"Les Troyens" carries such a fearsome reputation for outsize extravagance, you might imagine it was the Opera That Ate Paris. It is just too big, too long, too expensive for practical performance, went the received wisdom.
And not without reason. Hector Berlioz's epic runs the better part of five hours. Standing very much in the traditional line of French grand opera, "Les Troyens" places huge demands on its singers and orchestra and requires a chorus, ballet, supernumeraries and special effects. The musicians and crew of the new Music Center Opera production, opening tonight, will number 304 for each of its five performances.
Berlioz, who was named for the Trojan hero and learned his Latin as a child translating Virgil's Aeneid for his father, also wrote the libretto. Over five acts, the opera examines the conflict between public duty and private passion through the journey of Aeneas to found Rome, from the ruins of Troy via Carthage.
So how do you tell this myth to an audience that probably thinks the Trojan War was a condom marketing campaign?
"You strive to create a lot of visual happenings," says director Francesca Zambello, "and to make stronger characters than perhaps Berlioz envisioned. I don't like to update a piece, but I like to create.
"I've tried very hard to avoid pageantry. I haven't populated the realm with hundreds of extras, because I felt it was really important to focus on the tragedies of Dido and Cassandra."
A protegee of Jean-Pierre Ponelle and artistic director of the Skylight Opera Theatre in Milwaukee for the past six seasons, the American director has had plenty of experience with spectacle in various forms. She staged the massive Seattle Opera "War and Peace" in 1990, for example, and this spring directed an arena production of "Tosca" in London.
In "Troyens," Zambello has Nadine Secunde, Carol Neblett and Gary Lakes in the principal roles. She may not have added hordes of spear-carriers, but she has introduced a number of characters with active mime roles.
"I chose to personify some of the gods," she says. "Venus plays an active role, as do Juno and Pallas Athena. They prompt a lot of Aeneas' actions. I try to flesh out the narrative by going back to Virgil.
The director speaks confidently of her revisions. "Berlioz provides a lot of music. I think he would have made a lot of changes if he saw the work performed."
It is, in fact, the observing gods who tie together the two worlds.
"Troy is more of an antique, ritualistic world. Carthage is more of a 19th-Century, egalitarian world," she says. "How do you unite those two very distinct worlds?
"With a visual representation of a gallery of the gods watching," she says, answering her own question. "The gods continue through both pieces."
This gallery takes the form of pieces of a Classical temple framing the set, which is filled with architectural and ritual symbols, neon bars, scaffolding and ropes.
"People respond to images," Zambello says. "All you need to do is have a few symbols. Trying to make everything real is just silly. This is an evocative, suggestive art form."
If the sets suggest the symbolic abstraction of a Robert Wilson, the production has not entirely spurned the imperatives of grand opera spectacle. Zambello is reluctant to divulge her plans for big scenes like the entry of the Trojan Horse, which she suggests may involve some sleight-of-hand.
"I hope it's a theatrical coup," she says. "We don't have to see all of the horse. Remember, it's an emblem of trickery and dirty play."
Though some internal repeats in the ballets may be ignored, the opera will otherwise be delivered complete as the composer intended. (Berlioz, who completed the work at age 55 in 1858, never lived to see a complete presentation.) That, says conductor Charles Dutoit, was the decision from the beginning of the project.
In fact, this production goes Berlioz one better, restoring a scene for Cassandra, Priam and the Greek agent Sinon that the composer scrapped. It was completed by Berlioz authority Hugh Macdonald, and published only in 1968.
Like Zambello, Dutoit finds the difficulty of "Les Troyens" not in its fabled length, but in concepts and style.
"It is not longer than Wagner," the Swiss conductor notes. "The difference is the audience knows that music. The opera audience doesn't know Berlioz."
For Dutoit, much of the difficulty imposed by the length of the work comes from the many movements similar in tempo, rhythm and meter, particularly 6/8.
"There are certain dangers there," he says, "which we must meet with little variations in tempo. I'm trying to stick to Berlioz's tempi, which are rather brisk."
For Zambello, the epic proportions are essential to the opera. "It is a long piece. The audience must take a journey the same way Aeneas does."
Along the way, she hopes to highlight--if not necessarily answer--the questions Berlioz raises, and ask some of her own.
"I am very conflicted about somebody like Dido, as a woman in 1991 looking at Dido. She was a great leader, yet she ends with Aeneas, veering off her course of duty because they are driven by desire. Did he kill that society by abandoning it, or did she?"
Questions indeed dominate Zambello's discussion of "Les Troyens"--What does Rome really mean? Heroine or victim? Must we destroy to create?
"These are questions we have to raise again in this opera. I think they are important questions to ask now, when we are creating a global consciousness, and in a revisionist mode of thinking," Zambello says. "That's why I think a piece like this is relevant to audiences today."