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 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.)
In terms of the production, this Les Troyens has its moments.
Acts I and II are the best in visual terms. The stage is bare and relatively empty. Behind and above it is a large mirror, which sometimes shows us the rooftops of Troy and sometimes reflects the stage. The latter works very well – it makes the stage seem bigger, allows for some visually striking entrances and exits, and at one point provides the audience with the best view of the action : there are some wrestlers/tumblers/dancers who are surrounded by the chorus on stage, but we can see them in the mirror. And it is only in the mirror that we see the horse. The horse looks fierce. When Cassandra pleads with her fellow Trojans to just “search the monstrous horse” already, you sort of feel for the woman. It seems so obvious, right?
As noted, this sounds very much as you would expect an opera by Hector Berlioz to sound. Much of it has that feverish quality that is characteristic of his music, e.g. in Cassandra and Chorebus’s duet from Act I, particularly after 5.40 or so. Don’t get too attached to either of these characters, because they will both shortly be dead. I could make an argument here that this variety of dramatic discontinuity is an effort by Berlioz to force us to focus on the music alone, but I think what is really happening is that when you adapt bits of the Aeneid into an opera, it is hard to work the thing so that no one ends up dead before the end of whatever section of it you’re adapting. Like Schubert, Berlioz sometimes struggled with the limitations of his source material. Anyway, here is the duet:
I had cause recently to think about smut, specifically smut in music. Because I have the mind of a twelve-year-old it led me to mentally review all the ways that I have seen the erotic depicted in opera. Sometimes things remain in the realm of the metaphorical. Such as the Marschallin and Octavian’s plates of pie, for example, or Donna Elvira’s cigarette and general air of satisfaction. I believe that if we were going to get picky, Donna Elvira’s cigarette is a metonym rather than a metaphor, but this is an opera blog and not Literary Criticism Smackdown, so probably we don’t care all that much one way or the other.
Anyway. There are productions that handle sex via metonymical cigarettes and there are productions that are more direct. I’m sure we can all think of one or two of those. But I am not going to talk about them. I ended up recalling what may be the most cringe-inducing representation of sex in any DVD of opera ever, and as a result I decided to write about Berlioz.