Sunday, May 10, 2015

What He Said.

Metropolitan Opera production photo

Over at SF Civic Center, SF Mike has a blog post called Why You Should Buy a Ticket to The Trojans. I'm here to tell you that he is right. If you are reading this blog and you can possibly get to one of the six performances coming up at San Francisco Opera, just buy a ticket. You don't need to have heard or seen it (heck, it's never been performed in full here, only in a heavily cut version 47 years ago); just go. Take our word for it. You need to see this, and it's so expensive to produce, with its immense cast and long running time, that you might not get another chance.

Les Troyens, to give it its French name, is sui generis, a giant epic that sounds like nothing else. Berlioz: a genius, so underappreciated that it wasn't until 90 years after his death that this great, great opera was performed in full.

If you need any convincing, get yourself the 1983 Met video, or the video of the Scala/ROH/SFO production (with some of the same cast members). Or get one of Colin Davis's two recordings; while you get Jon Vickers on Davis I, you also get the paint-peeling Berit Lindholm as Cassandra. I picked up Davis I, used, more than ten years ago and was hooked by the end of the first chorus.

And get yourself a ticket. There are quite a few left for the performances that Davida Karanas was originally to sing.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but you'll need more than that to convince me to attend a double-length opera based on one of the most boring books I've ever read. Not just because it's so rarely performed, surely?

Lisa Hirsch said...

It's one of the greatest works in the operatic repertory, which I thought was implicit in my posting and explicit in Mike's. But that might not matter to you, since you don't care for opera.

Daniel Wolf said...

I agree with you entirely, Lisa. Les Troyens plays by different rules from more familiar repertoire. The harmonies function differently, the rhythms and diction are different, and it's an epic told more in a style one might recognize from Indian theatre or wayang -- it's episodic and focused on characters rather than a continuous, filled-in dramatic narrative; a musical-literary meditation, if you will. (Knowing that is also a key to the Damnation of Faust and Romeo and Juliet.)

Anonymous said...

Well, it is true that "opera" is not much more enticing a word for me than are "double-length" or "boring".

Anonymous said...

It's possible to exaggerate Troyens' uniqueness. In some ways it's quite traditional, but based on traditions that we're not very familiar with anymore: ancient Greek drama and its French neo-classic adaptation, French folk melodies, church modes, public ceremonial music from the Napoleonic period, and so on. When I first saw Iphigénie en Tauride I was startled at how like Troyens it sounded, especially in the matter of prosody and declamation, but also in its dramaturgy. (Of course Berlioz was very explicit about his debt to Gluck, so I shouldn't have been startled.)

From what I have read, I gather that the unique sound of Berlioz's harmony comes from his tendency to build harmony from the melody down, rather than from the bass up, Bach-style (so he's the anti-Mendelssohn, who he said was "rather too fond of the dead"), and also possibly from the fact that his instrument was the guitar and not the piano. This leads to unconventional bass lines and voice leadings, given coherence through the magical orchestrations. Piano reductions of his scores are essentially impossible -- all their distinctive qualities disappear.

Troyens is indeed structured as a series of tableaus rather than a continuous action, but then so are all of Berlioz's other works (including his literary works). If you read his descriptions of the genesis of his multi-movement compositions, you can see that he worked from the details up. He would fall in love with a work of literature and seize one by one on various aspects of it that he could musicalize. In this way he would build up a suite of movements, and then work to knit them together.

Romeo and Juliet seems to me to suffer somewhat from the resulting discontinuities -- I love all the individual parts of it, but I'm not sure the over-all shape is quite satisfying. The Damnation of Faust, on the other hand, works really well -- surprisingly, since the core of it, the "8 Scenes from Faust", had been written and even published 20 years previously.

And Troyens seems to me completely successful -- I'm never aware when I'm seeing it that it doesn't flow like Wagner or Strauss flow. Maybe the reason is that he had been thinking about it for years before he started to write it, so that the pieces were already in place before he even put pen to paper (he wrote the libretto straight through before composing, which he never did for any other piece). Or maybe it's just that he got better and better over time at this kind of construction.

Which makes it a shame that he was too ill and/or discouraged to undertake what would have been his next piece: an opera on Anthony and Cleopatra.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I read the Aeneid was I was about 18, and I didn't like it much then. I'm taking another run at it and liking it better, but Troyens is utterly gripping drama; it does not tell the whole story of the source material. It's in two parts:

I - The Fall of Troy. This part belongs to Cassandra, who knows that bad things are about to happen. You see the fall (Trojan horse to the suicides of the women and Aeneas's escape) entirely through her eyes.

II - The Trojans at Carthage. Dido & Aeneas's affair, his departure, her death.

No travels, no endless discussions of the gods, etc.

Lisa Hirsch said...

And you know, K., you don't have to go. This posting is primarily for people who like opera and might be wavering for some reason, just as pointers to performances of Boulez are primarily for people who like high modernist music. I'm not expecting to make any converts among people who don't care for opera or don't care for high modernist music.

CruzSF said...

I'm looking forward to this production very much. I made sure to get a ticket for a night with Antonacci because I'd never experienced her performances in-person and have been impressed with the recordings I've heard of her. If I can swing it, I'm going to try to attend a 2nd one, as well.

BTW, my only experience with Les Troyens is with the one the Met Opera broadcast in HD. Despite some of the underperforming members of that cast, the work still impressed me enough for me to hope and dream that we'd get a staging here. It IS longer than many works but far from boring, IMO.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Cruz, the Met's 1983 Troyens video has an absolutely hair-raising performance by Jessye Norman, as Cassandre. I have just gotten to the Carthage scenes, so no report there.

It's available on Met on Demand, if you subscribe - if not, you can sign up for a trial week free, then cancel.

Anonymous said...

Well, you did write very generally and imperatively.

"If you are reading this blog"
That's me.

"and you can possibly get to one of the six performances coming up at San Francisco Opera"
That would be me, too.

"just buy a ticket ... just go. Take our word for it. You need to see this."
If that's not an imperative addressed to the entire above audience, I don't know what would be.

And that's why I responded.

CruzSF said...

Thanks, Lisa, for the info on the 1983 Met Troyens, and on Met on Demand's trial period, which I didn't know about.

Lisa Hirsch said...

You're welcome! It was a pleasant surprise for me. I will probably get a subscription - because there are enough operas there I'd like to see but don't really want to buy, because I will watch them ONCE. The exception is From the House of the Dead.

K, yes, I was, you're right. Forgot to mention "If you like Berlioz" and "if you like choral music," of which there is a lot.

OTOH said...

By the way, speaking of opera video, and knowing how impressed you were with this music at Santa Fe, here's what looks to be a treat. The Royal Opera did Szymanowski's Król Roger earlier this month, to mostly rave reviews, and a live stream they did of it is now on YouTube. Getting ready to watch it right now...