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

Mon Nov 14, 2016 at 4:27 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

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.

Posted in Performances

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

  1. Posted Nov 14, 2016 at 5:08 pm by Issa Cagret`

    If you like 5 hours of French opera (with intermission)…this is for you. Given there are only 5 performances it has sold well but at great expense (and loss). I find the story by Virgil to be trite propaganda for the eventual rise of Rome. The singing is generally good BUT it is often that Berlioz isn’t so much grand as repetitive and plodding.

    The 94 enhanced chorus (reduced from 120 by LYRIC operations in May) ably compensates for the loud but uninspired orchestration. If you have five hours of your life to waste, buy a ticket. Otherwise, take a pass.

  2. Posted Nov 15, 2016 at 8:17 am by Randolph Roller

    I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, but missed hearing the ballet music in Act 3 and the short sentry scene in Act 5. The 4 hours and 40 minutes passed by pleasantly and sometimes thrillingly. The work is certainly flawed, especially Part 1, which even the magnificent Ms. Goerke could not rescue.

    But what a pleasure to finally see it live on the Lyric stage. I highly recommend it. It is not likely to be in Chicago again for many, many years.

  3. Posted Nov 15, 2016 at 8:27 am by Jim Price

    Well, M. Johnson et Mme. Cagret, what good are critics if they can’t find fault? But please, do allow us operatic plebeians (even if NOT of Roman descent) to bask in what for us is an amazing production of a grand opera. You enjoy the bones that you’ve picked, while many of us relish the meat of this spectacular and spirit-filled staging, singing, and orchestral creation.

    And perhaps if you had not gone straight to the bones, you might not have needed gratuitously to attack the convenience (for some) of the box lunches. Weep for the metaphor this opera becomes for our current geopolitical condition.

  4. Posted Nov 18, 2016 at 1:18 pm by Mike G.

    Only 5 hours? I could have sat thru 5 more. Enjoyed this production immensely, much more than the Met’s several decades – ahem – ago. Worthy of additional praise: the wonderfully imaginative ballet accompanying the “Royal Hunt & Storm” music, which left me teary-eyed for several minutes afterwards. Sets were efficiently done and used to their best advantage, and costumes were interesting but not so much as to detract from the music and singing, which might have projected better into the forward sections of the Dress Circle. (Memo to file: next time, spend the extra bucks!)

    Did I forget the chorus? No, Chicago is known for its excellent ones, and this was no exception. Too bad it only ran for 5 performances; this is one show that definitely should go on the road! Thank you, Lyric!

  5. Posted Nov 22, 2016 at 7:41 am by Larry Janowski

    Mr. Johnson should have been at last night’s performance. One of the greatest opera experiences of my (long) life.

  6. Posted Nov 28, 2016 at 4:07 pm by Matt M.

    After enduring Saturday night’s performance of “Les Troyens” at the Lyric, I wish I had never lived to see Berlioz’s work complete.

    In addition to foisting another ill-conceived, incoherent, poorly directed, laughably designed and ineptly sung production upon us, we also had to endure the warbly braying of Corey Bix, filling in for the too-sick-to-sing Brandon Jovanovich.

    In announcing the substitution just before curtain, Lyric President Anthony Freud pulled a Trump and informed us that Bix had performed the role of Aeneas “to great acclaim” in San Francisco. A simple Internet search refuted that assertion. Sample: “his singing was neither attractive nor expressive.”

    The evening’s sole pleasure was the ever-reliable Susan Graham, who managed to overcome being forced to sing in an especially unbecoming electric-blue suit.

    Besides Bix, and the ugly, pointlessly modern costumes, and the purposeless stage movements, and another what-the-hell?! set, the evening’s many lowlights included the Act 3 choreography. The first ballet looked like it was a rejected dance from the “West Side Story,” and the second had to have been created by someone who used to work the pole.

    Really, Lyric, is this the best you can do? The Met’s revival in 2003 (which returned in 2013) was by all accounts a triumph. The McVicar production seen in London and San Francisco also was well-received. Why are we forced to settle for third-rate productions?

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