A Tale of Two Cities: Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Berlioz – Les Troyens.

Cassandre – Christine Goerke
Chorèbe – Lucas Meachem
Panthée – Philip Horst
Hélénus – Corey Bix
Ascagne – Annie Rosen
Hécube – Catherine Martin
Priam – David Govertsen
Énée – Brandon Jovanovich
Hector – Bradley Smoak
Didon – Susan Graham
Anna – Okka von der Damerau
Iopas – Lei Mingjie
Narbal – Christian van Horn
Hylas – Jonathan Johnson

Lyric Opera Chorus, Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago / Andrew Davis.
Stage director – Tim Albery

Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, Chicago, Illinois, USA.  Monday, November 21st, 2016.

Tonight’s performance of Les Troyens, the third of five, marked a major event in the operatic history of this culture-loving Midwest city.  This is the first time that Berlioz’ magnum opus has been staged here and to mark the occasion, Lyric Opera assembled a cast of fine US and international artists.

Ballet & Susan Graham © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016
Ballet & Susan Graham © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016

The staging was the work of Tim Albery and its biggest strength was its resourcefulness and ability to do much with little.  At its best, it was inventive – a single semi-circular, revolving set served for both Troy and Carthage; in Troy it was full of holes and ruins, whereas in Carthage it was complete and bare.  Albery used video projections most successfully to illuminate the story – the horse was seen projected and moving across the set, flames were shown as Troy burned, a starry sky set a beautiful backdrop to the ‘nuit d’ivresse’, and the curtain came down on a single word projected on the set: ‘Roma’.  This was certainly impactful and displayed great theatrical imagination.  Yet for me, this excellent work was let down by the personenregie which I’m afraid to say was perfunctory.  Every single character seemed to enter by running on.  Characters sang facing the front, gazing into the distance, holding an arm aloft.  As Didon addressed her people, they stood behind her while she sang to the audience, naturally, with her arm held aloft.  The chorus, so essential to this piece, was run on, parked and then run off.  While it’s difficult to work with a hundred people, I longed for the imagination of a Bieito or a Kosky to really use this fabulous group of artists and make them both a collective and a group of individuals.

Ensemble.  © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016
Ensemble. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016

Regrettably virtually all the ballets were cut (except for Act 4’s Pas des Almées) – especially so when there was an excellent corps of dancers who played cavorting nymphs in the chasse royale et orage – and there were a few other smaller cuts throughout the evening.  Nevertheless, despite my reservations, the staging worked as an effective framework for the fine musical performances to work in.

Susan Graham & Brandon Jovanovich © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016
Susan Graham & Brandon Jovanovich © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016

Almost mirroring the action taking place in two cities, it felt in a way that we had two different conductors tonight.  In Troy, it felt that Andrew Davis was skimming over the score, his conducting felt quite soft grained with the attack flaccid.  As we moved to Carthage, something changed.  Suddenly, the quirkiness of Berlioz’ orchestration was brought out, such as the surging strings in the Didon/Anna duet and Davis caressed the string textures beautifully in the ‘nuit d’ivresse’.  Other than ‘malheureux roi’ which (as so often) felt too slow, tempi were nicely swift and the evening passed by in a heartbeat.  The house band played extremely well for him, especially the all-important winds, and the brass rang out magnificently.

Lucas Meachem & Christine Goerke © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016
Lucas Meachem & Christine Goerke © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016

Cassandre is an ideal role for Christine Goerke’s voluptuous, dark soprano with its plush warmth, generous bottom and steely core.  Her Cassandre was a feral seer, prowling the ruins of Troy, desperate to be believed yet fortunately, she was not completely unhinged – we believed her and rooted for her.  Her portrayal was absolutely gripping and the reason for that was her fabulous diction that made every word count.  Her Chorèbe, Lucas Meachem, sang with a big, brawny and masculine baritone.

Susan Graham © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016
Susan Graham © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016

Susan Graham returned to one of her signature roles, one in which she gave me a great deal of pleasure well over a decade ago in Paris, France.  Her Didon was a strong stateswoman and her descent into despair in Act 5 was palpable.  With the passage of the years, her lower register has hollowed out and she courageously exploited that to engage in a desperate near-sprechgesang as her character lost her will to live.  She was unflinching, never afraid to sacrifice the beauty of tone.  The middle and upper registers still have that remarkable sunny warmth and fully carry through the house.  Graham is a great tragédienne and she really did pour her heart out for us tonight.

Susan Graham & Brandon Jovanovich. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016
Susan Graham & Brandon Jovanovich. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016

I was greatly impressed by Brandon Jovanovich’s Énée – a big masculine presence on stage.  I must admit to fearing the worst in his opening Act 1 entry as it felt that he was making the voice artificially wide but he settled quickly.  The voice seems to sit quite high and his bright, silvery top filled the theatre thrillingly.  His ‘inutiles regrets’ was very good – fearlessly sung – and he appeared to revel in everything Berlioz threw at him where many others before him have sounded in extreme discomfort.

Brandon Jovanovich, Annie Rosen & Lyric Opera Chorus.  © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016
Brandon Jovanovich, Annie Rosen & Lyric Opera Chorus. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016

Having not heard Christian van Horn for a while, I was really impressed by how the voice has filled out.  It’s a beautiful, handsome and quite complex sound.  It was a pleasure to see Okka von der Damerau on a guest appearance away from the Bayerische Staatsoper.  Her Anna was a good-time girl who liked a drink or two.  Her very full mezzo was an asset to the cast with its generous bottom and auburn tone.  The Iopas, Lei Mingjie, sang prettily but was somewhat anonymous in his shading of his beautiful aria – I would have loved to have heard him experiment more with the tone.  Likewise, the attractively-voiced Hylas, Jonathan Johnson, sang his beautiful number at an unremitting forte when I longed for him to vary the dynamics and colour to bring home the wistfulness of the part.  The remainder of the cast was indeed very good and diction was uniformly satisfying on the whole.  A special mention to the Hector, Bradley Smoak, who is a very promising bass-baritone with a handsome, warm sound.

Lyric Opera Chorus.  © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016
Lyric Opera Chorus. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016

Of all operas, Les Troyens, is a showcase for the chorus and tonight the ladies and gentlemen of the augmented Lyric Opera Chorus covered themselves in glory.  They had been phenomenally well prepared by Michael Black.  The discipline and unanimity of their ensemble was staggering.  Diction was excellent and they made a massive noise.  To be able to maintain that level of precision throughout a very long evening is a formidable achievement.

Christine Goerke & Lyric Opera Chorus.  © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016
Christine Goerke & Lyric Opera Chorus. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016

Tonight was most definitely worth crossing the Atlantic to see.  The drama really lived thanks to the words being so clear.  As a company achievement, this was an evening for which Lyric Opera can feel justifiably proud.  Dramatically, I have rather mixed feelings but musically it had much to offer.  Not only did it contain some excellent solo singing but it also showcased the outstanding house chorus and orchestra who truly rose to every challenge set to them.  This will go down as a major landmark in Lyric Opera’s history and that of music-making in Chicago.

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