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Christine Goerke as Cassandre [Photo by Todd Rosenberg courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]
24 Dec 2016

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Christine Goerke as Cassandre

Photos by Todd Rosenberg courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago

 

In the first part of the opera the role of Cassandra is performed by Christine Goerke, in the second part that of Queen Dido of Carthage by Susan Graham; the role of Aeneas spanning both parts of the opera is sung by Brandon Jovanovich. Chorebus, fiancé of Cassandra, features Lucas Meachem; Anna and Narbal, sister of Dido and the latter’s minister, are performed by Okka von der Damerau and by Christian Van Horn. In the first part the roles of Priam and Hecuba, rulers of Troy, and the ghost of Hector, their son fallen in battle, are taken by David Govertsen, Catherine Martin, and Bradley Smoak. Ascanius, son of Aeneas, and Helenus, son of Priam, are sung by Annie Rosen and Corey Bix. The role of Panthus, those of a Trojan soldier and of a Greek captain are performed by Philip Horst, Takaoki Onishi, and by Patrick Guetti. In the second part of the opera the lyrical roles of Iopas and Hylas are sung by Mingjie Lei and by Jonathan Johnson. This new production is directed by Tim Albery with sets and costumes by Tobias Hoheisel. Lighting design and choreography are by David Finn and by Helen Pickett, the latter in her debut with this company. Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Michael Black is the Chorus Master.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago production makes use of a stylized, rotating wall - punctuated by entrance panels and a staircase - and ingenious lighting to adapt the staging to both parts of the opera. At the same time the five acts in Berlioz’s score, each neatly divisible into two parts, match the seamless transformation of the stage throughout. At the start of the first part, “The Taking of Troy,” Cassandra embodies a dominant force atop the moving wall. As Ms. Goerke’s Cassandra gazes wild-eyed on the chorus of assembled Trojans, her presence has no effect on the citizens mistakenly celebrating their liberation from the Greeks. It is indeed against this foe that Cassandra unleashes her impassioned warning. Goerke hurls herself into the role while displaying a spectrum of emotional shifts; she communicates both portent and tenderness by means of voice and physical gesture. Once the crowd of happy Trojans deserts Cassandra, who had expressed her painful fear by clutching her stomach, Goerke shivers while pronouncing the “dessein fatal” [“dread plan”] hidden by the Greeks. Despite her vision of Hector’s ghost [“l’ombre d’Hector”], neither the people nor the King will heed repeated warnings [“tu ne veux rien comprendre”], both thoughts singled out by Goerke with searing top notes. A softer, lyrical intonation accompanies the shift of emotional focus to her betrothed Chorèbe. Here Goerke sings - as though in a happy, distant milieu - of the expected loss “de doux rêves de tendresse” [“of tender dreams of happiness”]. Just as she slips into this emotional reverie, Chorèbe enters to greet his beloved. Called back into the present Cassandra recoils from her lover’s greeting. Mr. Meachem’s projection and polished legato urging Cassandra to seek “ton âme rassurée” [“calm for your soul”] is followed by a dramatic, sustained pitch coaxing from her “un doux rayon d’espoir” [“a sweet ray of hope”]. Rather than feel solace, Cassandra’s dread intensifies with rapid notes intoned by Goerke on the “livre du destin” [“book of fate”] in which she sensed a forthcoming “fleuve de sang” [“river of blood”]. Chorèbe attempts to paint a contrasting, benevolent picture of nature which Meachem traces with rising, emotional pitches on “soufle de la brise [“breeze’s soft breath”] and on “joyeux oiseaux” [“joyful birds”]. Once Cassandra accepts with resignation his refusal to save himself by leaving, Goerke sings a chillingly shocking declaration that their nuptial bed is prepared by death “pour demain” [“for tomorrow”]. As the couple leaves, the royal family appears for the funeral rites accorded to Hector, celebrated in pantomime with choral commentary and emphasizing here, with appropriate irony, “destin” [“fate”] once again. Orchestral accompaniment directed by Davis tracing the movements of the widow Andromache are especially effective with the somber line of the oboe following her path toward King Priam as she holds the hand of her orphaned son.

LES TROYENS_LYR161109_0010_c.Todd Rosenberg.pngScene from Les Troyens

While the royal couple are surrounded by onlookers, Aeneas rushes into the court to announce the horrifying fate of Laocoön: the priest had thrown a javelin at the wooden horse left behind by the Greeks and was, in turn, ensnared and devoured by “serpents monstrueux” [“sea monsters”]. Aeneas’s precipitate entrance and excited message are delivered ideally by Mr. Jovanovich whose bright top notes and excellent French diction define his character convincingly. In the subsequent concerted passage Jovanovich’s projection remains equally impressive accompanying the urgent, unforced lines sung by Ms. Rosen as his son Ascanius. Alone and perched again atop the city’s wall Cassandra levels judgements on the Trojans’ foolishness as the horse is pushed into the city. In Lyric Opera’s production, the movement of the horse is illustrated by a giant equestrian shadow progressing across the brightly lit city’s walls. The end of the first act features Cassandra following with resignation the horse’s arrival within the walls as Goerke hurls out the phrase “les débris de Troie” [‘the ruins of Troy”] with a shocking dramatic top note on the final word.

In the second act concluding the first part of Les Troyens Aeneas sleeps fitfully while the sounds of distant fighting are rendered by the orchestra. The ghost of Hector, disheveled and covered with grime, enters to stand at the foot of Aeneas’s cot. When the protagonist awakes to face the shade, Jovanovich’s startled reaction matches the shifting chords in the orchestra. Upon asking after Hector’s intent Mr. Smoak replies with deep, resonant pitches on the hopeless collapse of the city and offers the repeated advice “Va, cherche l’Italie … [“Go, seek Italy…”] before he fades from sight. Before he is able to heed the stern admonition of Hector, Aeneas responds to the urgent calls of Panthus and Chorèbe to defend the Trojan citadel. At this point in Lyric Opera’s production the heroism written into the role of Berlioz’ Aeneas rises gloriously as Jovanovich sings the line “Tentons de nous défendre” [“Let us strive to defend ourselves”] with his voice arching above the chorus on the final word. Soon afterward, when grouped alone with the Trojan women, Cassandra announces that Chorèbe is dead and that Troy will presently no longer exist. Her reciprocal exchange with the chorus of Trojan women calls up the horror of potential captivity, beneath “la loi brutale des vainqueurs” [“the brutal law of the victors”], colored by Goerke with a shudder as her voice skids into the lower register. The chorus echoes her resolve to die rather than accept subjugation. When Mr. Guetti’s Greek captain bursts into their midst, he can simply marvel at their “noble transport” [“magnificent fervor”]; as the second Greek detachment announces Aeneas’s escape with the sacred treasure, the defiant women perform their self-sacrifice.

In the second part of the opera, “The Trojans at Carthage,” action proceeds from vantage points of the earlier wall, transformed now into a series of differing structures from the first part of the opera. While the Carthaginians sing of their festive day, Dido looks out from a window at the upper recesses of the building. Once the chorus sings its anthem and praise of Dido, the queen enters with her sister Anna and the court adviser Narbal. The personality and concerns of each character are gradually revealed by the performers in Lyric Opera’s production during the course of Act III. Ms. Graham demonstrates her close association with the role of Dido while she musters the people’s resolve and inspires the “chers Tyiens” [“dear Tyrians”] to continue their efforts at settlement. Just as she will later hear from the court poet Iopas, the queen now sings of the fecundity of the land and the labors that bring products from afar. Graham’s rising embellishments on “où s’éveille l’aurore” [“where the sun rises”] evokes an optimistic, public exterior yet cloaks any personal thoughts and emotions. Only when Dido speaks in privacy with Anna are her inner misgivings revealed. Ms. von der Damerau’s opulent, flexible vocal line forms not only a foil to Graham’s increasing apprehensions but she also assumes a truly developed characterization of her own. While Graham muses with melancholy on her “étrange tristesse” [“strange sadness”], her sister sings assuredly and repeatedly “Vous aimerez, ma soeur” [“You will love again, my sister”]. Von der Damerau’s lilting voice is matched by bodily gesture, both of these encouraging Dido’s openness to emotional adventure. The conclusion of the sisters’ duet unites both voices on the “trouble” [“unease”] in Dido’s heart which will determine her future.

Political and military concerns predominate at the entrance of Aeneas and the Trojans. Graham emphasizes the queen’s hospitality by welcoming the expatriates with moving declamation on “qui connut la souffrance” [“one who has known suffering”]. The introduction of the Trojans sung by Ascanius coincides with Narbal’s entrance to announce the approaching military danger of Iarbas leading the Numidians against Carthage. In the role of Narbal Christian Van Horn propels the act forward in his ominous description of the Numidian foe. Van Horn’s projection and fluid line are an ideal instrument to awaken Dido’s concerns for her people. His effective delivery forms a bridge to Aeneas declaring “Permettez aux Troyens de combattre avec vous!” [“Permit the Trojans to fight alongside you!”], intoned by Jovanovich with clarion top notes. Before departing to fight for Carthage, the father Aeneas asks that Dido protect his son. Into these lines Jovanovich injects a tender balance to the heroic preparedness that characterize his demeanor for battle.

At the start of Act IV the image of the sleeping queen approached by Aeneas, the forest, and the projections of a waterfall reveal symbolically the developing love between the protagonists. In a subsequent exchange Anna continues her light-hearted tone while Narbal cautions for the future. Although he admits that the Numidian enemy has been repulsed, he fears that the queen neglects her duties as exemplary figure. Van Horn inserts a troubled, distended tone into describing the “chasses … festins” [“hunts … feasts”] to which Dido now dedicates herself despite the “destin” [“fate”] of Italy being inexorably part of Aeneas’ future. In his aria, “De quels revers?” [“What disasters?”], Van Horn’s voice imparts an ominous warning, as though a pendant to that of Cassandra’s in the first part of the opera. His heartfelt legato in describing the ambivalent nature of Jupiter, “dieu de l’hospitalité” [“God of hospitality”], is countered by von der Damerau in her florid decoration of “Carthage est triumphante.” The subsequent ballet is staged as an entertainment set up by Anna with both dancers and observers attired in semi-formal wear reminiscent of the 1930s. With the protagonists seated as audience in a semi-circle of chairs, Aeneas places his arm about the shoulder of Dido in a natural embrace. As though instinctively in need of a familiar voice from the court, Dido asks Iopas to sing his “poème des champs” [“poem of the fields”]. Mr. Lei assumes the center of the court’s stage to perform “Ô blonde Cérès.” Lei’s song is light and natural, with supple embellishments and use of rubato at strategic moments in the text. Lei’s high pitches are unforced and extend the vocal decoration with elegance. Despite the beauty of his song Dido remains restless and asks Aeneas to recount further his previous wanderings. As the collected principals admire the twilight, Aeneas encourages Dido to forget the past sadness and heed the “brise caressante” [“gentle breeze”]. When the stage revolves, the two remain alone to sing “Nuit d’ivresse” [“Night of rapture”], performed by Graham and Jovanovich with layers of sensual decoration and softly extended, repeated lines. Upon their departure, the voice of Hector echoes the call “Italie!”

The final act of Les Troyens contrasts, in the main, sharply with the tender moments of the preceding. Here the two major parts place a rift between, on the one hand, Aeneas and his calling, and on the other, the isolation of Dido. At the start of Act V Hylas is perched in an upper window of the wall whence he sings “Vallon sonore” [“Echoing vale”], his plaintive wish to return to the homeland. Mr. Johnson captures the spirit of Hylas with an arching, lyrical line, some of the concluding pitches held as if endlessly. When he asks the eternal sea to rock him gently on her mighty breast [“Berce mollement”], Johnson’s voice evokes the movement of a comforting swell. The remaining parts of the act depart with dramatic force from this wistful introduction. Aeneas interacts with the chorus of soldiers and the spirits of Troy to a self-reconciliation of duty. In his “Inutiles regrets” [“Futile regrets”] Jovanovich remains in control of his character’s destiny while hurling out dramatic laments such as “Rien n’a pu la toucher” [“Nothing moved her”], as he describes his attempts to rationalize departing to the stricken Dido. In his realization that he must confront the queen one last time Jovanovich releases the word “désespoir” [“despair”] with shattering finality. During their final moments together Graham’s repetition of “Tu pars” [“You are leaving”] renders her positive yet uncomprehending sentiments, before she curses Aeneas and his gods. In the final scene Graham summons the power of the deserted queen to give a multifaceted depiction of Dido’s shifting emotions. Here Graham’s transitions in vocal color trace a line from vengeance to fear to resignation, ending on “Je vais mourir” [“I am going to die”]. In the company of Anna she stabs herself while looking to the possible future of her people. Graham sings the name “Annibal!” [“Hannibal!”] forte as the word ROMA appears in majuscule on the wall. This dignified conclusion reveres the spirit of Berlioz in a vocally and dramatically flawless production at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Salvatore Calomino

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