When we reached the end of this thing at about 11.45 last night, the person I went with turned to me, took off his glasses and said, rubbing his eyes, “well, I guess we got our money’s worth!” Which is certainly true, both in terms of minutes of opera per dollar spent (this is one where they start early, at 6.30, so as to be able to wrap things up by midnight) and in terms of fun in a general kind of way.
I wanted to see the Met’s version of Les Troyens because this is a huge opera and the Met has the resources, both in terms of number of people and size of concert hall, to do it justice. And they do. The production feels appropriate in scale to Berlioz’s work – it seems to have been designed to look spacious but also enclosed. (Makes sense: this is a story intended to have some epic sweep, but the whole point of it is that what happens is extremely constrained by fate and can’t be changed.) Through all five acts, the stage is shaped by a dome of what is perhaps best described as silver-colored wicker work (it looks woven, but it also looks like bits of metal, like flying arrows or spears that have become interlaced with one another) with a large round open space at the top and back. During Acts I and II this is filled by more wicker-work but with an opening in the center that make it look like an eye. In Carthage (Acts III-V) this opening gives out onto what looks like sheaves of grain under the sky, but the eye is back by the ensemble that precedes Dido and Aeneas’s “nuit d’ivresse” duet. And at the end, as the dying Dido glimpses the future of Rome and Carthage, it’s filled in by a curve of brickwork and another of vaulting.
There are some gestures at the ancient world, e.g. the invading Greeks wear Greek helmets, but on the whole the production seems to be designed more with spacious abstraction in mind than historical specificity. This is fine by me. The scenery caused the occasional moment of clunkiness – a few transitions, including the lovely one that goes from that aforementioned ensemble into the duet in Act IV – were interrupted by machinery noises, which was obnoxious (and Acts 3-4 started ten minutes late because something backstage broke) but that’s the fault of neither Berlioz nor the performers, so I guess it’s best to let it go.
That huge chorus in that big hall – what fun! In terms of sheer sound, one of my favorite moments was at the beginning of Act III, when Dido (Susan Graham) is conversing with her subjects (the chorus) and you get this wonderful contrast of sound between the scale of the chorus and Graham’s voice. And there was plenty of space for the dancers. I am the world’s worst dance critic, but I liked (for example) seeing the fate of Laocoön, as Aeneas relates it to the Trojans, set out visually by the dancers. (And the basses in the chorus, repeating Laocoön’s name as the dance continues, were fantastic.)
I was a little disappointed with Deborah Voigt as Cassandra. I expected a little more power to the singing. It was fine, and reasonably dramatic, but for my money Anna Caterina Antonacci in that Theatre du Chatelet production on DVD is more intense and interesting – Voigt’s Cassandra lacks that driven-nearly-crazy sort of edge. And they left out the bit at the end where the Muse of History (often sung by the same singer as Cassandra) comes back and intones “fuit Troja, stat Roma.” What’s up with that?
Bryan Hymel impressed me as Aeneas, particularly that Act V “Dido won’t speak to me, but I have to leave” aria. There was also some very pretty singing from Paul Appleby as Hylas, the sailor who gets the “I want to go home” song at the beginning of Act V (the Trojan version of “Sloop John B” I guess?) Eric Cutler (Dido’s poet Iopas) has one of those voices where sometimes I hear more vibrato than sound – I don’t love it, but Iopas’s song in Act IV wasn’t bad at all, particularly toward the end.
Susan Graham as Dido was well worth hearing. The Dido/Aeneas “nuit d’ivresse” duet – as well as the preceding ensemble, which was lovely – was one of my favorite parts of this. Her acting can be a little semaphore-like – all outstretched arms or hand-to-heart gestures. Dido’s happy and/or tender moments come off much better than the angry or despairing dramatic climaxes, which didn’t seem quite big enough for the type of work this is. (I mean big dramatically/expressively – her voice itself carries just fine.)
Definitely worth braving the rain and icy slush for this one.