Back in the fall - this seems a million years ago now - I swapped my Troyens subscription seats from a night assigned to Davida Karanas for Cassandre to one of the nights when Anna Caterina Antonacci was singing. I now wish I had not, what with Karanas leaving the production and Michaela Martens coming in, but I think I was sick or recovering from being sick that Saturday night, and anyway I did get to see Martens at the second performance.
What I did not expect, and neither did anyone else, was that star tenor Bryan Hymel would sing the first two performances, then get sick and miss the third, fourth, and fifth performances. So last Thursday, I heard Corey Bix as Enée. David Gockley came out to announce that Hymel was indisposed, which by then I had known for about two hours anyway, because when I arrived at the opera house I could see the ushers putting the announcement in the programs. Gockley mentioned that the part is "one of the five most difficult" tenor roles as a graceful way to tell us to give Bix the benefit of the doubt.
As I've noted, there aren't very many active singers who even know this role (I count nine at most), and the ones who do know it mostly have big careers and are not available to cover each other. I suppose if Roberto Alagna were on vacation and SFO asked him to sing a couple of Troyens performances, sure, he might do it, for the glory and the paycheck. But you can't count on a famous singer's availability in this situation. (That 1983 SFO Otello where Placido Domingo flew across country on a private jet, had a police escort from the airport, and the curtain went up at 10 p.m. or something? It was opening night, and saving the day must have been irresistible.)
So yes, I am completely happy to give Bix the benefit of the doubt, and more. I give him major props for a credible performance under difficult circumstances in, yes, one of the most difficult of tenor roles. He has a sizable, hefty, dark-toned tenor; unlike Hymel, he's not a high-note singer and so Enée is not a perfect fit. (Okay, must state clearly: Enée is a perfect fit for WHO, exactly?) He paced himself carefully, a smart thing to do in this situation, and this role, and sounded good in the big duet, which calls on the tenor's lyric capabilities rather than heroic.
It was, overall, an honorable performance, and SFO is lucky to have him on hand.
For those of us who've heard both Hymel and Bix, it's also an object lesson in what makes a star. Bix is a big, tall guy, and yet he didn't present as a heroic figure; Hymel looks like a gods-driven man of action, somehow giving the impression that he is about to
run off and found the Roman Empire dash across the stage and into battle when he's standing still with a sword in hand. And Hymel's vocal self-confidence and ability to pop out those high notes make a huge difference in this opera.
At least some of this is teachable; you can learn how to present with self-confidence, or more self-confidence, with various kinds of training, whether martial arts, public speaking, or acting. Bix made what looked like a self-deprecating gesture during the bows, which I took as a modest acknowledgement that he wasn't quite what the audience was hoping for. I think he is going to have a decent career, probably in the regional companies, because there certainly IS a need for reliable singers with good, beefy voices at all levels. And he has sung a few major roles with more visible companies; Bacchus at Glimmerglass, Erik with LA Opera, and so on. So keep an eye on him; maybe he will make the jump to stardom.
As for the rest of the performance, I'm still not entirely happy with Antonacci. Sitting in the dress circle, I could hear her better than in the orchestra, but her voice still seems too lyric, too small, for this role in a huge house. At the end of Act I, for example, Cassandre is obviously supposed to flood the hall with sound, but Antonacci just can't do it. "La prise de Troie" sagged a few times, and I think it might have been because Runnicles had to tone down the orchestra to properly support her without drowning her out. A friend pooh-poohed me when I mentioned her voice size as an issue, saying it's Enée and Didon who are supposed to fill the hall, but look at the great Cassandres of the past 50 years and you see a string of dramatic voices: Crespin, Verrett, Ludwig, Norman. (I have a fantasy that a certain dramatic soprano with a great lower register might be learning the role, and she would be a sensational Cassandre, based on the available evidence, including a known ability to outsing a very large orchestra.)
On the other hand, Susan Graham. Oh, man, she was even better than opening night, really heartbreaking. She cracked a couple of times in the parting scene with Enée, which reinforced what she is putting into the performance. A great, great assumption; I'm lucky to be seeing it.
More to come, because I have a ticket for Troyens no. 6.