Les Troyens

Hector Berlioz based on Virgil’s Aeneid
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
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Julie Boulianne as Ascanio and Susan Graham as Dido Credit: Cory Weaver
Deborah Voigt as Cassandra with the Trojan Horse Credit: Cory Weaver
Jacqueline Antaramian as Andromache and Deborah Voigt Credit: Cory Weaver

Homer didn’t make it up, you know. The Trojan War, the war to end all wars, really did take place circa 1240 BC. Hector Berlioz had long wanted to set the epic story to music; the seeds had been sown when he was a child and his father had read Virgil’s Aeneid to him.

Les Troyens, spectacular and lyrical, is really two operas. The first two acts are devoted to Cassandra and the fall of Troy. The last three acts are devoted to Dido in Carthage. Berlioz, who had burst into tears when he first learned Dido had committed suicide, spent five years trying to get it on. Finally, he split it in two, but only the second part (acts 3, 4 and 5) was produced during his lifetime in 1863.

The opera was universally thought to be unperformable and it was not performed, as he had conceived it, until 1957. With its huge chorus, frequent scene changes and several ballets, it is extremely expensive to stage. So expensive, in fact, that only a few opera houses can afford it. The Met can afford the sheer numbers and this is great for the chorus, who produce a thrilling sound. This particular production, which can be seen online, was directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by Fabio Luisi at The Met in 2013.

The Trojan War has been going on for nine years and nobody is listening to Cassandra (Deborah Voigt), not even the man she loves (Dwayne Croft), and is begging to leave the city. She has more success persuading the Trojan women to commit mass suicide rather than stay alive and be raped and made slaves.

Andromache has a long entrance, mourning the death of her husband, Hector, and then surprise, surprise… The scene is famous for the fact that she doesn’t sing.

In Carthage, Dido (Susan Graham) falls in love with Aeneas (Bryan Hymel) only to find he has been charged by the gods to found Rome and must leave her. Aeneas is torn between love and duty and Dido doesn’t make it easy for him. She does the full 'scorned woman' thing (calling him all sort of names which I couldn’t repeat) and after he has gone, she goes mad and takes her life on a funeral pyre.

Berlioz’s music, heroic and human, is a rich treat. Deborah Voigt and Susan Graham deliver the powerful performances needed. Bryan Hymel stops the show. The audience’s roars of approval went on and on.

Other high spots include two solos. The first is by Kwangchul Youn as Dido’s minister who is deeply perturbed about Carthage’s future. The second is by Paul Appleby as a young sailor who wants to go home.

Les Troyens is a marathon, lasting 5 hours and 30 minutes. Online, The Met has got rid of the intervals and got it down to 4 hours 20 minutes. The opera would be less of a marathon if it were two separate operas.

Even better would be to get rid of nearly all of the dancing. There is too much dancing and Doug Varone's choreography is just not good enough. Dido and Aeneas sit on cushions and, absurdly, have to pretend to enjoy the divertissements when, clearly, they would much rather be in bed having more nights of ecstasy.

There are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera on Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($4.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch