Lyric Opera of Chicago: Les Troyens at the Civic Opera House.
CHICAGO — Current events and opera seasons have independent orbits, so when a freakish alignment of stage story and street time occurs, it is more powerful because it feels like an omen. Attended at the end of a disastrous November, there is something portentous about Chicago Lyric Opera’s magnificent new production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens. This retelling of the Aeneid is a grim illustration of the Greeks’ belief in the implacability of fate and the tragedies bred by humanity’s struggle against it. It is also five hours of futile rage, which has recently become a familiar feeling.
The first half takes place in Troy as the celebrating Trojans, believing the Greeks have abandoned their siege, open their walls and welcome the secret Greek weapon. Cassandra, the clairvoyant daughter of Trojan King Priam, is alone in her terrible apprehension. After years of war, the people are so desperate that they will believe anything, even ignoring suspicious sounds from inside the horse — it is as if their craving for peace has made them crazy. Christine Goerke was splendidly bloody as Cassandra “drunk on her song of death.” As Troy burns, she seems to relish whipping the Trojan women into a teeth-gnashing, fiery-eyed mass suicide. Could it be that Cassandra enjoys her tragic role?
The second half takes place in Carthage, which Queen Dido has recently established as a kind of urban exoskeleton against persistent suitors, and this is where the Trojan survivors head with their cargo of relics and weapons. Susan Graham was captivating as Dido, a role she has mastered; she held back in the formal third act, when she welcomes the Trojan refugees, standing like the Statue of Liberty on her concrete island and singing an accidentally biting “our gates will never be closed to those in need.” Then she bloomed in the romantic forth and curdled when Aeneas abandons her in the vengeful, terrifying fifth.
Corey Bix was to sing Helenus, but on Saturday he replaced a sick Brandon Jovanovich as Aeneas and earned himself the traditional honourable pass from critics. Remarkably, there were no weak voices in the enormous cast of twenty-two named roles (all in role debuts except Graham) and a frightening chorus almost one hundred strong. Just one or two representatives, like Lucas Meachem, of that leaky school of stagecraft that can remove energy from any scene. Standouts included Bradley Smoak as a spicy Hector; Okka Von Der Damerau flirting with everyone as Anna, a content, creamy peanut butter salve to Dido’s anxiety; Annie Rosen was lovely as the earnest Ascanius, and the young Mingjie Lei was potently charming as Iopas.
Sir Andrew Davis, in his first production of the opera, guided the orchestra through the five-hour climb with few casualties and a gradually darkening focus. The winds were silken and the brass never escaped from their pens.
The set for this new production by Tim Albery is by Tobias Hoheisel, and it uses the same grey concrete spiral to depict Troy as a twisted rebar ruin and Carthage as an immaculate Brutalist parking garage. The difference is a matter of time, since Carthage will fall to the empire founded by Aeneas in Italy (as if Dido hadn’t suffered enough.) It works well but is a bit drab, totally reliant on projections by Illuminos for life-giving moments of colour. These projections were impressive, especially a creepy Trojan horse and a beautiful cosmic field for Aeneas and Dido’s duet, but something happened in the final scene. It was presented under a three-metre tall “ROMA”, like a billboard for bathroom fixtures; in Imperial Rome, first the projectionists would have been paid their weight in gold, and then had this branded on their foreheads.
But a detail like that won’t diminish the immense accomplishment of this production. Les Troyens is one of the most difficult operas in the repertoire; it makes incredible demands on singers, directors, stagehands, musicians, audiences (and their bartenders), and the Lyric have done it with ferocious spirit and dramatic vigour. It has unusual resonance when millions are feeling angry and helpless as if they are caught in the jaws of fate. Opera is not always so lucky.