By Roy C. Dicks
CHICAGO — There’s an elite circle that U.S. opera companies join when they stage a full production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens. Lyric Opera of Chicago becomes only the fifth member of this exclusive group (after Opera Company of Boston, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Opera, and San Francisco Opera) with a world premiere run of five performances through Dec. 3.
Berlioz finished his five-act, five-hour work in 1858 but never saw a complete production. His grand depiction of Virgil’s Aeneid was deemed unstageable for many decades. “Complete” stagings in the 20th century were heavily cut, as were the first performances in the U.S. in the 1960s. Full U.S. productions (with only minor cuts) began in the early 1970s and have been offered only once or twice a decade since.
Therefore, opera fans, particularly Berlioz fanatics, owe the Lyric many thanks for mounting this challenging event. At the second performance on Nov. 17, high vocal standards produced many thrilling and lofty moments, despite some diminishment of the work’s epic nature through the conductor’s approach, the physical presentation, and the directorial concept.
The production’s crowning glory was Michael Black’s chorus, its presence enhancing many scenes, from the joyous opening of the first act in Troy to the fourth act’s luminous off-stage whisperings extolling night’s enchantment. The chorus also added hair-raising outcries in the first act’s description of monsters devouring priests and in the chilling calls for vengeance at final curtain.
Susan Graham’s traversal of Queen Dido’s range of emotions was the presentation’s other glory. Her interpretation has deepened with each return to the role over the years, here gripping in the monarch’s journey from sorrow and amorous passion to betrayal and suicide. Graham conserved her vocal resources at first, but once into the queen’s relationship with Aeneas, she poured out gorgeous tone, freely projected, with acting skills to match Berlioz’s every nuance.
Aeneas is a daunting role for any tenor, alternating between stentorian outbursts and hushed lyricism. Brandon Jovanovich was announced as having a cold at the Nov. 17 performance and seemed to hold back in his first scenes. But once into the Carthage acts, his voice was powerful or dulcet as needed and it held up through Aeneas’ punishing Act V aria, “Inutiles regrets!”
Christine Goerke sang forcefully as Cassandra, her voice easily heard over the orchestra. Her performance was hampered, however, by Tim Albery’s direction, which had her negotiating the set’s broken slabs and rickety stairs, resulting in awkward, cautious movements that negated much of the character’s fierce focus. Lucas Meachem’s Chorebus was appropriately manly and full-throated, although he, too, had to work around some uncomfortable staging.
An array of singers took the other roles with relaxed confidence and admirable technique. As Dido’s sister Anna, Okka von der Damerau displayed a warm, plummy mezzo-soprano and a knack for subtle comedy. Christian Van Horn filled Dido’s adviser Narbal with pleasingly rounded tone. Mingjie Lei beautifully floated Iopas’ hymn to Ceres, and Jonathan Johnson gave a moving wistfulness to Hylas’ song about missing home.
Lyric’s music director Andrew Davis is a highly praised Berlioz interpreter. For his first Les Troyens, he fired up the orchestra in blazing climaxes and demonstrated great sensitivity in lyrical passages. Indeed, the final half hour of Act IV, from the delicate ballet choreographed by Helen Pickett on through the achingly beautiful duet for Dido and Aeneas, was one of the most sublime operatic experiences this critic has witnessed.
But Davis often passed over small mood shifts, quick underscorings, and sudden atmospheric evocations with little emphasis, resulting in some generalized playing. The two Troy acts especially lacked urgency and thrust while his overall approach seemed to round off edges and smooth out dynamics.
Tobias Hoheisel’s black and white unit set, a rotating semi-circle of high walls, was suitably fire-singed and crumbling when representing besieged Troy’s parapets. But when it reappeared as the intact walls of Carthage, its plain severity gave no feeling of the city’s prosperity being celebrated at the opening of Part II (Acts III, IV, and V). Hoheisel’s costumes, seemingly from the early 1940s, were grungily military for Part I and dingily working class for Part II.
With so little variation in sets and costumes, the physical production seemed at odds with Berlioz’s vivid range of musical colors and his libretto’s dramatic undertakings. Projections designed by Illuminos, including the shadow of the Trojan horse passing by and the flames of Troy as it burned, added some welcome visual interest.
Apparently wanting to bring the story down into the everyday human world, Albery focused on characters’ intimate relationships. This worked better in Part II, especially after Dido and Aeneas fell in love, but the approach made Cassandra’s prophetic raving and rejection of Chorebus into a casual lover’s spat in Part I. Albery often seemed determined to go against what the music was signaling, especially in the upbeat openings of each part and in the chilling passages for Hector’s ghost. One additional de-energizing element was having characters sit casually while in the heat of anger or passion.
Compared to notable productions of the last two decades or so, Lyric’s reduction of Berlioz’s large-scale vision is less satisfying. Still, with opportunities so few (in the U.S. at least), fans and newcomers alike should give Lyric’s presentation serious consideration.
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Roy C. Dicks has been a music and theater critic for the daily Raleigh (NC) News & Observer since 1997. He also has written for Opera Quarterly and Dance Magazine.