Great Performances features rare ‘Les Troyens’

What is opera but a grand spectacle of voices, costumes and sets? Hector Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” is rarely performed because it requires among other things throngs of soldiers, citizens and dancers and a Trojan Horse.

The full score lasts four and a half hours with two intermissions. That’s a long day. The original broadcast is for 30 June 2013 (Sunday), but there will be several re-broadcasts.

Berlioz (1803-1869) didn’t live to see a complete production of this although it was completed in 1862–seven years before his death. Berlioz wrote the libretto himself and the work is based on Virgil’s “Aeneid” (books two and four). The five-act opera is rarely produced in its entirety and the Met makes this production visually stunning. I understand from the New York Times review that the production suffered from a few glitches, but we don’t see them here.

The production is particularly heroic not just because of the cost or length. The leading role is taken by the 34-year-old Bryan Hymel who made his unexpected Metropolitan Opera debut by stepping into the last four performances to replace  Marcello Giordani. Hymel has a commanding tenor voice, dark and rich and you could almost imagine him as the Trojan hero Aeneas.

Chorebe is in love with Cassandra (Deborah Voigt looking a bit bleary-eyed crazy as if Cassandra had many sleepless nights in earnest efforts to be believed), but Cassandra is cursed. She has the gift of prophecy, but no one will believe what she says. In Act 1, while the other Trojans are joyous that a decade-long Greek siege had ended. The Greek armies have withdrawn and the Trojans walk in the deserted camps. Aeneas brings news that a priest who had warned the Trojans to burn the wooden horse has been eaten by a sea serpent. Aeneas believes that the goddess Athena was angered by the priest. Against Cassandra’s protests, the king Priam orders the horse be brought into the city and left near the temple of Athena. The Greeks betray themselves with a clank of armor, but the Trojans delude themselves that this is a good omen.

In Act 2, the Greek soldiers come out from the horse and the destruction of Troy begins. The ghost of Hector appears to tell Aeneas to flee to Italy, but Chorebe tells Aeneas to stay and fight. In another part of Troy, many of the women including Cassandra decide to commit suicide rather than become the trophies and slaves of the Greeks.  Cassandra, who has predicted Aeneas will found a New Troy in Italy,  has the last word, crying “Italy!”‘

If Troy was about darkness with the Trojan characters dressed in black with highlights of brick red, burnished gold and bronze, then Act 3 which takes place in Carthage is about beauty and light. The Carthaginians and their queen, Dido (Susan Graham), are all dressed in white flowing gowns. They have time to appreciate ballet dancing from the chorus. But the peace is an uneasy one. The Numidian king has asked Dido to form a political alliance by marriage and yet Dido finds love with a man she assumes is an ordinary sailor, Trojan War survivor Aeneas. When the Numidian forces begin to attack Carthage, Aeneas reveals himself and the surviving Trojans join forces with the Carthaginians to defend the city.

By Act 3, Aeneas and Dido have become romantically attracted to each other and Aeneas tells Dido about Troy including the fate of Andromache. Despite their love, not all is well. The god Mercury appears and strikes Aeneas’ shield, crying out “Italy” three times.

Disobeying the gods doesn’t usually go well. By Act 5, Aeneas is haunted by ghosts. Priam, Chorebe, Hector and Cassandra all appear before him to urge him toward Italy. When he finally leaves, the queen Dido is to bitterly betrayed she commits suicide. The Carthaginians curse Aeneas for deserting Dido as the opera ends. Aeneas will go on to found Rome, but Rome will also eventually fall.

Don’t expect catchy melody lines as in Wagner, but Francisca Zambello’s production swells with grand emotions, powerful voices and sweeping epic actions. The set design is visually stunning and the camera direction still gives us intimate moments.

“Great Performances at the Met: Les Troyens” was originally streamed live to select movie theaters on 5 January 2013 as part of “The Met:Live in HD” series and it presented on PBS 30 June 2013. Check local listings.

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