Hector Berlioz, that towering figure of French Romanticism, was no longer the fiery, wildly imaginative and volatile young composer of Symphonie fantastique (1830) by the time he wrote Les Troyens (The Trojans) in 1856-58.
By then, this fearless figure of the musical avant-garde was inclined to balance Romantic exuberance with Classical control.
But The Trojans is nevertheless an audacious work, a five-hour two-parter, based largely on Books Two and Four of Virgil’s Aeneid, whose proportions one could call Wagnerian if not for the fact that the influence tended to run in the other direction.
Indeed, it was too grand a grand opera for its own time, and Berlioz never did live to see it staged in its entirety.
The Trojans, more or less as Berlioz imagined it, is currently receiving its due at San Francisco Opera, where it received its first professional staging in the United States in 1966.
The work's return in this season’s co-production marks the U.S. debut of David McVicar’s visually lavish 2012 staging for London’s Royal Opera—whose giant mechanical “scrap metal” Trojan Horse with its fire-spouting mane (the work of stage designer Es Devlin) is perhaps the best-known feature of a rather hefty set.
But the real heft of this monumental show—some impressive hardware and a 134-member cast notwithstanding—remains where it should: in the music. And the principals in particular, together with the San Francisco orchestra under conductor and former San Francisco Opera music director Donald Runnicles, bring it to life with skill and verve.
Acts I and II take place in war-ravaged Troy (visualized as a steampunk dream of war-torn mid-nineteenth-century Crimea), where the Trojans emerge from ten years of total war into a giddy celebration of the Greek army’s seeming retreat. Cassandra (the winning mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens in her San Francisco Opera debut, alternating in the role with Anna Caterina Antonacci) alone knows they’re doomed. This first part of the opera belongs to her and her brooding, anguished foreboding.
Famously ignored by her fellow Trojans until it is too late, Cassandra enjoys one bitter success in convincing Troy’s virgins to commit collective suicide before the city-storming Greeks can take them.
This gruesome showdown ends the opera’s first half, though not before we meet Troy’s hero and savior, Aeneas (the appealing American tenor Bryan Hymel, returning to the role he assumed at both Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera). Visited by the Ghost of the slain Trojan warrior Hector, Aeneas learns his destiny is to found a new empire in Italy—“Italie!” being the final cry of part one and a recurring refrain throughout.
Part two takes place in Carthage—refuge for the wandering Trojan forces led by Aeneas and the harmonious realm of their alluring hostess, Queen Dido (a vivacious and formidable performance from acclaimed mezzo-soprano Susan Graham). The colorful desert-toned setting comes in marked contrast to dark and battered Troy, and the picturesque city in miniature appears as alternately a dais beneath the Queen’s feet and a heavenly body over her head.
Graham and Hymel each exude a winning combination of potency and gentleness that makes their dynamic truly credible and enjoyable. The passionate love that soon blossoms between Dido and Aeneas, of course, will prove violently at odds with the fulfillment of the Trojan commander’s destiny as founder of Rome. To this end, the balance Berlioz strikes between bursts of Romantic color and cool Classical form serves as a perfect vehicle for his theme. (Berlioz also penned the libretto, which draws on another of his favorite authors, Shakespeare, for further shadings.)
At a fleet five hours, including two intermissions, the production goes by fairly effortlessly, though with inconsistent results. There are certainly lesser passages including a forgettable balletic interlude for instance, some limp or perfunctory choreography, and staging effects that come off like second-rate Burning Man projects. As a result, at times the mind tends to wander further afield than even the Mediterranean-hopping Trojan army.
Berlioz was a consummate original. And as such he remains something of an acquired taste. But there are nevertheless passages throughout The Trojans that will strike any listener with the force of their pure, penetrating beauty—not least two gorgeous duets, the justly famous love song by Aeneas and Dido in Act IV, and Dido and her sister Anna (the excellent mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke) in Act III.
It’s that defiantly, brilliantly Romantic heart—smuggled passed the gates in Classical garb—that leaves us defenseless. This old warhorse may creak here and there, but it’s nothing if not sly.
San Francisco Opera Presents Berlioz's Epic Saga "The Trojans" ("Les Troyens") with Susan Graham, Bryan Hymel, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Michaela Martens, Sasha Cooke and Conductor Donald Runnicles June 7 - July 1, War Memorial Opera House.