The season is still quite young and Lyric Opera has scored its second blockbuster triumph with its first-ever staging of Hector Berlioz‘s epic music-drama, “Les Troyens”. The work is so massive in scale (monumental chorus, orchestra, ballet company and over 20 named roles) that only four American opera companies–the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Los Angeles Opera and the Opera Company of Boston–have presented the full 5-hour score up to now.
Cost considerations most likely kept Lyric from mounting its own production before now. Spared the expense of building the Trojan horse, Dido’s royal palace, the cave in Act Four and aided by cost-saving advances in set design, lighting and video technology, Lyric was able to offer a thrilling, richly satisfying production, greatly abetted by an ingenious, versatile set design by Tobias Hoheisel.
Berlioz, sadly, never heard a complete performance of “Les Troyens” (The Trojans) during his lifetime. Paris, in fact, did not hear the work in its entirety until 2003, 140 years after its truncated world premiere. San Francisco Opera was the first American company to perform it in 1966 with the Metropolitan Opera following in 1973.
Lyric’s success starts with its matchless casting in the lead roles of Cassandra, Dido and Aeneas and fine talent in key supporting roles, particularly with Anna, sister of Dido, and their melting Act 2 duet and tenor Mingjie Lei’s bell-clear aria as the poet, Iopas. All gave Lyric’s production a rock-solid foundation.
Cassandra, the king of Troy’s daughter, was sung by the formidable soprano, Christine Goerke, who gave such an unforgettable performance in Lyric’s “Elektra” several seasons ago. She was splendid at Sunday’s opening. And Dido, Queen of Carthage, was mezzo-soprano, Susan Graham, an equally celebrated singing actress who has made Dido one of her signature roles. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich was a vocally strong, convincing Aeneas.
I found Berlioz’s opera, a dramatization of two episodes from Virgil’s “Aeneid”, had a satisfying symmetrical structure. Part 1 (Acts 1 & 2), the siege of Troy, focuses on war and destruction while Part 2 (Acts 3 & 4), set in Carthage, stresses love and deliverance. Where Cassandra’s voice conveyed fear and urgency, Dido’s was warm and lilting. Act 5, unfortunately, ends with Aeneas’ abandonment of Dido who kills herself after placing a curse on Aeneas and his followers.
Much of the score’s magic lies in Berlioz’s masterful blending of music and story. The orchestra is a full partner, in seamless sync with the singers, expressing and accenting the action and emotional tone. Sir Andrew Davis and the Lyric orchestra excelled. And the massive choral forces delivered soul-stirring sounds in Act 1 and Act 2’s opening.
“Les Troyens” is one of Lyric’s seven new productions this season, part of General Director, Anthony Freud‘s ambitious plan to broaden Lyric’s audience appeal and excitement. He appears to be taking a page from Peter Gelb’s Met Opera playbook. Let’s hope Freud is more skillful in matching artistic with financial success.
Don’t let the thought of spending a 5-hour evening at Lyric keep you from enjoying a great evening of musical theater. Only four more performances of this rarely-performed masterpiece remain. Catch it before it ends on December 3. For ticket information, go to www.lyricopera.org or call the box office at 312/827-5600.