Monday, June 29, 2015

Les Troyens: 2.5 and Counting

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.


Anonymous said...

Are you proposing a cast for a revival in, say, five years? Such as Goerke, Hymel (fingers crossed), Cooke? Sounds great to me.

This is a fun game. So I suggest Tamara Mumford as Anna: she plays Martha in "The Gospel According to the Other Mary", and is closer to being a contralto than anyone else I've heard lately.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Potential casting for a future Troyens, anywhere:

Enée - Hymel or Jovanovich
Cassandre - Goerke (or Stemme)
Didon - Cooke (or Graham)
Anna - Mumford or Meredith Arwady, also approaching real contralto (Podles won't be singing five years from now, is my bet)

The remaining roles are not tough to fill. A pair of tenors with beautiful lyric voices, a good bass for Narbal.

I've been thinking, with no conclusion, about the kind of voice Berlioz might have wanted for Enée: the kind of tenor who sings with voix mixte, or a from-the-chest guy? I don't know enough about his requirements or mid-19th c. French singing to say.

If SF Opera revives this, the obvious time would be during the centennial season, 2022-23. They'll need at least one big spectacle and the Ring is being revived in 2017-18, meaning June, 2018. I suppose they could do the Ring again in June 2023, but....that's even more expensive than Troyens.

Chanterelle said...

Michael Spyres! His voice might --might--be a bit smaller than Hymel's, but it's a beautiful instrument, he's skilled and fearless in this scary French rep, and he's an intelligent musician.

I have always been less than over the moon about Antonacci. She certainly carried TWO WOMEN, but -- it's not even a question of not enough volume, it's an intimate way of singing that doesn't work in the War Memorial or the Met. Though it didn't really work for me at the 1200-seat Opéra Comique or in recital, either.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I will look up Spyres. That is fascinating about Antonacci. She was great in her 1998 SFO appearance, when she and Gary Rideout were the only singers on stage who could actually sing their roles (Adalgisa and Flavio, respectively, in Norma). Carol Vaness was badly miscast as Norma; Michael Sylvester was an underpowered and undistinguished Pollione. So I was looking forward to her return....

JSC said...

Now I am reading that Hymel will be singing closing night. I don't want to get my hopes up too high in case he doesn't but as of right now, I am pretty sure he will be. :-)

I found Bix to be servicible and put in an admirable performance, but I really missed the middle part of "Inutiles regrets" (the 'Ah! quand viendra...supremes adieux' part) that was cut when I saw it on the 25th.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Certainly hoping for it!

Anonymous said...

I suppose any tenor who sings Benvenuto Cellini is at least a candidate for Enée. Cellini is similarly high, long, and complex, but doesn't require the power that Enée does. Nicolai Gedda was an ideal Cellini. The people I'm aware of who have been singing Cellini are Gregory Kunde, John Osborn, and Michael Spyres.

ENO did a production of Cellini in June of 2014, directed by Terry Gilliam, in English and with Michael Spyres: it looks to me overstuffed with gimmicks (well, Terry Gilliam) but seems to have been successful. It was broadcast in cinemas, so maybe a DVD will show up sometime.

The Netherlands Opera just did it (in May), this time in French with John Osborn. The Liceu in Barcelona is doing it in November (John Osborn again, with one performance by someone named Enea Scala -- how's that for a Berliozian name). The Rome opera is doing it in March of 2016 (Osborn again), and the Bastille opera has it planned for the 2017-18 season, part of a Berlioz cycle that has in consecutive seasons Damnation of Faust, Béatrice et Bénédict, Cellini, and Troyens. (Finally, some respect at home!)

So Terry Gilliam's production must be built to travel, and is evidently conquering Europe. I wonder if any North American company would be willing to sign on -- I'd travel to see it.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I managed to miss Damnation when SFO and SFS did it, both in the last decade. Still kicking myself.

Troyens in Paris in 18-19? Hmm! Road trip!

JSC said...

The Amsterdam 'Benvenuto Cellini' Mr. Gordon is talking about is available to watch online.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I guess Damnation is my second favorite Berlioz score, but having seen it both staged (an Achim Freyer production in LA, the Met HD broadcast of the Robert Le Page version) and in concert, I've decided that it's definitely better as a concert piece. Somehow the timing and pacing of it are wrong for the theater: key plot points are hurried over or simply omitted, while some of the best parts (the Dance of the Sylphs for example) just seem too long when staged.

Also, the orchestral magic feels diminished when stuck in the pit (which I've never felt was a problem with Troyens -- Berlioz's ear for what could be heard under what conditions was pretty acute). Maybe one should think of it as a vocal/choral symphony, rather than a theater piece. Or maybe it's the founding work of a new genre, to which Oedipus Rex, Gurrelieder, Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher, and perhaps Sibelius's Kullervo also belong.

The best version of it I've seen was an LA Phil production in 1994, with Simon Rattle, von Stade, Vinson Cole, and Gilles Cachemaille. It was was one of those incredible evenings: I went twice, and talked to several people who went to all three performances. Among its other virtues, Rattle used 4 harps, and the effect at the end was astonishing. No one ever uses as many harps as Berlioz asks for (6 in Troyens).

I also sang in the extra chorus for a very poor performance at the Hollywood Bowl, conducted by Kent Nagano. This wasn't Nagano's fault -- partly it was the Bowl, but mainly it was William Hall, who prepared the chorus. He was pretty much at sea: a lifetime of conducting Messiah and the Deutsches Requiem does not prepare one for Berlioz.