Post Cards from the Edge Berlioz’ Les Troyens - June 20, 2015, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 6:00 pm | Welcome to Fred’s Home Page

Berlioz’ Les Troyens - June 20, 2015, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 6:00 pm 

Most know the works attributed to the Greek poet Homer: The Iliad and the Odyssey.  I’ve read both but have not read the Roman poet Virgil’s The Aeneid which follows the journey of Aeneas to Carthage.. Fortunately, the San Francisco Opera Shop had a copy for sale and it’s now on my summer reading list.

Les Troyens is Berlioz’ concept of The Aeneid.  The first presentation of the opera was by the New England Opera Theater in Boston in 1955, but San Francisco Opera claims the first “professional stage premiere” at the War Memorial Opera House on November 4, 1966.  This is the fourth production by the San Francisco Opera.  

The Florida Grand Opera in Miami was scheduled for a production two years ago but the new director canceled saying FGO was simply not ready for such a production. I now can understand why.  Most opera productions arrive at the opera house in four transfer trucks. Les Troyens requires sixteen trucks.  Not only that, there are 18 principals, 97 choristers, 18 dancers and acrobats and 10 supernumeraires for a cast of 143 people.  The orchestra has 72 people and there is a backstage (offstage) orchestra of 23.  This is a massive performance lasting five hours and fifteen minutes with five acts and two intermissions.  You need stamina to get through this.

As my opera guide and firend Wade says, it’s really two operas combined.  There is the capture of Troy by the Greeks and then there is the appearance of the Trojans at Carthage.  The opera started at 6 pm and I think we got out around 11:30 pm.  If you have read Virgil’s Aeneid, I’m told it follows pretty closely with obvious adaptations for opera.

Act I opens with the lifting of the 10 year siege of Troy by the Greeks who have left a giant horse as an offering to Athena.  Cassandra envisions doom and destruction after seeing the ghost of Hector walking the ramparts of Troy.  No one pays her any attention, not even her fiancé Coroebus.  In this act, you have Andromache (Hector’s widow) presenting her son (and heir to the throne of Troy) to King Priam and Queen Hecuba.  

The warrior Aeneas arrives with the news that the priest Laocoön is dead, eaten by two giant sea serpents.  Ignoring Cassandra, Priam and Aeneas insist the horse be brought into the city to appease Athena.  All I can say is what a horse.  It was only the head and mane but it towered over the stage.  It was made of metal and flame resistant plastic and designed in such a way it looked totally modern, e.g. hubcaps, ibeams, etc.  It’s a good thing it was metal and flame resistant plastic because it later “burns” on stage.  They have to have a fire marshall in attendance at every performance ready to bring down the curtain if things get out of hand.  

Act II begins with Aeneas seeing Hector’s ghost who tells him to escape Troy tonight.  His duty is to found a great empire (Rome).  At that moment, a friend of Aeneas, Pasntheus, runs in with the news of the destruction of Troy by the Greeks. Coroebus is dead as well as Priam and Hecuba.  We do go through some of what is typical of Homer and Virgil with Aeneas deciding to flee one moment and the next go to his death fighting the Greeks, but you can’t have the hero die, so eventually he leaves with some of the Trojan army (and the gold of Troy) for the sea.  Meanwhile, Cassandra refuses to become a Greek slave and kills herself encouraging the women of Troy to do the same.

Act III takes place in Carthage where Dido, the Queen, has led her Phoenician people away from the conquest of Tyre into Carthage.  The act opens with celebrastions for all Dido has done.  Her sister Anna tells her her people need a king and she needs to be open to falling in love again.  It’s at this point that news of strangers washing up on the beach arrive.  Dido welcomes them to Carthage.  Word is received that the Numidian ruler Iarbas is on his way to exact homage from Dido.  Aeneas immediately reveals himself to Dido and offers the Trojan army to fight alongside the Cartheginians to defeat Iarbas.  She accepts.

Act IV has Aeneas and Dido victorious and taking shelter during a storm.  It’s here they realize they are in love.  However, the god Mercury reminds Aeneas of his fate and destination - Italy.

Act V has Aeneas reinforced with his duty and destiny by visits of ghosts from Priam, Hector, Coroebus and Cassandra.  He cannot bring himself to say goodbye to Dido and leaves with his men.  Dido is distraught and orders a funeral pyre be built to burn the gifts of the Trojans.  She has a vision of revenge against Italy by a general by the name of Hannibal. As she stabs herself with Aeneas’ sword, she has another vision of Carthage being destroyed by Rome.  The Cartheginians curse Aeneas and his descendants.  

In the opera, Corey Bix took over the role of Aeneas, originally scheduled to be performed by Bryan Hymel.  Bix did an adequate job, however it took him a long time to warm up.  However, he had plenty of time since he was in all five acts.  At least Cassandra gets to sit down after Act I.  He did struggle but the performances of Cassandra, sung by Michaela Martens, and Dido, sung by Susan Graham, more than made up for any weakness on Bix’s part.  Even though there is a huge cast and chorus, in reality, there were only a few prinicpal performers.  

This opera reminded me a great deal of the Ring Cycle by Wagner - not only in scope and time but emphasis on ideals and morals, love won and then lost.  

The image is from the San Francisco Opera webpage.

© Fred Searcy 2017