Cher Public

No place like Rome

Love grand opera but wary of a six o’clock curtain with five hours of music behind it? (And nothing is grander than Berlioz’s Les Troyens, eh?) Your dilemma has been solved. Show up at the Met at 7:30 or 8:00, whenever they have the first intermission. Troy will be dust and ashes but, musically, you’ll hardly miss the excitement. Nearly all the good stuff happens after the break, when the escaping Trojans all juiced to start Rome are shipwrecked, instead, in Carthage.

Fabio Luisi, whose lickety-split Ringrather annoyed me, does not seem in such a rush with Troyens. The Met Orchestra breathes with Berlioz’s melodies and artfully stumbling rhythms.

The ballets are a bit much, but that’s the composer’s fault—over the decades, I’ve come to enjoy them as music, and Doug Varone’s new choreography is no more embarrassing than the dances in any previous version. The tearing of Laocoön and his sons to pieces by serpents, enacted like volleyball upon the upraised hands of dancers and chorus, was lively if not classically smooth. The bouncing of ships on the sunlit harbor of Carthage after the intermission was charming, and I liked the hornpipe of the matelots.

The greatest improvement in Francesca Zambello’s production (new ten years ago—the Met gives this opera every ten years, regular as carved Mayan clockwork), thanks, says The New York Times, to malfunctive stage machinery, is the total elimination of the two dancers twirling in mid-air in “sexual ecstasy,” doubling for Dido and Aeneas. Blame the stage if you like, but their loss is a win by any standard of taste.

Zambello’s vision and Maria Bjørnson’s set, splendidly lit by James F. Ingalls, make intelligent use of the Met’s enormous height, as is rarely the case. Directors tend either to overdo it or get lost in it or ignore it. Zambello places most of the action at ground level (luckily, because no one above Dress Circle, Row B, will see the upper parts of the set), but depicts vivid actions on the upper story: the horse hauled into Troy; Trojans entering Carthage, weapons in hand; masts rising and sails unfurling.

The wooden backdrop is configured as a vast U with many crevices, so that the colors of fiery city, blazing mid-day, romantic sunset and bitter dawn subtly flood the entire stage. A central focal circle of interlocking sticks evolves, in the course of the epic, into the oculus of Rome’s coffered Pantheon ceiling. That may seem off the subject till you remember that the Met’s original production of Troyens concluded with three tacky mock-ups of the Roman she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus.

Zambello’s stage is on turntables, allowing the amorous duet of Dido and Aeneas to become an orgy without ungainly entrances and exits. There is, if anything, always too much activity in this production, as if Zambello cannot keep her busy mental energies still at those moments (Aeneas’s troubled sleep before the appearance of Hector’s Ghost, the meditative pause between Royal Hunt and Dido’s party) when Berlioz wanted us to calm down and relax before the next hullaballoo. Zambello cannot relax. Les Troyens is a busy night.

So it’s a spectacular event, the production more than passable, the orchestra in good hands, the chorus absolutely tip-top (they seem to love this opera, that asks so much of them), even the costumes (by Anita Yavich) tasteful and attractove if sometimes severe, in hues of gold, Pompeiian red, Tunisian white and Tyrian purple. Why, then, do I advise you to skip the opening acts and arrive at the intermission?

“La Prise de Troie,” those first acts, mind you, have a lot of good music in it, ballets, rituals, grand concertati, more ballets, a ghostly visitation and the suicide of a temple full of priestesses. But front and center amid the frolic is the brooding figure of Cassandra, accursed voice of the Truth, snarling at love, spitting at the Horse, drizzling on everyone’s parade.

She’s a grand, archaic conception, a contrast to the (deluded) joys of nearly all the others and, at the end of the act, she flourishes a dagger to cry, “I told you so!” to her grateful people. (I translate loosely.) Every dramatist who turns to this story (Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Anouilh, Saki) has a merry time with her.

But the fly in the flan is that Cassandra must vocally hold her own. Shirley Verrett was a gaunt shadow, Jessye Norman an empress uncrowned. Tatiana Troyanos withdrew from her scheduled performances of the role in justified alarm. At the Met this time, the role goes to Deborah Voigt. Voigt acquitted herself decently in the part ten years ago, before her operation. (And I warned her!)

Her voice now is dull, utterly without its erstwhile glow or size or color. Her unattractive amble through the part saps the energy right out of the performance. She hits the notes, but who cares? She is unable to put attractive force behind any of the seer’s raging utterance. We don’t care who she is or what she’s singing about. Everything Voigt touches turns to lead, lifeless, bare of music.

Dwayne Croft’s able Coroebus proves unable to lure her to a happier attitude. David Crawford Walker is distinguished as the Ghost of Hector, though he isn’t aided by Zambello’s “staging” of the measures Berlioz wrote to depict Aeneas’ uneasy dreams: They have become scenes of rapine and pillage in the streets of Troy.

By the time Voigt slit her throat (and we were cheering her on), I felt I’d sat through seven hours of mediocre Meyerbeer: limp—in a bad way. What a difference after the pause, when the curtain rose on blazing Carthage harbor and Susan Graham waltzed in, billowing white like a galley under sail, to greet her enthusiastic subjects and the Trojan refugees! Everyone in the house perked right up, and perked we stayed through all three acts (one more intermission) of “Les Troyens à Carthage.” A grand night for singing!

Let’s focus on Dido for a moment. From Ludwig and Troyanos, I was accustomed to think of Dido as, primarily, a sensuous role, coiled passion awaiting the spring set off by the son of Venus. But this is not the only way of singing it. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who might have had trouble filling the house with declamation, sang Dido with the precise, molded syllables of a chansonnière; she made the huge Met into a chamber just her size. Each phrase of Dido’s, from gracious queen to wistful widow to exultant lover to desperate, heartbroken woman was scaled to Hunt’s instrument, and the house seemed to shrink to suit her.

Graham has a larger natural voice, and it retains its beauty at full power (blast is not the word at all). Her very expertise at deployment has sometimes led me to underestimate her dramatic commitment, to find a lack of sensuous urgency there. But lately she’s been singing Gluck (Iphigénie en Tauride), and singing Gluck’s restrained declamation is the very best way to prepare yourself for Berlioz and the mingling of that restraint with grand opera force for Les Troyens. (Has Graham ever sung Gluck’s Alceste? And if not—somebody stage it for her, now.)

This is not Graham’s first attempt at Didon—they still talk about (and own the DVD of) the Dido she sang opposite Antonacci’s Cassandra at the Châtelet ten years ago—and she sings her Dido, not Hunt Lieberson’s or Troyanos’s. Her natural sound is a bright one, and she feels at home in happier scenes, but the sorrowful ones were understatedly moving, with a despairing sigh in the lines of farewell.

I was less thrilled with Marcello Giordani’s Aeneas. Fifteen years ago, when he sang a superb Raoul in Les Huguenots at Carnegie Hall, Giordani might have made a more than distinguished Aeneas, but Thursday night there was an uneasiness, an effort in much of the evening that resembled his insecurity in Ernani. His breath no longer travels easily the path from which heroes and legendary lovers are summoned.

He managed the role with creditable effort, but the outrageous high C in Act V (a reef that nearly sank Vickers and Domingo, and completely cracked for Heppner) took him drastically into head voice, which is not a stratagem that modern audiences accept kindly.

There was so much good singing in the rest of “Les Troyens á Carthage” that one could overlook a betîse of this sort. Friends in Britain tell me Scottish Susan Karen Cargill is called “Cowgirl” over yonder; here, she sang Dido’s sister, Anna, with a full, luscious chest voice, sizable and creamy, and some flirtatious not-quite-whispers for her sisterly plots. They like her Annie, Get Your Gun over there; I’d like to hear her take on Dalila or Ulrica over here.

Eric Cutler’s Iopas seemed to me a little less flowing and intense than the last go-round, but the voice has also gotten bigger—will he be the next Aeneas? I’d be interested in hearing him essay some of that. Paul Appleby sang the homesick Hylas; he lacks the willowy figure for the role, but his singing drew happy applause. Richard Bernstein as Panthus, evidently directed to be ever more upset with the way Aeneas’ fraternizing is proceeding, was a proper, salty presence to push the crew along.

Julie Boulianne sang Ascanius, a role Zambello cannot leave alone: Last time, the boy was directed to whine and fret during his father’s flirtation; this time, he tried to pick up a dancing girl of his own. Neither action suits Virgil’s story; I suggest Zambello go there (as Berlioz always did) when she is strapped for an idea.

Kwangchoul Youn, the Narbal, was Panthus’ counterpart, expecting disaster from the moment the Trojans arrived. The foreboding of the two men meant we were less surprised when things went wrong—but we do know that Aeneas left Dido to found Rome. Any additional surprise is a dramatic plus.

Paul Corona and James Courtney sang the Two Soldiers well, though directed to be so busy messing up their women that the humor of their dialogue passed us by.

The chorus, under Donald Palumbo, sang like a dream—or did I mention that?

I’ve been waiting all season, no, ten years for this opera to return. I may go again, but I’ll certainly skip the first section this time.

Photos: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera

  • Hippolyte

    I believe it’s KAREN Cargill as Anna and David CRAWFORD as Hector’s Ghost.

  • Alto

    Excellent review, and very just.

  • Nerva Nelli

    Good review. Surprised you didn’t mention the vast change in Hylas’ aria- instead of sailing aloft, more than droswy (as in the libretto) he walks forward and delivers his song to the audience “Les Miz” style. Maybe they wanted to position Appleby for a “budding young star” moment, with applause? It came, one of several times that Luisi and Zambello “crafted” an ovation when the music would have continued more effectively without one.

    Even worse: having the silent, detached figure of Andromache scream not once but twice was just an **appalling** miscalculation/betrayal, as was having her greet bodily (hugs and shoulder pats) most of the population of Troy--as if she were the coach’s wife comforting the West Texas townsfolk after a losing game. Unthought-through TV shtick sentimentality, TOTALLY at odds with the music, some of the best in the score, and a blot on what in general is a fine, intelligent production.

    • In the case of Appleby, I would think that when the “aloft” staging was cut (due to the reworking of the Met’s fly system) there was little time to stage something new for him.

      The Andromache staging is utterly unforgivable, the worst kind of Zambello middlebrow bad taste.

      • Arianna a Nasso

        Alexandra Deshorties would never have resorted to such cheap tricks as Andromache!

        • No, Alexandra Deshorties only screams blood-curdling screams in Entführung.

          • aulus agerius

            I guess Deshorties will never live that afternoon down -- it WAS incredible! And then the irony of the silent role the very next season wasn’t it?

          • Quanto Painy Fakor

            It’s pantomime(as you know), you mean Zambello adds such a geshcrei? What BS!

          • Bill

            After Deshorties attempt at Constanze in Entfuehrung at the Met, I purposely avoided
            all of her subsequent performances of any role.
            She was that dreadful.

          • I remember that performance, god it was awful.

            But that was 10 years ago, pretty much, how has she been singing NOW? It seems she gathered good notices for Medea. Any recent recordings or broadcasts that will attest to her current vocal state?

  • Camille

    My AAA Tri

  • Camille

    AAA Trip Tik had already been prepared to go directly, and not to hesitate, to Carthage. This review would confirm that hunch.

    As always, immaculate writing from you, sir JoYo.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    “Nearly all the good stuff [in Les troyens] happens after the break”? WTF!!!! It is nconceivable to me how this or any critic can dismiss Part I of Les troyens like that. The final scene of ‘Troy’ is one of the most thrilling scenes in all of opera -- provided the city is properly sacked, the women and the harps are struming away to beat the band, and the staging is riveting (which I’m certain it was not).

    Cassandra “slit her throat”? Then how in the world can she sing “la douleur n’est rien!? Voit’s vocal folds were already like sandpaper. That was the real douleur of the performance. I think Berlioz had much more of a vaginal destruction planned for the women.

    As for today’s AIDA, Borodina came closer than ever in this series of performances to scoring a home run. I don’t understand why she believes it’s acceptable to drop certain phrases by one octave. At least she and Luisi came out of it basically together. Luisi is very strange in this opera, selecting rather metronomic tempi that permit people to much more clearly hear Verdi’s counterpoint and the rapid notes in the inner voices. Alagna does not make it easy for any conductor to follow his Radames, but overal he was quite wonderful. Fortunately, the wind and brass instruments were very attentive to the singers regardless of what signals they were getting from the podium.

    • Nerva Nelli

      “Quite wonderful?”

      I thought Alagna was barely adequate vocally.

      • lorenzo.venezia

        thank you, Nerva. for a moment there I thought it was just me…

    • aulus agerius

      To me RA doesn’t produce a beautiful sound anymore -- somewhat ‘throaty.’ I didn’t mind the high note at the end of the aria but the octave drop I don’t care for. I think his vocalization of the text is excellent -- the best I’ve heard since Pavarotti.

      • manou

        Outstanding performance by far on the HD today was Renée’s elegantissimo white coat.

        Plus Nancy the animal lady will soon have her work cut out for the next HD transmission of Berlioz’s masterpiece “Les Trois Hyènes”.

      • Nerva Nelli

        Text, fine.

        But he sang flat often, as when he ruined the effect LyudaMona started in “O terra addio” with his entrance-- and rhythmically lax (Luisi had trouble keeping him anything like in line)--and showed grainy tone throughout. In the house Wednesday, one could see that in heavy passages like the Triumphal Scene he was just mouthing. And he did even more retreats into unsupported crooning.

        Bobby, singing Raddy, should be givin it up..

        • aeijtzsche

          I agree that Alagna’s tone was grainy. I didn’t notice many rhythmic problems though. Also, with Roberto it’s usually sharping that is the direction he goes off pitch, and I noticed that a lot more than being flat.

          None of that bothered me, though, I just happen to love the guy. It would seem that the audience in the house did too, and my goodness the people at my movie theater just think he’s the greatest thing. Even I was embarrassed at the lovefest. He actually got a standing ovation at the movie theater.

          • Porgy Amor

            Yeah, echoing aeijtzsche on the tendency to veer sharp. I heard a lot of effort in his singing this afternoon, and he never really has had this role’s demands covered, always seeming to be punching a size or two above his class. Sometimes in the HDs, the “Carmen” being another, there seems almost a defensive quality to his interviews, as if he has to explain why something just sounded the way it did.

            For me, it was all about Monastyrska. Not yet a great Aida, not a lot that is personal and special, but the tools are there and it was beautiful singing. Whenever she was absent, it was an ordinary day for an old production at one of the big houses. Borodina and Luisi were very tame.

          • oedipe

            there seems almost a defensive quality to his interviews

            Agree. Alagna is too humble for his station in life. It’s a pity he hasn’t mastered the arrogance of some of his peers (Dima, Herr Pape, Herr Kaufmann, little Grigolo…)! Arrogance is good, the public eats it up and can never have too much of it.

          • I don’t know if defensive = not arrogant…

          • oedipe

            No, in THIS case defensive?arrogant, defensive=self-conscious and insecure. Alagna was born and grew up an outsider and the opera establishment constantly let him know they doubted his ability to sing just about any role. Who WOULDN’T be insecure under these circumstances?

            BTW, Alagna has always wanted to sing Enée (he repeatedly said so), but no main stage ever offered to cast him in the role, because it was assumed he wouldn’t be able to sing it! And to think that when we DO get Les Troyens, we get these inadequate singers, while all these years we could have enjoyed the Enée of Alagna in his prime! Just the thought of it makes me mad and depressed.

          • Nerva Nelli

            “And to think that when we DO get Les Troyens, we get these inadequate singers, while all these years we could have enjoyed the Enée of Alagna in his prime!”

            Alagna certainly in his prime as a lyric Rodolfo/Roméo tenor could never have sung this dramatic role successfully in a large opera house like the Met, any more than he could have sung Samson or Gherman. *Maybe* under conditions like those in which Kunde manages it quite admirably for JEG’s DVD performance…

          • oedipe

            Alagna couldn’t have/wouldn’t have…People said the same thing before he sang Don Carlos and Don José and Le Cid…and then he did. Where is it written in stone that a lyric tenor cannot do justice to Enée? On the contrary, the role has many lyrical elements; what it does require, though, is elegant phrasing (as does most of French opera). Kunde, whom you mentioned, did a very good job with it. And the superb George Thill was hardly a dramatic tenor.

            Now, you are free to hate Alagna, of course; you are also free to like strangulated Giordani, or inelegant and unsubtle Bryan Hymel. To each his own. But that proves nothing about who “should”/”shouldn’t” sing Enée.

          • oedipe

            BTW, Bryan Hymel is also a lyric tenor (albeit a shouty one).

          • Nerva Nelli

            If you can’t hear the difference in demands between Don Carlos and (whatever lyric elements may be in there along with the rest) Enee, or that Kunde did it via microphones and small halls, or hear the deterioration of Alagna’s voice vis a vis even 3-4 years ago, or acknowledge the difference between an Alagna and a Georges Thill (who started in lyric parts but sang Dick Johnson, Calaf (in which Alagna tanked even before his most loyal audience), Samson, Lohengrin, Parisfal, Tannhauser, Vercingetorix, etc, then I don’t think the matter bears further discussion, except maybe on an Alagna fansite.

          • oedipe

            I probably haven’t expressed myself clearly enough. I’ll try one more time:

            1)I have said people have doubted Alagna’s capacity to sing MOST of the roles he ended up singing, INCLUDING Don Carlos (as well as Don José and Le Cid).

            2)Le Cid is a DRAMATIC role and he sang it very well (I saw the performance live).

            3)I said he should have had the opportunity to sing Enée IN HIS PRIME, rather than waste his voice all these years on Radamès and other heavy Verdi; there are lots of other tenors who can do a decent job in Verdi, but few that can do justice to French roles. But he didn’t get this opportunity, either in small houses, or in concert, or anywhere else!

            4)Alagna wouldn’t be the first, nor the last lyric tenor to try Enée. Bryan Hymel, whom people here seem to view as the second coming, is also a lyric tenor, BTW.

            5)We will have to disagree about Alagna’s Calaf at the Chorégies d’Orange. You think he “tanked”, I don’t. Whatever health problems he had last summer, he managed to overcome them to a large extent for the second performance of the opera (which was recorded and can be found on utube). It’s IMO an example of a successful lyrical interpretation of a role which is generally belted out by loud-and-louder generic tenors.

            In conclusion, what depresses me and makes me very mad in all this is the wasted opportunity, the stupidity of GM’s and casting departments everywhere. For 20 years they had at their finger tips one of greats ever in the French rep, and they barely used him for that! Yes, in the future Alagna is supposed to sing lots of new French roles; hoping it’s not too late…

            There is one singer who, to me, is the female counterpart of Alagna, a generation later: Sonya Yoncheva. I hope top houses take note soon enough and do not repeat the casting mistakes they made with Alagna. I hope they hurry to offer her roles such as Thaïs, Louise, Leïla, Ophélie, the 4 women in Contes, etc.

            Incidentally, you can listen to the replay of the Minkowski Contes, with Yoncheva in the 4 roles right here:


        • phoenix

          True, Nerva -- when they interviewed him last on Sirius, the first thing he began talking about was crossover. Indeed he has given us a cabaret Radames -- most discomfiting.

          • oedipe

            What does a “cabaret Radames” mean?

          • phoenix

            en el estilo de ~

          • oedipe

            Nice song! Though I don’t see the parallel…

          • phoenix

            / Well, on second thought, I suppose it’s more of an oblique than a parallel /

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    As for Italie… Harteros also cancelled the third La Scala Lohengrin and Petersen sang again. Yonas sounded great and Barenboim still stams his foot on the podium very loudly before the first notes of the prelude to act three. On the telecast I thought it was because of the placement of the mics in the pit, but the sound of that stomp is clearly audible throughout the auditorium. I hope Harteros has a really comfortable place to stay in Milano. It’s terrible being sick in digs where you can’t control your environment.

  • Constantine A. Papas

    You can find faults with any performance. IMHO, in its totallity, today’s HD was on of the best Aidas I’ve seen in a long time, in comparison to the 2007 I saw in the house with Berti, I think, and Angela Brown. Monastryska, with her Slavic tibre, can be the next Zinca Milanov: substantially supported chest voice, with spinto that can cut above any orchestra fortissimo. Again, this the opinion of an opera plebian.

  • Constantine A. Papas

    Sorry, I meant “timbre.”

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    The Monastryska lady is very satisfying indeed, and I look forward to other great things from her. But even though I have all the recordings and memories, how I wish I could revist the in house thrill of seeing Aida with Leontyne, Tebaldi, Tucci, Zinka, Birgit, Simionato, Rita Gorr, Corelli, Bergonzi, Colzani, any of them. Luisi lack a certain theatrical flair, deliberately avoiding certain traditions, and the opera suffers from that in his hands.

  • decotodd

    OK I’ll be the curmudgeon — was Milanov really any better than than today’s Aida? Lydmila sounded fantastic and from what I’ve seen or heard Zinka wasn’t any better in the acting department. I also suspect Radvonosky was better in BALLO. I have the 1940 bcast and will have to relisten Happy to see evidence otherwise.

    • Gualtier M

      One thing about Zinka -- all her live recordings of “Aida” she is wild, sings off pitch in places and the high C in “O Patria Mia” is never perfect. In the 1953 studio set under Jonel Perlea she starts out a little gusty but sings a perfect Nile Scene and Tomb Scene with gorgeous pianos (including a perfect C in “O Patria Mia”). That is the performance people refer to -- but the live ones were much messier than what Monastyrska gave us this Saturday -- not that she is perfect mind you…

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

  • papertiger96

    “We don’t care who she is or what she’s singing about.” A brilliant directorial coup! Have a very dull Cassandra so that we can identify with the Trojans’ lack of interest.