nuitProducing Hector Berlioz’ Les Troyens is an immense undertaking for any opera house, requiring casting for 22 named roles, a large orchestra and chorus, versatile dancers, substantial design challenges, and an audience undaunted by its Wagnerian length and scope. On Sunday afternoon, Lyric Opera of Chicago rose to the challenges mightily in its first-ever performance of this titanic work. 

It was an afternoon of splendid music making, glorious singing, and textured playing led by Sir Andrew Davis in this new production from English director Tim Albery.

The Lyric Opera Chorus, supplemented to 94 voices, continues to amaze under the superb work of Chorus Master Michael Black. Les Troyens is a huge choral challenge—Berlioz wrote extensive and lengthy (sometimes too lengthy) choral passages for the opera. But fortunately, the Lyric chorus brought remarkable precision, diction, and sheer beauty and power that more than made up for some of the longeurs of the piece. In this opera, the chorus is called upon to act as well as sing with passion and fire, and they rose to the challenge impressively.

Even just a few seasons ago, one heard many complaints about Lyric Opera’s casting of Ryan Opera Center members in supporting roles. Well, something very good has happened to the Ryan Opera Center—either it is attracting a higher caliber of singers, or the training has vastly improved.

In all three operas that have opened this season, and particularly in Les Troyens, the supporting singers are uniformly excellent. This is a major and welcome difference, personified here by tenors Jonathan Johnson and Mingjie Lei as Hylas and Iopas, who sing with limpid beauty and dramatic commitment.

The opera opens in the ruined tower of Troy, effectively jagged and ominous in Tobias Hoheisel’s design. Lyric’s Brunnhilde-to-be Christine Goerke magnificently sings King Priam’s daughter Cassandra, haunted by agonizing visions of death and the fall of Troy. Ms. Goerke, who thrilled Lyric audiences with her stunning Elektra a couple of seasons back, pours out splendid clarion vocalism that soars over the huge orchestra with ease. This role emphasizes the power of all registers of the voice, with dark mezzo tone as well as thrilling high notes.

The entrance of her lover Chorebus, sung with romantic and militaristic ardor by the fine baritone Lucas Meachem, allows Ms. Goerke to show her singing’s softer side. Their two voices blend beautifully in the romantic duet of Act One. Act One also brings the first entrance of the Trojan warrior Aeneas—a brutally difficult role requiring volume, power, and unrelenting emotion—here sung by tenor Brandon Jovanovich.

Though there was a slight crack in his frenzied entrance music, he recovered for an excellent performance, equally fine in his leading of the Trojan forces and in wooing the Queen of Carthage.

goerkeAnd how, you ask, did they handle the Trojan Horse? Much of this production’s success comes from the stunning projections provided by Illuminos partnered with lighting designer David Finn. The Trojan horse was projected ominously, its vast size moving slowly from left to right across the wall of Troy. It works spectacularly well, as it does in Act Four when Dido and Aeneas sing their rapturous love duet to a projected skyscape of stars and moving planets. It’s breathtakingly beautiful.

In Act Three, we move to Carthage, where the escaping Trojans ask for sanctuary from Queen Dido. The beloved American mezzo Susan Graham seems to have Dido in her bones. Graham shows us many sides of Dido’s character: the proud and generous Queen of Act Three, the romantic, sensual lover of Aeneas in Act Four, the jealous Fury as she is betrayed in Act Five, all sung with generous, warm tone that converts to piercing anger and, finally, peaceful acceptance.

It is an unforgettable performance from a maturing artist who brings real depth and moving intensity to what might in retrospect turn out to be her signature role.

In Carthage, we also have luxury casting with Okka von der Damerau’s dark chocolate mezzo as Dido’s sister Anna and the splendid bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Dido’s fearful advisor, Narbal. These two bring strong acting skills along with their powerful voices, and they have good chemistry with Ms. Graham.

If I have a problem with Les Troyens (and I do), it’s the Fourth Act. First we endure a bacchanal-ish dance while Dido and Aeneas are supposedly canoodling in a cave, and then we enter into what seems to be an English garden party, complete with characters in cocktail gowns drinking martinis, watching yet another ballet and a song as entertainments. This goes on altogether too long, finally broken by the troubled Dido. And when she halts the proceedings with (via subtitles) “I can bear no more of this wearying celebration”, I wanted to shout #ImWithDido!

Now, while I wouldn’t be without the Dido-Aeneas love duet that ends the act, I was certainly happy to get on to the riveting fifth act, where Aeneas agonizes over leaving Dido to found Rome, egged on by the ghosts of Hector, Priam, and Cassandra. Jovanovich soars in this difficult music, and then Ms. Graham delivers a knockout performance starting with a jealous rage and ending with acceptance of her own death upon a pyre of all the things she received from Aeneas. The opera ends in a clear nod to Gotterdammerung, establishing the city of Rome as the Carthaginians fall to the “new world order.”

Kudos to the Lyric Opera Orchestra with fine playing by all sections and led with real distinction by Sir Andrew Davis, in his first “go” at this opera. Davis and the orchestra were greeted with enormous ovations at the beginning of every act. The coordination between pit and singers was excellent, and all aspects of the music were meticulously prepared and finely executed.

Though there were extensive audience defections at the second intermission (trains to catch?), those who stayed enjoyed a very satisfying performance of a rarely staged work. We got to see and hear what poor Berlioz didn’t in his lifetime—a performance of his entire operatic masterpiece.

Photos: Todd Rosenberg