. However David McVicar’s staging was received in London, in San Francisco it seemed convincingly grand. “Grand” it certainly was; “convincingly” because McVicar updated the Trojan/Roman imagery to the time of the opera’s composition, which was also the time of the Crimean War, often called the first modern war. That meant anachronistic uniforms, which didn’t trouble me, nor did the plethora of what looked like metal detritus (actually a lot of plastic), shades of Mad Max, nor the spectacular metal Trojan Horse, the pyre on which Dido immolates herself, and, finally, a giant Centurion’s head, symbolizing the rise of the Roman Empire.

The entrance of Dido (Susan Graham) in Act 3 of "Les Troyens.'
The entrance of Dido (Susan Graham) in Act 3 of “Les Troyens.’

The Carthaginian scenes had a warm, sandstone, North African feeling, with flowing and brightly colored robes. The eccentricity here was a terrific model city that rose skywards to become an inverted disc (blue at night, yellow in daytime), and finally lay crashed and split at the end. The one real oddity was the decision to play the next-to-last scene in front of a black drop curtain. Some found that the simplicity focused attention on the drama and the singers, and maybe backstage needed time to assemble the final scene. But the protracted black backdrop just looked like something had gone wrong and seemed an outright miscalculation.

Es Devlin, with a wide-ranging background in opera, theater, and rock spectacles, did the sets, and Lynne Page was billed as the “original choreographer,” with Gemma Payne as associate choreographer. The two of them made a real narrative out of the “Royal Hunt and Storm.” Leah Hausman was credited as “revival director.” Since this was a co-production, it might have been nice if McVicar himself and others on his team could have made it out to San Francisco.

Musically, with one unfortunate exception, most everything was first class: with this Troyens and Die Meistersinger in the fall, Gockley is pulling out all the stops, artistically and budgetarily, in his prolonged farewell.

The love duet between Dido and Aeneas in Act 4 of 'Les Troyens."
The love duet between Dido and Aeneas in Act 4 of ‘Les Troyens.”

To get the exception out of the way, apparently only shortly before the performance, Bryan Hymel, the Aeneas, called in sick. His cover was Corey Bix, who under the circumstances did a noble job; the rest of the cast applauded him warmly during the final curtain calls. Still, he sounded more lyric than heroic, his tenor throaty until he worked up to some pealing high notes, and he was pitch-approximate around the break. He also stood stolidly, seemingly surer about the music than the staging. That all said, however, he held up his end of the deal.

The rest of the cast was top drawer. Anna Caterina Antonacci is not so much a soprano and mezzo hybrid, as she’s sometimes described, as a soprano with a weak bottom. Much of Cassandra’s music lies low, more suitable for a mezzo and often cast with one, and here Antonacci sounded underpowered, reportedly paler than Michaela Martens, who performed it on the 12th. Still, her middle and top sounded secure and assertive, her French was excellent, and her acting remarkable. If you have a taste for a Cassandra who’s a bit mad, Antonacci delivered that wild-eyed, prophetic, despairing cauldron of emotions to perfection. Invoking Callas can be tiresome, but she was worthy of the invocation.

Dido (Graham) prepares to die on the pyre at the opera's end.
Dido (Graham) prepares to die on the pyre at the opera’s end.

Even better was Susan Graham as Dido. Tall and properly imperious, Graham moved from regal graciousness to wild passion to even wilder despair to noble resignation in a truly commanding realization of the role. Vocally, too, she surmounted every obstacle, bringing both strength and beauty to her singing. In 1966-8, Régine Crespin sang both Cassandra and Dido in San Francisco, and Shirley Verrett did the same at the Met. It would be interesting to hear if Graham could pull off that feat.

The supporting cast was strong. Best of all was Sasha Cooke as Dido’s loving sister Anna, with a warm presence and a dulcet mezzo. Christian Van Horn made a resonant Narbal. Of the two set-piece tenors, Chong Wang sang more sweetly as Hylas than René Barbera did as Iopas.

Presiding over all the musical performances was Donald Runnicles, in a welcome return to the San Francisco Opera podium, where he was music director from 1992 to 2009. Runnicles has led Troyens before and clearly loves this lovable score. He delivered a sovereign performance from everyone on stage, backstage, and in the pit, including the expanded orchestra (72 in the pit, 23 offstage) and the augmented chorus (90),  plus 16 principal singers, 18 dancers and acrobats, and 10 extras, making for 134, all according to the company’s helpful statistics. There was plenty of drive, but what one remembered most was the luxurious beauty of the lyrical and erotic scenes.

The company reported tiny cuts of eight minutes, but the evening still lasted nearly five hours with two intermissions. The performance more than justified that length.

Arts critic John Rockwell worked at The New York Times as classical music critic, reporter and editor; chief rock critic; European cultural correspondent; editor of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section; arts columnist; and chief dance critic. He also directed the Lincoln Center Festival for its first four years. A prolific freelancer, he has published books on 20th-century American composition in all genres, Frank Sinatra and Lars von Trier, and edited a compilation of his own journalistic writing as well as a coffee-table book on the 1960s.