Les Troyens
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In Review > North America

Les Troyens

San Francisco Opera

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The Trojan Horse featuring Es Devlin's set designs in David McVicar's production of Les Troyens at San Francisco Opera
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera 2015
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Susan Graham and Bryan Hymel, Didon and Énée
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera 2015
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Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera 2015

Les Troyens made its long-awaited return to San Francisco Opera on June 7, to launch the company’s summer season. Anticipation ran high for this revival, which promised as complete a version of Berlioz’s five-act epic as humanly possible; the company’s previous production, in 1968–69, had cut the opera’s nearly five-hour running time to three hours. In adapting Virgil’s Aeneid, Berlioz produced a massive, and massively challenging, work for the stage, and while the first of the six scheduled SFO performances didn’t conquer the more cumbersome aspects of David McVicar’s staging — a co-production with Covent Garden, Teatro alla Scala, and Vienna State Opera — the musical splendors of the score, laid out in sumptuous detail by conductor Donald Runnicles, yielded manifold pleasures.

The company fielded a fine cast. Marking her twenty-fifth anniversary with this company, Susan Graham was a magnificent Dido, delivering the role of the Carthaginian queen with unstinting commitment, idiomatic French and an abundance of vocal reserves. The mezzo’s warm, lustrous instrument remains undimmed; summoning ecstatic tone in the love duet, responding ferociously to Aeneas’s abandonment, and finally rising to a majestic farewell, Graham simply dominated the performance. 

Bryan Hymel’s Aeneas was less dramatically distinct, but he deployed his firm, clarion tenor to heroic effect and brought refinement and ardor to his duet with Graham. Anna Caterina Antonacci was an electrifying Cassandra; embodying the role with searing intensity and tormented physicality, the soprano delivered her dire prophesies in an outpouring of urgent, richly colored vocalism. 

Sasha Cooke’s warm mezzo and alert presence were assets in the role of Anna. Subsidiary roles were capably handled, with Brian Mulligan’s robust Coroebus, Philip Horst’s articulate Pantheus, René Barbera’s sweet-toned Iopas, and Christian Van Horn’s dark, forceful Narbal among the standouts. Chong Wang’s Hylas, suspended above stage in a basket, delivered a flowing account of the Phrygian sailor’s song. Any production of Troyens turns on the chorus, and Ian Robertson’s ninety-voice ensemble was exemplary.

McVicar’s staging, first introduced in London and dutifully re-mounted here by director Leah Hausman, takes a large-scale approach to the opera, with towering sets by Es Devlin and costumes by Moritz Junge. Devlin’s central structure — grey metallic ramparts representing Troy — breaks apart and reconfigures as a sunlit hub in Carthage. The Trojan horse, a twenty-three-foot high, fire-breathing construction made of many small parts, was trotted out repeatedly — which is to say too often. Emblematic of the production’s imbalance, the horse’s over-scaled design dwarfed the humanity at the opera’s center, stalling the action and pointing up the divide between art and artifice.

There were no such issues in the pit, where Runnicles presided over a splendidly paced orchestral reading, enforcing a sense of flow, lending the singers essential support, and delivering Berlioz’s big dramatic moments with commanding sweep and weight. From the doom of Troy to the idyllic music of the Royal Hunt and Storm, Runnicles, whose greatest triumphs with this company have been in Ring cycles, revealed the musical line from Berlioz to Wagner with characteristic command and a fervent sense of discovery. —Georgia Rowe

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