Saturday, August 26, 2017

A Visit to Chicago 2: Les Troyens

Lyric Opera Chorus, with Christine Goerke 
(Cassandre) way up at the top of the set, far right.
This is from the opening scene of the opera.
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago

More than two nine months late, but what the hey. I'd like to get this report in print for posterity. It is less a review than what I would tell a friend who hadn't been there, so um it's a lot longer than any of my published reviews. I am one lucky opera-goer, to have seen this great opera two years in a row, in very different productions.

I saw the first two performances of Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Les Troyens, and they might best be summed up as "Holy cow!" A terrific cast, great playing by the orchestra, tremendous work by the LOC Chorus, excellent conducting by Sir Andrew Davis, and mostly-on-point direction by Tim Albery made for a richly rewarding production of Berlioz's gigantic masterpiece. The production got a few things wrong, some of which I discuss here, but it also got a long stretch of the opera and some important details much more right than David McVicar's well-traveled production, which we saw last year in 2015 at SF Opera. (The other things it got wrong - the CUTS - I discuss in a separate post.)

I reviewed the SFO production for SFO, I saw it 3.5 times, and pace the late Bob Commanday, I am going to make comparisons between the two. The production differences illuminate some significant points about the opera. It is a huge piece with a large cast and, from all reports, a real bear to stage.

Albery and Lyric Opera went with a fairly austere physical production in the form of a pair of unit sets, one for Troy and one for Carthage, that were built along similar lines. The costumes were not handmade, but mostly off-the-shelf modern outfits, with credits given in the program. This makes a lot of sense, considering that LOC doesn't have a co-producing house and bore all of the costs on its own. For the more elaborate McVicar set and costumes, the costs were split up among the Royal Opera, San Francisco Opera, La Scala, and the Wiener Staatsopera. Yeah, I'm sure it's costly to ship those 20 containers of sets and scenery around the world, but in total it's gotta be a whole lot cheaper for each house than rolling its own Troyens.

In the photo at the top of this post, you can see one side of LOC's Troy set, consisting of a tall curved wall with an irregular semicircular opening at the base and with a pile of rubble to the right. The Carthage set was nearly identical, except there was no rubble, and in addition to the cut in the base, the set was equipped with some movable elements that opened and closed, providing entry points for the Trojans' first appearance, Didon's entrance toward the end of the opera, and others.

Lyric Opera's press photos don't include photos of both sets in their various configurations, or I'd put them right here. Both sets could be reversed, so that each location could have both concave and convex views of the set. Further, the production makes excellent use of the stage turntable, so that you often saw the set revolving during a scene. At the very opening of the opera, before the music starts, you see a worried-looking Cassandre looking through a cutout high in the set overlooking the giant wall; as it revolved, you saw the chorus come out for the opening and heard the music starting up. This was mirrored at the opening of the very last act, where the young sailor Hylas sang "Vallon Sonore" from a parallel cutout in the Carthage set.

The cutout at the base gets used in various ways as well. Here's the Act II scene where the ghost of Hector tells Enée to get out of dodge and head for Italy; you can see the flames of the burning city of Troy projected onto the set.

Brandon Jovanovich (Enée) and Bradley Smoak (Hector's ghost)
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

And here's Iopas singing "O blonde Ceres" to Didon and Enée, well into Act IV, in the equivalent set cutout:

Mingjie Lei (Iopas), Susan Graham (Didon), Brandon Jovanovich (Enée)
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

Both of the above shots are on the convex side of the sets. On the concave side, here's the waterfall in the Royal Hunt & Storm, complete with dancers:

Dancers; Susan Graham to the far right
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

"Nuit d'Ivresse," the Act IV love duet, with the back wall used to project stars and the planets:

Susan Graham (Didon) and Brandon Jovanovich (Enée)
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

So you might be wondering about the horse. If you saw the SFO production, you know that the McVicar has a 25-foot-tall horse - okay, a horse's head - that makes an utterly terrifying first appearance and then bursts into flames toward the end of the Troy scenes.

Copyright Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

I like spectacle as much as the next person, and hey, maybe Berlioz would have liked this. He did write a rather elaborate and spectacular scenario for the Royal Hunt and Storm! But it seems pretty clear from the libretto that he did not expect to have a Trojan horse on stage: instead, the chorus and Cassandre narrate the horse's appearance and movements through the city. LOC handled this with a fabulous projection of the horse on the convex side of the set; the chorus was stationed on a narrow bit of the stage between the set and the orchestra pit, and oh man, they were fantastic in this scene, and very, very loud. No photo, alas!

One of the most beautiful and effective parts of McVicar's staging was the long ceremonial scene in Act I, where King Priam and Queen Hecuba appear, and Andromache, Hector's widow, pays respects to the fallen Trojans with her young son. SFO doesn't have a photo of this scene for press use, but I can tell you that the set opened up and a long procession came through and then the nobles arrayed themselves on stage. Andromache was played by a dancer - it's a non-singing role - and she was magnificently eloquent. 

This is one scene where Albery made a huge mistake. That the scene was less impressively staged overall isn't the big mistake, though the comparative informality of everyone's appearance made it less impressive than it could be. No, the mistake is that when everyone has entered, King Priam washes the feet of a Trojan soldier, which was described in the talk-back after the opera as an act of humility. Introducing an element so strongly associated with Christianity into this pre-Christian and Greek-religion-oriented opera is simply wrong, striking very much the wrong note.

David Govertsen (King Priam) and the bowl of water
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

[This is where I picked up writing this review in August, 2017.]

On the other hand, there's a scene toward the very end of the opera that McVicar got wrong and Albery got right, and that's Didon's long scene when she knows that Enée has left and also that she is going to commit suicide. The McVicar production plays the previous scene, with Narbal and Anna, in front of a plain black drop curtain, at the front of the stage, exclusively to accommodate a scene change for the ceremony with the people of Carthage, Didon's final scene and suicide, and the very last chorus. It could have been done on the regular Carthage set, and that would have been much better than what we got.

Albery plays this scene out on the first Carthage set, which is austere but has a raised platform from which Didon sings both at the opening of the Carthage scenes and now at the end. His staging was amazingly well done; very simple and straightforward, but also so effective that at the second performance, even though I knew perfectly well what was coming, I was surprised when Didon committed suicide. That's a good staging. There were also fantastic horrified reactions from Christian Van Horn (Narbal) and Okka von der Damerau (Anna).

Christian Van Horn (Narbal) and Susan Graham (Didon)
"Gloire a Didon"
Noting here that Graham's outfits got less modern and more Greek as the opera progressed.
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

And on to the cast, which I would say was on par with the SFO cast, with different strengths, because with two exceptions, we had very different casts. 

The exceptions, of course, were Susan Graham as Didon, a late substitution for Sophie Koch, who withdrew from the production, and Christian Van Horn as Narbal. Narbal's role as Didon's prime minister or chief of staff (or something like that) was far clearer in this production than in the McVicar, where I feel that Narbal just spent a lot of time standing around. The costuming helped; there was a real distinction between the government (Narbal, Didon, Anna) and the citizens (chorus, not dressed in formal officewear). In SF, everybody wore beautiful robes that didn't distinguish much among the social classes. Van Horn sounded even better than in SF.

Graham gave a performance the dramatic equal of her SF performance, nobly acted and well sung, and yet....I feel that she is a bit underpowered for this part. She has said herself in an interview that her training and the roles she has accepted are mostly for high mezzo - no Carmen for her - and that this was a deliberate choice on her part. So she cannot quite muster as much power as one might want when she is raging at Enée and awaiting her own death, because this is in her lower register. Still, this is about the only flaw I can find. In the more lyrical parts of the opera, she was marvelous, particularly in the long and beautiful ensembles of Act IV and the love duet.

Christian Van Horn (Narbal) and Okka von der Damerau (Anna)
Act IV; May I say that I love her dress and want to buy a copy?
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

Speaking of distinctions, in SF Sasha Cooke, singing Anna, really did sound a great deal like Graham, so it was easy to hear them as sisters. Still, the score calls for a contralto for the part, and Okka von der Damerau, while not a contralto, does have a darker-toned voice than Graham or Cooke, so there was more vocal contrast. Probably as a result of Albery's direction, Anna's scheming to get Didon together with that handsome young Trojan was more to the fore than in SF, and she certainly came off as more Machiavellian. Von der Damerau is an excellent singer and I hope she'll get more work in the US.

Brandon Jovanovich (Enée), Annie Rosen (Ascanius), Philip Horst (Panthee)
Act I, as everything is falling apart.
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

Brandon Jovanovich, making his role debut as Enée, sang the role very, very well, handling Enée's impossible entry in Act I with aplomb and sounding good even when suffering from a slight cold in the second of the performances I saw. (I understand that he missed one performance, and Corey Bix sang it.) He was especially good in the most lyrical moments and very tender in the scenes with Ascanius, Enée's son. (He has two young sons and commented on this during one of the post-performance talk-backs.) He doesn't have quite the amazing high notes of Bryan Hymel, who also is more dashing on stage, but that is okay! Jovanovich is handsome, moves well, and generally cuts a good figure. It is a long and difficult role, and I would be very happy to see him sing it again.

Also making a role debut was Christine Goerke as Cassandre, and this was quite a spectacular debut. Vocally, the role, which is set on the low side and is very dramatic, suites her extremely well. Goerke's special power seems to be bringing human vulnerability to characters who aren't usually played that way; that was certainly the case for her Dyer's Wife at the Met and was the case here. Cassandre is cursed with the ability to foresee the future....without being believed by those around her. The McVicar production portrays her as an eerie outsider, and Anna Caterina Antonacci, who was in that production from the start, really embodied that. Goerke was more human, and more humanly vulnerable, especially in her scene with Chorebe. I think that these are both completely valid and interesting ways to play the part. (Also: can't wait to see what she does with Elektra.)

And, of course, Goerke has about twice as much voice as Antonacci, and put it to good use. She also has perhaps the most beautiful dramatic soprano voice currently to be heard, and is a tremendous actor. So we saw a truly complete assumption of the role in every way. 

Lucas Meachem (Chorebe) and Christine Goerke
Act I
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

I liked Lucas Meachem a whole lot as Chorebe. I had just seen him as Dr. Malatesta in Don Pasquale, a slight thing. He was a strongly masculine Chorebe, a bit more rough-hewn than Biran Mulligan in SF, and that was exactly right for this production and for his relationship with Goerke's Cassandre. Annie Rosen was a lovely Ascanius, younger and shyer than Nian Wang's leggy teen in SF. 

Mingjei Lie (Iopas), Susan Graham (Didon), Brandon Jovanovich (Enée)
Act IV, "O blonde Ceres"
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

Albery's production had Iopas on stage as the royal chorus master; he conducted the chorus in "Gloire a Didon" as well as singing "O blonde Ceres" in Act IV. Mingjei Lie, a fellow at LOC's Ryan Center (the equivalent of SFO's Adler program) sang and acted perfectly well, but, well, it was luxury casting to have Rene Barbera in SF. Similarly, Jonathan Johnson was a good Hylas, without quite having the beautiful sound of SF's Chong Wang.

All other roles were ably handled; surprisingly, the best French in the cast came from Bradley Smoak, whose brief appearances as the Ghost of Hector were memorably haunting.

Bradley Smoak (Ghost of Hector)
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

The LOC Chorus worked their share of miracles in this piece. What a terrific group! Their sound was huge and beautiful, and I believe they were more precise than the SFO chorus. That's saying a lot: the SFO chorus was pretty great in this work, which has an enormous amount of choral music.

Part of the LOC Chorus, heroes
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

I thought Andrew Davis pretty great, although there was something not quite right in the Troy scenes of the first performance, when for some reason the orchestra seemed less present than it ought to have been. Whatever was going on, they were fine in the second performance. Davis handled the huge forces with plenty of authority and gave the piece the special grandeur that it needs. The orchestra was mostly excellent, perhaps the horns are not as good as SFO's; I thought there were some discontinuities in the Royal Hunt & Storm's big solos, and for some reason it sure sounded as though the principal horn was in the pit rather than offstage. 

Now, it's not as though this was a perfect production. There were cuts, some of them, imo, unnecessary. I've got another post coming up on them. All around, it was a satisfying production of a great piece, well performed and certainly very well worth traveling for.

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