An epic op­er­atic ef­fort

Fem­i­nist mes­sage bol­sters S.F. Opera’s mam­moth ‘Troyens.’


SAN FRAN­CISCO — Ber­lioz’s “Les Troyens” — a five-hour epic opera af­ter Vir­gil’s “Aeneid” with touches of Homer, Shake­speare and mu­sic like none ever writ­ten be­fore for the lyric stage — is the grand­est French opera. Ev­ery per­for­mance is an oc­ca­sion.

San Fran­cisco Opera opened its sum­mer sea­son — a month of three op­eras in reper­tory — Sun­day af­ter­noon with a mam­moth pro­duc­tion even for “Troyens.” The 32-ton set is the largest ever as­sem­bled on the stage of the 83-year-old War Me-

mo­rial Opera House. David McVicar’s lav­ish stag­ing was orig­i­nally the Royal Opera’s con­tri­bu­tion to the fes­ti­val sur­round­ing the 2012 Olympic Games in Lon­don.

S.F. Opera’s “Troyens” is, how­ever, his­tor­i­cally no­table for rea­sons other than its hulk­ing set or mas­sive cast of singers, dancers and ac­ro­bats.

Ber­lioz’s two-part marathon en­com­pass­ing the fall of Troy and Ae­neas’ love af­fair with Queen Dido in Carthage on his way to found Rome was fin­ished in 1858 but never per­formed com­plete in the French com­poser’s life­time.

Not un­til 1966 did “Troyens,” thanks to S.F. Opera, re­ceive its first pro­fes­sional stag­ing in the U.S. But the trun­cated ver­sion (which trav­eled to the Shrine Au­di­to­rium in L.A. and to the out­door Greek Theater in Berke­ley, where the star tenor swal­lowed a moth while singing) left out more than a third of Ber­lioz’s score. “Troyens” was writ­ten off as an in­co­her­ent mess with some won­drous mu­sic.

Only when Royal Opera mounted and recorded the first note-com­plete “Troyens” in 1969 did the opera world at large rec­og­nize a master­piece. The Metropoli­tan Opera staged its first “Troyens” to cel­e­brate the open­ing of its cen­ten­nial sea­son in 1983; Paris Opera staged its first full “Troyens” to open its new opera house in 1990. Los An­ge­les Opera jumped on a “Troyens” bandwagon in 1991.

Only now has S.F. Opera got­ten around to “Troyens” again and, at last, all (but for cou­ple min­utes worth of in­ci­den­tal trims) of “Troyens.” Un­for­tu­nately, the re­sult is in many ways dis­ap­point­ing. The pro­duc­tion treads tired ground. The chore­og­ra­phy is an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of bal­letic clichés. The sassi­ness and orig­i­nal­ity of Ber­lioz’s orches­tra, which gives the opera its un­mis­tak­able char­ac­ter and at­mos­phere, are of­ten sub­dued by con­duc­tor Don­ald Run­ni­cles’ taste for omi­nous brass, rich string sounds and oth­er­wise im­pres­sively full-bod­ied Wag­ne­r­ian sound.

But this is his­tor­i­cally a singers’ com­pany, and stand­out per­for­mances by Anna Ca­te­rina An­tonacci as Cas­san­dre, Su­san Gra­ham as Dido and Sasha Cooke as Dido’s sis­ter, Anna, man­age to make S.F. Opera’s “Troyens” mean some­thing. Ber­lioz’s great im­prove­ment on Vir­gil was to em­power the women, and Sun­day they made pow­er­ful mock­ery of masters and com­man­ders with their pa­thetic piety.

An­tonacci’s Cas­san­dre is no clair­voy­ant; rather, a re­al­ist. The Ital­ian so­prano will also star this month in the com­pany’s pre­miere of Marco Tutino’s “Two Women,” based on the same story as Vit­to­rio Di Sica’s clas­sic film star­ring Sophia Loren. An­tonacci’s ready. Even her Cas­san­dre is glam­orously Loren-es­que in her emo­tion­ally in­tense por­trayal of a woman be­trayed not by the gods who gave her vi­sion but by the smug, blind bel­li­cos­ity of men.

Gra­ham’s sen­su­ally sung Dido is a for­mi­da­ble queen who puts love above war in an ef­fort to cre­ate a great so­ci­ety. Her fail­ure to do­mes­ti­cate Enée (Ae­neas), whom the gods in­sis­tently guide to Rome, is a re­buke of hero­ism over pas­sion. Cooke’s Anna, who awakes Dido’s in­ner de­sire, be­comes the em­bod­i­ment of sump­tu­ous­ness.

Next to th­ese women, the men are stolid. Bari­tone Brian Mul­li­gan — Cas­san­dre’s lover, Chorèbe — can only look on in awe at Cas­san­dre’s courage. Ber­lioz gave Enée lit­tle depth, and Bryan Hymel’s ide­ally fo­cused tenor shows no dif­fer­ence be­tween the ar­dor of love and that of war.

Much nu­ance gets lost in McVicar’s spec­ta­cle. The Tro­jan War is turned into the Crimean War. Carthage is a terra cotta desert set­tle­ment with ide­al­is­tic ar­chi­tec­tural mod­els. Es Devlin’s sets are made for de­struc­tion. The Tro­jan horse is an evil-look­ing ma­chine hous­ing watch-works in­nards.

With a large cho­rus and many singers in small roles, “Troyens” has as many mov­ing parts as the watch-works Tro­jan horse. Most roles are cast ad­e­quately, with the most con­vinc­ing be­ing the youngest and fresh­est, the Adler Fel­lows from the com­pany’s train­ing pro­gram. The large cho­rus im­presses even when run­ning around like chick­ens with their heads cut off. Propul­sive ex­cite­ment is a Run­ni­cles spe­cialty, even when pre­ci­sion isn’t pos­si­ble.

No doubt the stag­ing would have been stronger had McVicar, chore­og­ra­pher Lynne Page and light­ing designer Wolf­gang Göbbel trav­eled to San Fran­cisco rather than turn­ing their du­ties over to as­sis­tants. Although La Scala in Mi­lan has also mounted the pro­duc­tion, the orig­i­nal team might have no­ticed at the War Me­mo­rial Opera House how daft the old-fash­ioned story-book chore­og­ra­phy looks, how much the­atri­cal­ity is lost hav­ing Dido ex­press her rage in front of the cur­tain dur­ing the fi­nal act, or what hap­pens to illusion when a red light bulb can be seen hang­ing in­side the Tro­jan horse.

The grander the spec­ta­cle, the more frag­ile it is. That, af­ter all, is Ber­lioz’s un­der­ly­ing fem­i­nist mes­sage stag­ger­ingly con­veyed by An­tonacci and Gra­ham in this “Troyens.”

OPEN­ING SCENE of Ber­lioz’s mas­sive “Les Troyens” in San Fran­cisco fea­tures a Tro­jan horse that is an evil-look­ing ma­chine hous­ing watch-works in­nards.

Pho­tog raphs by Cory Weaver San Fran­cisco Opera

ANNA CA­TE­RINA AN­TONACCI de­liv­ers an emo­tion­ally in­tense por­trayal of Cas­san­dre in “Troyens.”

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