Friday, December 21, 2012

Ta faiblesse et ta gloire: Les Troyens

I love Virgil's Aeneid. Even moderate attention will reveal its rich imagery, and the exciting rhythms of its language. Closer attention reveals the brilliant balance between control and destructive passion, the unexpected twists that are exactly right, the detail which can seem almost onerously dense, until suddenly the moment comes that reveals its overwhelming collective power. Not otherwise, Berlioz's Troyens, also a work of vast proportions and great beauty, manages to weave together episodes of widely differing orchestral and dramatic textures into a whole packed with dense detail and unexpected musical twists, a whole that feels inevitable as perhaps only an epic can. Monday's performance at the Met, though, seemed an imperfect translation of this grandeur, too often halting, too infrequently reckless. Many of its elements were very good indeed, but the driving force to turn these into a satisfyingly overwhelming whole was lacking.

Francesca Zambello's production, while often visually striking, had a tendency to heavy-handed symbolism. Some of her choreographic choices, notably in the presence of other couples on stage during the Nuit d'ivresse, suggested the possibility of an anti-imperialist reading that would also address the gendering of conquest and the conquered... but I didn't find these developed strongly (to my disappointment.) That Carthage should look so like the feminized Oriental Other and then fail to get postcolonial reflections from the production surprised me. The successes--Hector's bloody spirit, the relationship between x and his young wife--were of lesser overall significance. Fabio Luisi's conducting caressed many of the beauties of Berlioz' score, and the woodwinds played with special sensitivity. I felt, however, that a sense of irresistible impulsion, even of impulsiveness, would have made the orchestral contribution much stronger as a whole. It wasn't as bad as translations that turn breathtaking enjambments into end-stopped lines, but it left a similar impression of opportunities lost. Still, there were moments when it kindled into brilliance.
In Troy, while Hector's ghost (David Crawford) offered impressive warnings, a feat of heroism was added to the evening, as Stephen Gaertner served as a late substitute for Dwayne Croft in the role of Coroebus. He had a pleasant tone, excellent phrasing, and fine chemistry with the Cassandre of Deborah Voigt (credit to her for this.) Although Voigt's singing could be edgy, her sound seemed securely produced, and her French was excellent. I had expected more variation of tonal color, but I think this must have been a choice on Voigt's part: hers is a Cassandre unutterably weary of her curse. Troy having fallen, we entered the golden city of Carthage. The extremely traditional choreography of the ballets I found a bit wearisome, but the peaceful rituals of the city (Harry Lime would disapprove) are soon interrupted. Among the voyaging warriors, Eric Cutler was a strongly-sung Iopas, and Paul Appleby very good as Hylas, shaping his phrases dreamily, and singing with beautiful tone. Julie Boulianne made a winsome Ascanius, with secure and sweet-toned singing (some of the business she was given was inexplicable, but she handled it well.)

Although Marcello Giordani was on good form as Aeneas, I didn't feel that the role was a good fit for his strengths. His Italianate style, charming in Puccini, seemed unsubtle here; although his singing was consistently strong, his phrasing was less than fluid, and I found him unconvincing in melting mood. Yes, yes, he's a Founder of Rome, but this is also a man whose parting from Dido is the occasion for my favorite simile (Aeneid IV.441-449), and I didn't see or hear Aeneas' layers of internal conflict in Giordani's performance. The Carthaginians themselves were luxuriously cast, with Kwangchul Youn a Narbal not only noble and wise, but sorrowful and sympathetic. I was impressed by the nuance of his performance, as well as his French and his phrasing. The passionate Anna of Karen Cargill was a great asset to the performance as a whole: her rich, dark mezzo and on-stage energy brought immediacy and liveliness to her scenes. As her sister Dido, Susan Graham was from first to last compelling. She sang with sensitivity to the text, with immense dignity, and with touching warmth. Her awareness of the risk in opening herself to love was made poignantly clear; and having chosen to love Aeneas, she does so with the same clear-eyed generosity with which she rules over Carthage. Her tremendous final monologue--encompassing pride and shame, sorrow, anger, and love--left me breathless. Foretelling the glory of Rome, after that, seemed oddly anticlimactic.

Curtain call photos:

Eric Cutler (Iopas) and Karen Cargill (Anna)
Kwangchul Youn (Narbal)
Susan Graham (Dido)
Marcello Giordani (Aeneas)
Cargill, Giordani, Luisi, Graham


  1. That's a beautifully written and thoughtful review. It even had me checking the reference.

    1. Thank you, John! Both compliments, from you, are much appreciated!

  2. did you also manage to hear Hymel ?

    1. Alas, no: a tight budget of time and money did not allow it.


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