Saturday, December 31, 2016

Les Troyens (The Trojans) at the Lyric Opera

Looking back upon the many wonderful musical performances I took in this past year, the highlight was the Chicago premiere last month of Les Troyens (The Trojans), the opera masterpiece from the prolific French composer Hector Berlioz.  The libretto, which he wrote in addition to the music, is faithfully based on sections of Virgil’s Aeneid, a foundational work in Western literature, which tells the story of Aeneas and his band of Trojans who survive the fall of Troy and wander the Mediterranean to reach the shores of Italy where they are destined to found the great city of Rome.  The opera focuses on two parts of that epic story – the fall of Troy and the Trojans’ time at the North African city of Carthage where its Queen Dido and Aeneas experience the great love affair that ends tragically when the reluctant Aeneas is ordered by the gods to leave for Italy to fulfill his destiny.  

"The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas," by English painter Nathaniel Dance-Holland
Les Troyens is considered one of the gems of Grand Opera, large-scale works with huge casts, elaborate sets, and evocative ballet which portray some great historical theme.  Berlioz fell in love with the Aeneid after reading it in Latin as a boy and bringing the story to the operatic stage was the toil of his later life.  It is now regarded as his opus magnus.  The story of the Aeneid, particularly its first half which mirrors Homer’s Odyssey, is still read in high school Latin courses (like mine of some years past) and still captures the imagination of many a young man. 

The opera is full of soaring melodies that flesh out the mythological historical drama.  The long, elaborate love duet (Nuit d'ivresse et d'extase infinie!) is one of the most beautiful in all of opera.  An Act 4 quintet is a particular favorite of mine.  In fact, the score is so full of treats that the two most recognizable tenor arias are given to singers other than the lead tenor role of Aeneas.  In Dido’s touching farewell aria (Adieu, fière cité), Berlioz reprises the main melodic line from the earlier sumptuous love duet just for a moment, then ends it all on a somber note, reflecting the love destroyed by fate and the gods.  Opera at its grandest. 

The singing was excellent – strong, clear, and passionate.  The strong cast was led by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as the ill-fated Queen Dido, Brandon Jovanovich as the conflicted hero Aeneas, and soprano Christine Goerke as the doomed Trojan seer Cassandra.    

The set was of the barren, minimalist variety one has come to expect these days in opera, although for this grand dramatic story I was expecting more.  One example: the cave scene in which Dido and Aeneas consummate their love and create their bond is not shown, thus omitting an important event that drives the plot.  Another: nary a glimpse of the Trojan fleet along the Carthaginian shoreline, where some of the events take place.  At the opera’s end, in the libretto Dido’s sister Anna and minister Narbal curse at the departing Trojans in their ships, but in the Lyric production there are no ships at which to gesture, so the two just sing at the audience.  There was creativity nonetheless; most notably, the Trojan Horse made its appearance as the arresting projection of its giant, awesome shadow on the war-ravaged walls of Troy. 

The costuming, though, was an affront – intellectually vapid and artistically offensive.  Rather than transporting the audience’s imagination back to the days of Troy and Carthage, the director Tim Albery and his accomplices sneered at the audience and degraded the masterpiece by costuming the characters in an incoherent array of random fashions of the last hundred years or so.  Ancient Queen Dido, for example, when first introduced is wearing a modern women’s business suit, and later the noble warrior Aeneas wears a cardigan sweater over what looked like a pair of chino pants and boat shoes.  Not only were such visuals ridiculous, reflecting poorly on both the immediate perpetrators and Lyric’s oversight, but some of the story’s drama got lost.  For example, at the end Dido orders Aeneas’s armor, clothing, and weapons burned on a great pyre.  Aeneas had left them behind at the palace when he abruptly sailed for Italy with his people on strict orders from the impatient gods.  In the story Dido climbs up onto the pyre and suddenly slays herself with Aeneas’s sword.  The symbolism of all this was lost in the Lyric’s production because placed on the pyre were no armor and sword but just some unidentifiable and formless cloth items (maybe that cardigan sweater!).  Dido’s kills herself not with the sword of the departed Aeneas, her unfaithful lover, but with some random dagger that was lying around.

One final point about director Albery, who displays an attitude all too common these days.  From "A Talk with the Director" in the Program Guide:  "You could say [that Aeneas's decision to leave Dido to found his own great city of Rome rather than marry Dido and become king of the city that she created] is a metaphor for male ego and ambition.... He's got his Italy right there, but he just can't accept it."  What a misunderstanding of Aeneas's motivations and of themes of the Aeneid – of self-sacrifice, of duty and honor, to accomplish a goal greater than one's own self-defined pleasures.  It's much easier, of course, for this director to alter the story of the Aeneid than to write his own opera, for that would require real effort.  Apparently it’s too much these days to expect solipsistic directors to faithfully portray an opera in its proper place and time rather than to degrade it to satisfy their own juvenile transgressive needs.

But despite the disappointing visuals, the story and the music were all there, plenty enough for the mind and the ear.  The Aeneid is a great narrative, a poem actually, full of the greatest human drama, and Berlioz brought much of it to the opera stage.  After one hundred and fifty years, Les Troyens finally made it to Chicago.  We can warmly thank the Lyric Opera for that.

R Balsamo

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