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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Opera Review: A Horse of Different Colors

The Metropolitan Opera revives Les Troyens.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pyre woman: Didon (Susan Graham) goes to her death in Act V of Les Troyens.
Photo by Cory Weaver © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
Hector Berlioz' Les Troyens is the most ambitious of 19th century French operas. Clocking in at five acts and five hours (counting intermissions) the opera has divided opinion since its premiere, when Paris' Theatre-Lyrique would only present the second half of the opera as Les Troyens à Carthage. The first half, La Prise de Troie was never performed in the composer's lifetime.

On Monday night, the second performance of the Met's current revival made a good case for the full five acts, performed in one night as a unified whole. Presented here in Francesca Zambello's inventive 2003 production, the two "halves" of Troyens balance each other out: with the grim atmosphere of the beseiged Troy contrasting with the sunny industry of Carthage.

Enée (Aeneas) is the luckless protagonist, who (eventually) founds the city of Rome. Here, the role was taken by Marcello Giordani, whose blustery tenor mangled his big entrance in Act I. (Enée narrates the discovery of the horse in a burst of notes that is a challenge for any singer.) Mr. Giordani improved in the central acts of the opera, but the long night and difficult writing clearly took their toll in his final confrontation with Susan Graham's Didon.

Ms. Graham refers to Didon as the "Everest" of French opera parts. Last night, the Texan singer was a sure and nimble guide up the mountain. She fascinated from her entrance in Act III, making the Queen a regal, riveting presence and a fully developed character. The long string of arias and ensembles in Act IV (ending with the famous love duet) was a balm for the ears, guided by Fabio Luisi's careful conducting. With Mr. Giordani, she created a Zen-like state of aural bliss that made many wish the opera ended at that point

Act V, chronicling the flight of the Trojans and Didon's subsequent suicide was devastating and difficult. A consummate actres, Ms. Graham conveyed Didon's mood-swings through voice, gesture and facial expression, culminating in frustration, grief and white-hot rage. That last ensemble, where Didon and her followers curse the coming glory of Rome proved a coup de théâtre, thanks to Ms. Graham's singing and the expert choral support.

Deborah Voigt's Cassandre is more problematic. The big opening aria did not have the bone-chilling power that was present in 2003.  There is a lack of vocal bloom (thanks to less diaphragm support) and occasional problems being heard over the thundering orchestra and chorus. She compensated as the Trojan Horse rolled in, showing her two decades' experience with this role. Torch in hand, the Met's current Brunnhilde was most compelling in the final fall of Troy, leading the Trojan women in ritual suicide. For this scene, Ms. Voigt deployed all of her remaining vocal resources to deliver a thrilling climax to the opera's first half. She did not appear as Cassandre's ghost in Act V.
 Deborah Voigt (center) leads the Trojan women in ritual suicide in Act II of Les Troyens.
Photo by Cory Weaver © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Met found a strong supporting cast, drawn from the upcoming generation of young talent. Julie Boulianne stood out in the trouser role of Ascagne, Enée's son caught up in his father's wake.
Stephan Gaertner stepped in for an ill Dwayne Croft as Chorèbe, Cassandre's puzzled (and equally doomed) consort. David Crawford impressed as the Ghost of Hector, despite entering to some cheesy pyrotechnics.

In Carthage, Didon's sister Anna was sung by mezzo Karen Cargill in an effective, sympathetic supporting performance. The ever reliable Kwangchal Youn provided a steady bottom end as Narbal. Tenor Eric Cutler made the most of his Act IV aria as Iopas, only to be outdone by the promising Paul Appleby in Hylas' Act V song. This is one of the most familiar numbers from the later pages of this opera. Mr. Appleby made it sound fresh and yearning, helped by sensitive accompaniment from the pit. He is a future star at this house.

At the heart of Troyens is the orchestra and chorus, Berlioz' favorite tools for conveying images of epic classical grandeur. Under Fabio Luisi, tempos were relatively foursquare and brisk, with narrative accompaniment chosen over big dramatic moments. The big Trojan March in Act I dragged like the slow, heavy weight of the Horse. The later acts were better, as Mr. Luisi delineated the fine woodwind writing and leitmotivic nature of the score, showing the good sense in presenting this massive opera in a single night.

Donald Palumbo's choral forces have to portray Trojans, Greeks and Carthaginians, making each ethnic group its own against a thundering orchestra. The choristers were precise and tight from the almost-fugue that starts the opera to their final invocation of Hades before Didon's sacrificial pyre. Francesca Zambello's staging tries to show every one of  Berlioz' extravagant libretto cues and ideas, sometimes tripping over itself in its commendable attempt to be true to the text.

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