Graham, Jovanovich bring belated fire to Lyric Opera’s epic “Troyens”

November 16, 2016

Susan Graham as Dido and Brandon Jovanovich as Aeneas in Berlioz's "Les Troyens" at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg Susan Graham as Dido and Brandon Jovanovich as Aeneas in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

You want your French opera, you got your French opera.

In a rare week with two Lyric Opera openings, the company is presenting two celebrated yet rarely mounted works by French composers. Massenet’s Don Quichotte opens this Saturday night at the Civic Opera House. And on Sunday afternoon Lyric presented its first-ever performance of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens. There are just four more performances running through December 3.

Berlioz never lived to see his epic adaptation of Virgil’s Aeneid performed complete. (His alternately bemused and infuriated letters about the inadequacies of partial stagings in his lifetime make for amusing reading.) 

It’s not too hard to understand why. In addition to the strenuous vocal demands placed on the principal roles of the ill-fated lovers Aeneas and Dido, The Trojans is structurally unwieldy, episodic and expensive, calling for a vast cast and chorus, ballet dancers, imposing sets and theatrical effects. Not to mention a certain level of endurance by singers, orchestra players and audience members with Les Troyens running four hours (just under five hours including two intermissions in Lyric’s current production).

And while Troyens may be an undisciplined mess that doesn’t quite hang together, it is a magnificent mess—with soaring solos and stunningly beautiful duets for the major characters, elaborate ensemble set pieces for chorus, and audacious orchestration even by Berlioz’s uninhibited standard. Give credit to Lyric’s president and general director Anthony Freud for thinking big and bringing Berlioz’s behemoth to Chicago audiences for the first time.

That said this new production by director Tim Albery and designer Tobias Hoheisel provides rather mixed rewards and Sunday’s opening matinee had a sense of the work in progress about it, in Part One in particular.

Albery was responsible for Lyric’s 2015 production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, a disastrous staging of apocalyptic postmodern cliches. Fortunately, nothing here is quite as fatal. The director has updated the action from its ancient milieu to what looks like the World War II era. Hoheisel costumes Aeneas and the soldiers in aviator leather jackets and partisan uniforms, with drab gray and green duds for the chorus, making a monochrome visual. Dido wears her hair in a tight bun and is dressed in a severe blue business suit, appearing like Queen Beatrix as she greets her people. In Act IV, Dido and her sister Anna wear beaded gowns with the men dressed in casual whites, looking like we dropped in on an evening soiree at Noel Coward’s place.

If the 1940s costuming offered little clear justification–apart from the practical one of avoiding dressing the cast in armor and puttees–Hoheisel’s scenic design proved more effective. For the siege of Troy in Part One, the set is a huge revolving battlement wall in ruins from the top of which Cassandra makes her famous warning of impending doom. No Trojan Horse here, just a large ominous equine shadow. In Part Two the same circular wall is shown restored and pristine in Carthage, a symbol of the relative peace and prosperity under Dido’s benign reign.

The production’s demythologizing left little grand or timeless about Virgil’s characters yet it provided a serviceable if stark backdrop for a largely excellent cast.

Still the show took too long to get on track Sunday and there was a distinct lack of energy and electricity onstage and in the pit. Most of Part One, especially, felt capable yet lumbering, like a cautious dress rehearsal.

Christine Goerke proved a solid Cassandra in her role debut, singing her warnings to the people of Troy fluently and idiomatically. Goerke’s expansive soprano sounded surprisingly slender at times, perhaps due in part to singing from the wall’s towering parapet. Considering the stakes for her city of Troy, one would have liked more dramatic bite and emotional intensity, with Goerke’s Cassandra too generalized and low-voltage.

With his belated entrance in Part One, Brandon Jovanovich as Aeneas injected some much-needed vitality into the proceedings. That set the stage for the move to Carthage in Part Two, where this Troyens improved markedly in most every way.  Along with the ballet sequences, projections by Illuminos provided visual relief with ruins, forests and waterfalls breaking up the monotony of the barren city walls (the corny starry backdrop for the love duet not so much).

Most importantly, the singing really took flight with Susan Graham’s Dido and Jovanovich’s Aeneas providing most of the sparks.

Taking the role on short notice after Sophie Koch had departed Lyric’s production, Graham displayed her celebrated bona fides in French repertory and Berlioz in particular. Her voice has lost something in flexibility and luster but Graham’s sense of Gallic style and dramatic incisiveness were apparent with inspired singing from first to last. She sang gloriously in the Act IV love duet (“Nuit d’ivresse”), and conveyed daunting fury at Aeneas when he tells her he must leave her and depart to Italy. In the somber ritual of the final scene, the mezzo rose to the score’s tragic heights, singing with power yet bringing a fragile human dimension to the devastated queen. 

Jovanovich conveyed the heroic confidence of the Trojan warrior, even in his regular-guy getup.  Like Graham, he showed some signs of fatigue in the opera’s final stretch, yet for the most part his Aeneas was terrific. Jovanovich has become one of our reigning heldentenors, yet his voice remains supple and lyrical. The tenor blended gracefully with Graham in the love duet, and sang with vibrant tone and clarion top notes throughout.

The balance of the huge cast was largely outstanding. David Govertsen brought apt dignity to King Priam, whether alive or dead. Lucas Meacham’s hoary baritone suited the blustery Chorebus, Cassandra’s beloved. Annie Rosen was credible in the trousers role of Aeneas’s young son Ascanius. Christian van Horn provided refined and sonorous heft to Narbal. Mingjie Lee etched a nice cameo in the poet Iopas’s nostalgic reminiscence of his homeland.

Filling out the cast in worthy style were Catherine Martin as Hecuba, Okka von der Damerau as Didos’s sister Anna, Corey Bix as Helenus, Philip Horst as Panthus, Jonathan Johnson as Hylas and Bradley Smoak as the ghost of Hector.

Leading his first performance of Les Troyens, Andrew Davis’s conducting was alert, flowing and sympathetic. He was most successful in the opera’s ballet sequences and the lyrical moments of Part Two, such as the quintet, love duet and final scene.

Fitfully lacking was Berlioz’s restless energy, his quirky exuberance and the sheer sonic impact of his singular orchestration. Davis’s string-dominated textures tended to bury Berlioz’s piquant, ingenious wind lines, too often muting the brilliance of this kaleidoscopic score.

Helen Pickett’s choreography for the “Royal Hunt and Storm” and Act IV ballet sequences  was a well-judged blend of the antique and contemporary, the ten dancers graceful and energetic.

The expanded Lyric Opera Chorus sang with extraordinary massed power and luxuriant splendor under the direction of Michael Black, providing consistent vocal thrills in a performance that often seemed to need an extra shot of adrenaline.

Even with low-energy stretches and a mixed staging, Berlioz’s Troyens is unlikely to come this way again anytime soon, and the opportunity to catch this show should not be missed. Bring healthy snacks for the two long intermissions and avoid paying for the overpriced box lunches on sale in the lobby.

Les Troyens runs through December 3.; 312-827-5600.

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