I admire Susan Graham. I liked her as Sesto in Clemenza, and as acting (as distinct from singing) goes, she’s not bad at all. In Clemenza the scenes with Tito work well, and there are a few really charming moments, e.g. the bit in “come ti piace imponi” beginning at about 0.55 here where Sesto clearly just melts on seeing Vitellia get all political. (I am more and more a fan of Catherine Naglestad, but this has nothing to do with Les Troyens so I’ll drop it.)
What I like most about Graham though is the sheer sound of the voice and the way she sings. She is one of those artists who just let the music do what it needs to do without getting in the way. Obviously, it takes work and thought to ‘just let the music do what it needs to’ but this is the effect. Here is “nuit d’ivresse” again.
Kunde is no slouch either, I should add. And give the man some credit. He is on stage for large portions of an opera that takes five hours to perform, and he consistently sounds pretty damn good. That is quite a feat, no?
So. Susan Graham sounds lovely. As an American and thus an Evil G. I. Joe I am constitutionally (it’s in there! right after the bit about separation of powers!) allowed to punch anyone who disagrees. That’s how we roll in the good ol’ US of A. You should see the brawls we start at the Met. This one time someone whistled at Renée Fleming and, well, you have not truly lived until you have seen Handel’s Rodelinda end in a bottle-smashing gun-waving melée. They’re still picking buckshot out of the proscenium.
Anyway. In Les Troyens Graham suffers from the occasional moment of truly awful direction. I have already discussed the episode with the horse. There is also a part early in Act IV where Dido has to dance a few steps as she enters after a (presumably) awesome night with Aeneas. I think we could have left that out and it would have been fine.
The other thing at work here is that she is acting for the hall and not the camera, so we see these big gestures which would make perfect sense if you’re 100 yards away. But not if you’re right in her face, as the camera is. This is not Susan Graham’s fault. But it makes some parts of Acts III-V difficult to watch.
So. This production of Les Troyens works in musical terms. It sometimes works in visual terms, but not consistently. I haven’t discussed Antonacci much, but I’m not actually sure what I think about her performance (I think I want to listen to Marilyn Horne sing this role on the CD recording of this that I’ve got before I come back to Antonacci).
Berlioz had a tendency to write stories in music, i.e. ‘program music’ like Symphonie Fantastique, and I think that skill/tendency is behind Les Troyens. I think that’s what I like about it — it has those same little musical quirks of personality (and at times the same I’m-hopped-up-on-opium quality) as Symphonie Fantastique or his requiem mass. Also, you kind of have to admire a guy who unabashedly wrote music which required producers to hire basically an entire Parisian arrondissement to perform.