Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?
—William Butler Yeats, “No Second Troy”
Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens (1856–1858)
Based on: Virgil’s Aeneid
Setting: Troy; Carthage
Sung in: French
Plot in 101 words or less: Cassandra tries to warn the Trojans “Look a gift horse in the mouth, yo.” But she’s a woman, so no one listens. Luckily, Hector’s ghost later repeats her warning, so Aeneas can take action and escape. The women of Troy aren’t so lucky and commit suicide. Hey, ancient Troy is just like corporate America! Aeneas winds up in Carthage where he woos Dido in a cave during a royal hunt, like you do. But he can’t be tied down, man, Italy awaits! So Dido burns his sh*t and stabs herself, swearing that Hannibal Lecter will avenge her with Chianti. Or something.
While I can’t say I was looking forward to a five-hour opera, I can say that I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed San Francisco Opera’s production of Les Troyens (The Trojans) by Hector Berlioz (1803–1869). I have already expressed my admiration for Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique in this space, but this was an entirely different beast. Based on the first few books of Virgil’s Aeneid, Berlioz himself never saw a production of the first two acts (now known as “La Prise de Troie”/“The Capture of Troy”) although “La Prise” and “Les Troyens à Carthage”/“The Trojans in Carthage” were always intended as one epic whole.
While ostensibly the story of Aeneas, it is the women who are the real heroines of Les Troyens. And on that score, San Francisco Opera certainly delivered. Anna Caterina Antonacci as prophetic Cassandre was perhaps too mannered for my tastes, but she was very effective in the role. It was also great to see a more sensual Susan Graham—last seen in trousers as Xerxes in Serse, but here playing Didon, Queen of Carthage. Her duet with last-minute replacement Corey Bix as Énee (Aeneas) was beautiful. Rounding out the divine divas was my beloved Sasha Cooke from The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, playing the secondary role of Anna, Didon’s sister. While perennial bass-baritone Christian Van Horn also made an appearance as Narbal, Dido’s minister, it was Adler Fellow Chong Wang who stood out on the wistful “Vallon sonore”—sadly not included on the recording I borrowed from the library.
The orchestra was just as impressive: Led by former SFO music director Donald Runnicles, it consisted of ninety-five musicians (four bassoons!) in the pit and backstage. My favorite orchestral moments were the clarinet solo during Act 1’s “Pantomine: Andromaque et son fils!” and the tone painting during Act IV’s “Pantomime: Chasse royale et orage,” the first of many ballet interludes choreographed by Lynne Page. The choral work was exemplary as well.
While I wasn’t particularly impressed by the costumes by Moritz Junge, the sets by Es Devlin were striking—except for the final statue done in the same style as the horse, which I didn’t quite get the point of, and was a bit of a letdown after the magnificent Trojan Horse. And I feel I should note at this point that the season also began with a gigantic horse being set on fire in Norma, so, been there, done that, in more ways than one. Still one certainly felt one got one’s money’s worth.
It almost makes me sad I can’t sit through a second performance (the final one) at the War Memorial Opera House on July 1 at 6:00pm. Or stand, rather, since I imagine those are the only tickets left at this point.