The MCANA conferees' two remaining evenings were spent across the street with the San Francisco Opera at the War Memorial Opera House. On Friday, June 12, we witnessed the Virgilian epic Les Troyens of Berlioz, which dramatizes first the fall of Troy and then the romance in Carthage that nearly shipwrecks the survivors' divine mission to found a second Troy—Rome—in Italy.
The Trojan horse, here just its head, obliterating at a stroke all prior sense of scale and point of view. Front and center: Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra. ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
David McVicar's production, originally mounted three years ago by the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, London, is a blockbuster by any standard; reportedly the sets alone fill 14 shipping containers. Bowing to the contemporary time-shifting imperative, the action has been transposed to the period of Crimean War, which so happens also to be that of the opera's creation. Out with armor, in with uniforms.
I leave it to the historians to tease out parallels between the matter of Troy and headlines of the 1850's, concerning what has been called the first modern war. Assembled in formal black as if for the court photographer, the Trojan royals made an impressive if arbitrary stage picture. But McVicar's masterstrokes revert without apology to myth and archetype. I think of his Trojan horse, consisting here of just a head. The proscenium could hardly contain it; its presence obliterated at a stroke all prior sense of scale and point of view. No less imbued with dread and wonder was the grave but fleeting vision of the god Mercury, come to hasten the distracted hero Aeneas onward, sweeping the night with the shadow of his vast wings.
As Dido, the widowed queen of Carthage the Trojan leader Aeneas cannot bear to leave, Susan Graham sang her sunny early scenes with ravishing transparency, nowhere more so than in pianissimo. If her girlish demeanor at that point and the Golden Fleece of a wig that sat too low on her brow hinted at Shakespeare's Thisby, the discordant note evaporated as the walls closed in. For the final arc of the opera—Dido's furious confrontation with her bolting lover and her scenes of self-abasement, despair, heartbreak, and vengeful prophecy that follow in immediate succession—Graham had a full, regal arsenal of tragic tone and accent at her command. Bryan Hymel, who catapulted to the front ranks as the replacement for Jonas Kaufmann in London and then for Marcello Giordani at the Metropolitan Opera in back-to-back videocasts of this opera two short seasons ago, triumphed afresh as Aeneas. His instrument may lack the heroic heft his most important predecessors have brought to the role, and his timbre seldom deviates from serviceable gunmetal gray, but he flings his sound across the footlights like a javelin and he makes words count. His excitement is contagious.
The prophetess Cassandra of Troy, who chooses death over slavery, calls for brooding intensity, vulnerability, and incantatory resolve. Deputizing for Anna Caterina Antonacci, who had a world premiere on her dance card for the following evening, Michaela Martens brought to the party fierce concentration, piercing tone, and a riveting physicality. (Her tattooed, outspread palms scanned the scene as if controlled by some independent intelligence, like surveillance cameras if not living eyes.) Back from the Missa Solemnis across the street, Sasha Cooke took the role of Dido's sister Anna, who encourages the ill-starred love affair. The sensual, deep purple lower register that releases the perfume of Anna's music is not in Cooke's compass. Yet her profile, chiseled as a cameo, and the impulsive poetry of her phrasing cast a bewitching spell. An adequate supporting cast, by and large, fell a notch below festival caliber.
The company's only previous presentation of Les Troyens—back in the 1960s, when performances came around once in a blue moon—clocked in at about three hours of music, slashing nearly a quarter of the score. These days, performing editions are usually complete, or virtually so. The San Francisco Opera is more forthcoming in such matters than most companies; a fact sheet made disclosure of "various small cuts," including "repeated material," totaling some eight minutes.
Scarcely worth mentioning, one might have thought. But alas and unaccountably, one casualty of the blue pencil was the conclusion of Cassandra's duet with her lover, the foreign prince Corebus. As expected, she prophesied the coming slaughter and pleaded with him to make his break before nightfall; as expected, he refused. And off they went. But what of the final measures, in which Cassandra recognizes that his fate is sealed, no less than her own? And what of her monumental exit line, to do with "jealous Death" at that very moment making up the lovers' wedding bed? Ninety seconds saved. A climax a quarter hour in the making, thrown away.
Demerits to the conductor David Runnicles whether he failed to veto the cut (not taken in London) or, worse, proposed it in the first place. For the rest, he unfurled Berlioz's tapestry with a sumptuous sense of color, pomp, and atmosphere. Most remarkable to my ears were pages often played as episodes of pure and voluptuous serenity, and welcome as such. Thus, when Corebus paints the pastoral picture of herds grazing peacefully by the sea, Runnicles found in the churning of the low strings subliminal portents of doom. And at the start of the great ensemble in which Dido yields to Aeneas, he discovered in the instrumental writing flickering currents of anxiety that made the love duet that follows all the more luminous and magical.