Wednesday, May 06, 2015
Why You Should Buy a Ticket to The Trojans
It's rare for this blog to urge people to buy a ticket to any particular musical event for a number of reasons. Live performances are unpredictable by nature so that what looks great on paper can turn out to be a dull disappointment (and reversed, a happy surprise). People's musical tastes are also so varied that it's a bit presumptious to insist that something is a must-see. So let me just say it plainly. Buy a ticket for the San Francisco Opera's June production of Hector Berlioz's mammoth opera, Les Troyens, a five-and-a-half hour adaptation of Virgil's Aeneid. (Click here to find tickets.)
In the late 1970s I had an operation that made it almost impossible to sit down for about a month, and I ended up laying in bed reading the most entertaining autobiography of a 19th century artist ever written, the French composer Hector Berlioz's Memoires. He knew everyone, from Paganini to Liszt to Georges Sand, and wrote about them all in a prose style that recalls Stendahl in its clarity and wit.
The two literary gods for Berlioz were Virgil and Shakespeare, and one of his lifelong projects, besides inventing the modern role of the orchestra conductor, was to translate Virgil's Aeneid into a Paris Grand Opera, which was the most sumptuous genre in the entire Western World at the time. Rather like London and New York have been since World War Two, Paris was the center of cultural distribution for most of the 19th century, and you needed to make it there for the rest of the world to take one seriously, which is why there are so many French Grand Opera versions of Rossini and Verdi operas. Unfortunately, Berlioz's music was too eccentric for contemporary taste and he had made too many political enemies as a journalist over the decades, so that his grandest creation, Les Troyens, was never properly produced in full in his lifetime. In fact, it was close to 100 years later that the opera was finally given its due in a production conducted by Colin Davis at Covent Garden in the late 1950s.
Les Troyens is actually two operas. The first focuses on Cassandra and her unheeded prophecies about the fall of Troy which ends with the mass onstage suicide of its aristocratic women to save their honor from the conquerers. The second focuses on the love story between Dido and Aeneas in Carthage, which contains long stretches of the most exquisitely beautiful music ever written, and the saddest ending imaginable when Aeneas leaves Dido to go off and found Italie.
The production at SF Opera comes from Covent Garden, directed by David McVicar, and it's received reviews that make it sound perfectly serviceable and visually interesting. The singers are the best you could find in the world for these parts right now, with the starry young Bryan Hymel singing the impossibly long and difficult role of Aeneas, Susan Graham as Dido, Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra, and Sasha Cooke and Brian Mulligan as part of the subsidiary luxury casting. Donald Runnicles, the great former Music Director of the SF Opera, is returning to conduct. Let me reiterate. This is the one performance you don't want to miss this year, or you will be shamed by cultured friends forever. I'll probably be hanging out in balcony standing room at most of the performances because the chances to see and hear this opera doesn't come along very often. (Photo above of the Trojan Horse in the London production by Bill Cooper.)