Les Troyens Review – Epic Opera Done Right

With Berlioz’ Les Troyens The Lyric Opera of Chicago has mounted an epic. It is an opera that has been performed relatively few times in America and is now making its Chicago debut.  There’s no telling when someone will put it on again, so you need to go, because it is one of the most remarkable pieces of music ever created and is performed gloriously in this production. And everything supporting the music is just as first-rate─from the sets, to the singing, to the lighting design, to the costumes.  It is riveting for 4 hours plus (with two intermissions, which you’ll need) and you will revel in every second of it.

It only runs a few times from now until December 3, so get your tickets as soon as you can. This one is an absolute must-see and you will be poorer if you miss it.

Ruins of Troy

Upon completing Les Troyens Berlioz wrote in a letter: "I am sure that I have written a great work, greater and nobler than anything done hitherto."

Whether or not it truly was greater and nobler than anything else, Les Troyens is a great and noble work from beginning to end. It took Berlioz three years from beginning the libretto poetry, which he wrote first, to completing the music. This approach shows in the work, for every bit of the music perfectly supports what is being said.  The lyrics and music work together seamlessly to create emotional resonance throughout the score.  When people are happy, the music is light and pure and floating, and when they are not, the foreboding is palpable in the use of bass notes and drawn-out tones in both the vocals and instrumentation.

That is one of the most remarkable things about this opera, the way in which every note is building to support the storyline.  It’s not anything like I’ve heard before.  Berlioz doesn’t rush from one big pop melody to the next, he organically creates feelings like nothing more than the composer of a great movie score.  Les Troyens feels more like a work by Howard Shore or John Williams or John Barry. Berlioz’ lifelong obsession with orchestration shows here and the Lyric’s orchestra makes the most of every note under the direction of Sir Andrew Davis.  In fact, the orchestral music is as good as what is sung, and adds as much to this production as anything else.

And that doesn’t mean that there aren’t great arias.  There are tremendous arias that arise organically out of the storytelling, not to mention gorgeous duets, and one moment where a quintet builds to a sextet, which builds to a septet, which builds to the entire chorus coming in to support the septet that is nothing like I’ve ever heard.  It was spine-tinglingly glorious.

Cassandre in the Ruins

Even though I’m getting ahead of myself here, there was less clapping in this opera than in any I’ve ever been to, even lesser productions, because the music just kept going and the audience didn’t want to interrupt.  So epic performances went by unacknowledged by applause because people didn’t want to miss a single note. That’s how thrilling this production is.

However, the length of this thing is its downfall.  Berlioz seems to have suffered from a lack of ability to self-edit and far, far too many ideas.  But when you look at how it all works together, where would you cut?  The Lyric has cut a few reprises of themes, but not very much else.  And the music is so gorgeous, even if you didn’t know what you were missing, you’d be missing something with every cut because few things are repeated. It is THAT well thought out.

It also has much longer orchestral breaks between songs than most operas. Again, it’s clearly Berlioz’ orchestra fascination and desire to turn music into emotion coming into play here.  And it all works. It gives the singers space to act and they do it very well.

King Priam and his People

The story of Les Troyens is an operatic retelling of portions of Virgil’s Aeneid beginning with the destruction of Troy and ending with the departure of the refugee Trojans from Carthage to Italy to found Rome.  It conveys the epic nature of the events in a way that is both moving and majestic.  Telling the story in both the personal relationships of the main protagonists and through the lens of the common people in a way that is seldom seen in opera.

However, it assumes you know the story already.  You aren’t going to get introductions as to who is who or why they are important.  This was written in the era where all educated people had the same background in classic mythology and Berlioz was assuming you know the story of the Trojan War and the relationships among the main characters.  They kinda sorta indentify themselves in the lyrics, but it’s better if you know what Berlioz’ audience did.  Read a synopsis before you come.

The Lyric Opera has emphasized the character relationships and situation with their production by setting this mythic story in recognizable modern era terms.  The curtain opens on a broken concrete tower, with crumbled sections and broken rebar sticking out of the wreckage.  Cassandre is atop the rubble in the ruined tower. The chorus is dressed in such a way that you can immediately tell that we are witnessing the Siege of Stalingrad in WWII, and our comrades believe that they have driven away the Nazis at last. The chorus begins the opera with their celebratory “Apres dix ans,” rejoicing at the withdrawal of the Greeks and celebrating their gift of a wooden horse dedicated to the goddess Pallas Athena.

Cassandre Warns the Trojans

And right there Berlioz is doing something different. The chorus is one of the major stars of this opera.  They not only commentate, but they are a real part of everything. The people of Troy, the people of Carthage: they move the plot, they tell us how they feel, they are characters in every sense of the word. You care what happens to them.  It’s not just main character says something and chorus responds, like you see in so many operas. They are not filler.  They are vital to this production and have incredible music to sing.

The Lyric’s chorus, under chorus master Michael Black, grabs onto this meat with both hands and raised voices.  They were acting the hell out of this.  They had great things to do and they did them with amazing skill.  The singing was incredible, but the acting was just as good as the singing. You wanted to see them even more--The chorus.  In a four plus hour opera you wanted more chorus because every time they showed up incredible things happened.

The glorious chorus

And Berlioz uses his chorus to amazing effect. There are times when he separates the men and women to sing different parts of the story, and it matters when he does.  And the music is different when he does.  And the chorus at the Lyric took all they were given and handed it back to the audience like delicious candy.

Act I is really all about Cassandre.  After the chorus heads off to bring the horse home to their own destruction, she starts right in predicting the destruction of Troy.  Christine Goerke is everything you can want in a Cassandre.  She has a commanding presence, an amazing voice, and you can see from her behavior why everyone refuses to believe her.  Here’s Berlioz’ genius again, when she’s prophesizing and hysterical he has her spiraling up to the top of her register. The music sounds crazy.

Chorebus and Cassandre

Cassandre pleads with her betrothed Chorèbe (the excellent Lucas Mecham), who outlines a beautiful and hopeful future in a really lovely aria and then duet "Quand Troie éclat." The Trojan court, including King Priam, comes to the stage where there’s a lovely ceremony involving the king washing the feet of his warriors to thank the gods for victory – there’s a whole lot of democratic symbolism in this production.  But when Hector’s widow, Andromanche, appears with their son, the celebration ends.  Andromanche hangs Hector’s bloody jacket on the broken battlements.

Trojans

Énée, Brandon Jovanovich, who is an excellent actor, then rushes on to tell of the devouring of the priest Laocoön by a sea serpent, after he had warned the Trojans to burn the horse. (This is a feature of the opera. All the special effects have to happen offstage, so you get told about them in the most dramatic and infodumpy terms.)  The Trojans then do the opposite, thinking they’ve displeased the goddess.  They bring the horse inside.

This is a stage production.  How to show a gigantic wooden horse with soldiers inside?  The Lyric does this through some of the most astonishing lighting design ever, with the chorus looking out at the audience as they sing about the horse’s progress above Cassandre’s dire warnings.  They point toward us in the audience and the shadow of a gigantic horse is projected onto the broken walls of Troy behind them and they follow its progress as it rolls past.  This is only one of the uses of this technique.  It is a vital part of this production, the looming walls and towers are used again and again and backdrops for projected shadows.  Of the horse, soldiers, flames, stars and more.  It allows the massive scale of events to fit inside a proscenium stage.  David Finn did an incredible job here along with Illuminos’ projections.  They create special effects through light alone.

And the towers then revolve to change the scene to become the Palace of Énée.

Hector's visitation

In Act II

The Greeks have emerged from the horse and have begun sacking the city.  The ghost of Hector, portrayed in full zombie drag by Bradley Smoak in this production, appears to Énée to tell him to take the Trojan refugees to Italy to found a new empire. Choosing a low-voiced person for Hector is another example of the way tones are used to convey emotion in this opera – he sounds full of portent. The exhausted Trojan soldiers run to Énée’s palace to regroup.  The chorus appears with rifles and bayonets WWII vintage and the minor characters have a few moments here and Énée regroups the men to fight.

Enee et Ascanius

Meanwhile at the broken tower, Cassandre appears to the frightened women of Troy – most of the female chorus.  She prophesies of the founding of Rome, but tells them that her husband to be has died and that soon they, the women, will be overrun by the Greeks.  To escape the fate of what happens to women in war, she resolves to kill herself and exhorts them to join her.  One group in the chorus is afraid to kill themselves, so Cassandre sends them to the enemy.  This is a powerful moment for the chorus again, with great reactions all around.

The Greeks, led by a captain, show up in full black SS drag.  They demand the treasure of Troy, which is actually in the possession of Énée and the men.  The women refuse and laugh at them and then commit mass suicide.

There is blessedly an intermission at this point because you sort of need to take a moment after half the cast kills themselves on stage.

We also lost a very few people.  Perhaps they believed that the Trojan Horse was the highlight of the opera.  They could not have been more wrong.  Because the highlight of this opera is the music and there is so much more glorious music to come.  Because good as acts One and Two are, it actually picks up in Act III.

In Act III, you return to a tower exactly like the ruined one but it is in lovely, perfect splendor.  You are now in Carthage, where Queen Didon and her peaceful refugees have built a new life.  Didon is a widow and lonely, but her people are happy, peaceful and prosperous.  She is played gloriously by Susan Graham, who also played the role in the 2012-2013 season at the Met and in a 2015 production that began at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and then in San Francisco.  This may be the role she was born to play, she does it so beautifully. 

Queen Didon

The Carthaginians are celebrating their prosperity, and instead of Didon accepting tribute from them, as in the script, this production has her wearing a lovely blue 1940s style suit and giving medals to the heroes of the people, the farmers, the sailors and the builders dressed in tidy 1940s work gear including overalls, head scarves like Rosie the Riveter, and blue chambray work shirts.  The chorus, here, as the people of Carthage are just as active and vital a part of the opera as they have been so far. What could be dull is fascinating to watch, buoyed by the glorious score. We learn Didon is to be forced into marriage by the Numidian king, Iarbas, and her people have no weapons.  It is difficult to tell who they are supposed to be, they could be any democratic society, French or Americans is my guess as I saw a few men in berets.

Didon Gives Medals to the People

After the ceremony, Didon and her sister Anna, played with humor and immense charm by the superb Okka Von Der Damerau then discuss love. Anna urges Didon to remarry, but Didon insists on honoring the memory of her late husband, Sichée. This leads to "Les chants joyeux," one of the most glorious female duets I’ve ever heard.  It’s so good, you think you want to just hear the two of them singing together for the rest of the opera.  But you are only getting to the most glorious music in this. Didon’s aide, Iopas, played wonderfully by Mingjie Lei, arrives to tell her that a fleet of ships has arrived bearing refugees who need help.

News of Refugees

Didon commands the refugees to come to her, she remembers what it was like to one herself.  Énée’s son, Ascagne, enters, presents the saved treasure of Troy, and tells her what happened to them. She hears what they have to say and how they are destined to go to Italy and offers them refuge. Her aide, Narbal, played with great sensitivity by Christian Van Horn, tells her Iarbas is attacking, but Carthage has no weapons.  The Trojans spring to action under Énée and fight beside the Carthaginians against the Numidians.

We haven’t had a ballet yet, so this is when it happens.  The Lyrics is of naiads and young men fighting and frolicking together.  We understand Didon and Énée have fallen in love. This ballet has lovely music and is well danced but goes on too long.

Long Ballet

Narbal and Anna discuss the salvation of Carthage from the Numdians and Didon’s love for Énée. But she’s shirking her queenly duties to be with him. Anna is for love and Narbal is worried about the country. Didon, and Énée appear, you can tell they are happy because everyone is cleaned up and she is wearing the sparkle dress of woo and he has on the beige dad cardigan of joy.

Narbal and Anna

Because we haven’t had enough ballet, here’s another one that goes on too long as well.  It shows Didon and Énée’s courtship, which we’ve just learned of from the other ballet, and Anna and Narbal’s infodumpy song. Something has to go here, but it doesn’t need to be this ballet.

But then one of the most sublime moments in the opera occurs so you are happy to forgive Berlioz.  Didon asks her aide, Iopas, to sing a song to the goddess Ceres. And here, in the middle of an intricate opera, is a folk song. A hard, challenging folk song, but it is very different than anything you’ve heard so far, and is both a standout moment for Lei, but also a wonderful grounding from all the grandeur. But you’re actually just being set up, or maybe given a rest because of what is coming next.

Iopas Sings a folk song

Énée then tells how Andromanche eventually married Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, who killed her husband, Hector. This makes Didon make up her mind to give in to her love for Énée and forget her former husband.

And then the most amazing musical moment in this opera, and maybe in any opera, happens. 

“Pardonne, Iopas,” which begins mostly as a quartet, builds to a quintet and moves seamlessly to "Mais banissons" which builds to a sextet then septet and then adds in the choir for one of the most extraordinary musical moments maybe ever.  It is worth the price of admission alone.

But it’s not done yet as Dindon and Énée sing their big duet, "Nuit d'ivresse". This is a wonderful duet gorgeously staged against the backdrop of the night sky, projected once again on the walls of the citadel.

Love Under the Stars

And another intermission which you will need.

Act V begins with Hylas, a young Trojan, all alone singing about how much he misses home.  This song is sublime and was performed superbly by Jonathan Johnson.  This opera is also a proving ground for young tenors on their way up, which Johnson and Lei obviously are.  They both get great moments and make the most of them.

Énée comes on stage and tells us that he has to go to Italy and Dindon doesn’t want him to.  He is plagued by the ghosts of Cassandre, Priam, Chorebe, Hector.  He is determined to leave and gathers his comrades to go.

Didon goes all stalker on him but he leaves her to go to Italy.  Graham does some outstanding singing here.  She returns to her tower, begs Anna to beg Énée to stay.  But the Trojans have already gone.  Didon curses them and swears eternal revenge on the Trojans, prophesying both Hannibal’s victories and the fall of Carthage.  She makes a sacrificial pyre of the Trojans' relics, prays to the gods of the Underworld to power her curse, and kills herself.  A last vision of Rome Eternal comes to her as she dies and her people take up the cries of eternal revenge.

Didon and Enee break up

This opera is superb from beginning to end and special commendations need to go out to Director Tim Albery for making every single person do something interesting every second they’re on stage, as well as Helen Pickett for her choreography for the ballets that went on too long.

All images from Todd Rosenberg (Lyric Opera, Chicago)

Purchase tickets at the Lyric Opera.

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