Walking to the War Memorial Opera House I came upon a couple doing a rather unusual thing in the street between two parked cars: a man lacing a woman into a corset. On some nights in certain neighborhoods this actually wouldn’t be at all surprising, not even worth mentioning, but they seemed oddly out of place performing this ritual at 5:45 pm across the street from City Hall on a Tuesday night. As I passed by them I wondered where they were going and what they would be doing once they got there. Neither seemed especially proficient in the task at hand.
Ten minutes later my question was answered when I spotted them again, this time walking quickly by me inside the lobby of the Opera House toward the stairs. I thought who wears a corset to a five-hour opera? Certainly no one who’s ever been to one before. Scanning the crowd a bit more before taking my seat, I noticed others, dressed in elaborate steam-punk Victorian finery, and I was pleased for San Francisco Opera — somehow seeing Les Troyens had obviously become a thing, an event with appeal extending beyond the opera fanatics for whom it was obviously intended.
And justifiably so. The 134 people on the stage, 95 musicians (not all of them in the pit), fifty-two musical numbers, nearly five-hour length, and one of the greatest set designs I’ve ever seen in San Francisco added up to an undeniable high-point of David Gockley’s tenure at the company’s helm. However, while the size and scale of Hector Berlioz’s epic undeniably impresses, what makes it all work is the execution of individuals and therein lies the production’s real strength, with credit due first and foremost to conductor Donald Runnicles, whose stately pacing and attention to the score’s details were masterful, as were his communicative abilities with the singers, chorus, and orchestra members. If the company’s 2011 Ring cycle was a gentle but potent reminder to us of what we lost when Runnicles departed, perhaps mitigated rather than magnified in part by the marvelous performances of Nina Stemme and the rest of the cast, four years later, sitting in the War Memorial listening to him conduct Troyens, which was originally promised during the Pamela Rosenberg era, felt nostalgic and bittersweet.
C’est la vie.
I attended the Tuesday, June 16th performance, which began with the announcement from the stage that star of the show, tenor Bryan Hymel, wasn’t going to make it and Corey Bix would be performing Enée (Aeneas) in his place. I didn’t recognize the name, though it turns out Bix had a small role in LA Opera’s 2010 production of Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, so I have heard him sing before. Bix betrayed no signs of the enormous pressure that must accompany stepping in at the last-minute as a cover in what’s arguably the most high-profile opera production taking place in the U.S. this year. If it wasn’t quite a “star is born” moment like the one Jay Hunter Morris experienced at the Met a few years ago in Siegfried (which actually had its origins here in San Francisco), Bix acquitted himself quite well, without leaning heavily on the prompter. He knew the blocking (and if he didn’t, he faked it convincingly), and most importantly, he nailed his duet with Susan Graham in Act 4. Together they sounded marvelous and even if it wasn’t the case, they looked as if they’d rehearsed together, making one of the opera’s most important scenes fit organically within the rest of the production. All in all he did a fine job, though the rough edges of his vowels grew as the night progressed.
As with Hymel, the presence of Anna Caterina Antonacci in the cast as Cassandra created high expectations. Many of the reviews I read of the opening night performance noted with disappointment the underwhelming volume of her voice. When she made her entrance in Act 1 on Tuesday her voice sounded well-suited to the large house, and her stage presence is undeniably magnetic — so much so only the astonishing set can compete with her for one’s attention. However, I noticed her volume steadily diminish as Act 1 continued before regaining its initial level toward the very end. The pattern repeated during Act 2, and the conclusion of her part in the opera, before she collapses to the floor, was mesmerizing and unforgettable.
Two hours in, having thoroughly enjoyed Antonacci’s presence, Runnicles’ conducting, the stunning choral work, and Es Devlin’s sets (the Trojan horse is stunning), when the lights came up at the conclusion of “The Capture of Troy” I would have been fine with calling it a night then and there and had it been any other night at the opera I’d have gone home happy.
But it was only the first intermission and there was still another opera to come. That story about Troyens being two parts that create a cohesive whole is, to be blunt, complete bullshit in practical terms. The reality is Troyens combines two opera with related narratives and an overlapping character (who’s not all that essential to the first half), and are at least 95% able to stand on their own. If there was no historical record stating otherwise, I bet few would find them to be more than a well-fitted pair, a grandly French alternative to Cav and Pag, albeit by the same composer.
Part 2, “The Trojans at Carthage” lacks the drama and abject terror of “Troy,” replacing it with languid romance reflecting the North African heat (and sets to match, creating a neatly inverted effect), pageantry, some ballets, some well-executed filler (courtesy of René Barber as Iopas), and a gorgeous aria by a random character hung above the stage in a net (Chong Wang in a fantastic turn) but it’s still quite good, and the vocal performances by Susan Graham as Didon (Dido) and Sasha Cooke as her sister Anna were exceptional. Cooke’s presence felt like luxury casting — she could easily handle the larger role (both women are mezzos), but Graham owns this, and the second half of Troyens is a showcase for her incredible talents. There’s bit of stage corn when a miniature mock-up of Carthage set in the center of the stage in Act 3 turns upside down during the Act 4 love duet (as if to say “our love will turn the world upside-down!”), but David McVicar’s production is a solid five-hour entertainment, with everything rolling along quite nicely until Act 5, when Dido doesn’t get what she wants (Aeneas, permanently), and all hell breaks loose.
It’s taken years of work and hundreds of people to put this production together and it shows in every possible way, whether it be the casting, the sets, costumes, or the quality of the performances from the orchestra and chorus, this is that rare operatic beast where everything seen and heard on the stage works. Les Troyens was worth the wait. Having said that, while I’m pleased my first live encounter with it was the complete version, and I would not have wanted it any other way, would I be upset if the next time an hour was cut from “The Trojans at Carthage”? Not at all.