Berlioz' "Les Troyens" -- a five-hour epic opera after Virgil's "Aeneid" with touches of Homer, Shakespeare and music like none ever written before for the lyric stage -- is the grandest French opera. Every performance is an occasion.
San Francisco Opera opened its summer season – a month of three operas in repertory – Sunday afternoon with a mammoth production even for "Troyens." The 32-ton set is the largest ever assembled on the stage of the 83-year-old War Memorial Opera House. David McVicar's lavish staging was originally the Royal Opera's contribution to the festival surrounding the 2012 Olympic games in London.
S.F. Opera's "Troyens" is, however, historically notable for reasons other than its hulking set or massive cast of singers, dancers and acrobats.
Berlioz' two-part marathon encompassing the fall of Troy and Aeneas' love affair with Queen Dido in Carthage on his way to found Rome was finished in 1858 but never performed complete in the French composer's lifetime.
Not until 1966 did "Troyens," thanks to S.F. Opera, receive its first professional staging in the U.S. But the truncated version (which travelled to the Shrine Auditorium in L.A. and to the outdoor Greek Theater in Berkeley where the star tenor swallowed a moth while singing) left out more than a third of Berlioz' score. "Troyens" was written off as an incoherent mess with some wondrous music.
Only when Royal Opera mounted and recorded the first note-complete "Troyens" in 1969 did the opera world at large recognize a masterpiece. The Metropolitan Opera staged its first "Troyens" to celebrate the opening of its centennial season in 1983; Paris Opera staged its first full "Troyens" to open its new opera house in 1990. Los Angeles Opera jumped on a "Troyens" bandwagon in 1991.
Only now has S.F. Opera gotten around to "Troyens" again and, at last, all (but for couple minutes worth of incidental trims) of "Troyens." Unfortunately, the result is in many ways disappointing. The production treads tired ground. The choreography is an accumulation of balletic clichés. The sassiness and originality of Berlioz' orchestra, which gives the opera its unmistakable character and atmosphere, is often subdued by conductor Donald Runnicles' taste for ominous brass, fulsomely rich string sounds and otherwise impressively full-bodied Wagnerian sound.
But this is historically a singers company, and standout performances by Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre, Susan Graham as Dido and Sasha Cooke as Dido's sister, Anna, manage to make S.F. Opera's "Troyens" mean something. Berlioz' great improvement upon Virgil was to empower the women, and Sunday they made powerful mockery of masters and commanders with their pathetic piety.
Antonacci's Cassandre is no clairvoyant, rather a realist. The Italian soprano will also star this month in the company's premiere of Marco Tutino's "Two Women," based on the same story as Vittorio Di Sica's classic film starring Sophia Loren. Antonacci's ready. Even her Cassandre is glamorously Loren-esque in her emotionally intense portrayal of a woman betrayed not by the gods who gave her vision but by the smug, blind bellicosity of men.
Graham's sensually sung Dido is a formidable queen who puts love above war in an effort to create a great society. Her failure to domesticate Enée (Aeneas), whom the gods insistently guide to Rome, is a rebuke of heroism over passion. Cooke's Anna, who awakes Dido's inner desire, becomes the embodiment of sumptuousness.
Next to these women, the men are stolid. Baritone Brian Mulligan -- Cassandra's lover, Chorèbe – can only look on in awe at Cassandre's courage. Berlioz gave Enée little depth, and Bryan Hymel's ideally focused tenor shows no difference between the ardor of love and that of war.
Much nuance gets lost in McVicar's spectacle. The Trojan War is turned into the Crimean War. Carthage is a terracotta desert settlement with idealistic architectural models. Es Devlin's sets are made for destruction. The Trojan horse is an evil looking machine housing watch-works innards.
With a large chorus and many singers in small roles, "Troyens" has as many moving parts as the watch-works Trojan horse. Most roles are cast adequately, with the most convincing being the youngest and freshest, the Adler Fellows from the company's training program. The large chorus impresses even when running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Propulsive excitement is a Runnicles specialty, even when precision isn't possible.
No doubt the staging would have been stronger had McVicar, choreographer Lynne Page and lighting designer Wolfgang Göbbel travelled to San Francisco rather than turning their duties over to assistants. Although La Scala in Milan has also mounted the production, the original team might have noticed at the War Memorial Opera House how daft the old-fashioned story-book choreography looks, how much theatricality is lost having Dido express her rage in front of the curtain during the final act, or what happens to illusion when a red light bulb can be seen hanging inside the Trojan horse.
The grander the spectacle, the more fragile it is. That, after all, is Berlioz' underlying feminist message staggeringly conveyed by Antonacci and Graham in this "Troyens."