Cher Public

Fou fighter

It is easy to become overly identified with opera—as a cleverer friend of mine once noted: being a sports fan is an interest, but if you like opera, everyone thinks of it as a crippling obsession. Les Troyens doesn’t help matters; “I’m going to a four hour opera,” you tell someone, trying to convey the magnitude of Troyens, but somehow it seems not to hint at the right degree of lunacy, so the next time, you include intermissions and say “I’m going to a five hour opera” and up and up it goes until you admit, between puffs on your gauloise, that everyone was right and you must be tres fou.  

The second chunk of the season is upon us here in the bay (as they locally say, glug glug) and off to a raging start with the first local production of Berlioz’ masterpiece since the late 60s. I noticed no real attrition over the opera’s seven hours, which I will go ahead and attribute to a cast with much to please anyone and propulsive conducting which made the nearly day-long score fly by. On occasion, Donald Runnicles’ touch was more fleet than probing, but overall it was a strong and convincing reading.

Though Anna Caterina Antonacci was the singer I was most curious to hear, given how many intelligent listeners I know that rate her highly, her Cassandre I would have to call a partial success. As a physical actress, she’s as good as anyone lately on these boards. Every gesture has a through-line, so you don’t end up in that situation where Diva X thinks “I will express shock by putting my hand over my mouth” and then walks around for twelve minutes looking like she’s about to sneeze because she can’t think of a convincing gesture for getting it back in its holster. Vocally, though, the role seemed either to lie not entirely advantageously for her—or perhaps it’s an iffy match for her in a house the size of the War Memorial. It was skillfully sung, and there were no mishaps, but the intensity of physical gesture didn’t often find a match in vocal shading.

As ably as Antonacci and Brian Mulligan (Chorèbe, handsome of tone) filled their roles in the first act, the vocal temperature in the room changed perceptibly upon Bryan Hymel’s entrance and I’d swear the audience palpably sat up to take notice. I would like to call his singing of Énée incredible and stress that I mean it almost literally; rare enough that we hear this music but to hear it sung without compromise feels for a moment like someone is kidding you, and then like a reward for unspecified good behavior. Think of Ben Heppner at his best, before every performance became a nail-biter. The tone is less warm, but by the same token, more incisive. I would compare his best lyric moments to Nicolai Gedda’s on record, but then I’m afraid Norman Lebrecht would show up and do him in for page hits.

Susan Graham has had great success in French music and I can certainly see why, without ever quite really feeling it. She continues to sing with a vocal solidity and freshness that belies her years on the stage, and if her art has rarely grabbed me by the lapels, that would seem to be my own foible. Clearly, in the great farewell, she was holding little back, and the audience roared its approval. By the end, even this not-quite-a-fan was struck by her commitment to the role. (After the final curtain, Graham was presented with the San Francisco Opera Medal in honor of 25 years with the company.)

Smaller roles were consistently cast from strength. Sasha Cooke, already an accomplished artist, was a rich-voiced and sympathetic Anna, wonderful in her scene with an equally solid though hideously bewigged Christian van Horn as Narbal. René Barbera, impressive in last year’s Cenerentola, was exquisite as Iopas, gentle in his phrasing and fearless scaling the heights of “O blonde Ceres!”

David McVicar and Es Devlin’s kitchen -ink postmodernism, directed in revival by Leah Hausman, worked a good deal of the time. The stylized motions of the Trojan Women fit well with Antonacci’s larger-than-life phsyicality, and clunky period-mixing tended to be overshadowed by the end of the act by some truly impressive theatrical coup like the steampunk Trojan Horse that looked like it might be piloted by a motor-oil-smudged Charlize Theron. And since opera directors know their audience, we were given a ballet that might well have been about Helen of Troy’s lesser known twink cousin—we’ll call him “Brandon of Troy”—whose face might not have been anything to write an epic poem about, but whose abs launched a thousand sailors at least.

Les Troyens will be presented Friday, June 12 and four more times through the month. Michaela Martens steps in for Antonacci on June and 20.

Photos: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera