July 1 SF Opera: Les Troyens

The Trojan Horse, designed by Es Devlin, in the San Francisco Opera production of "Les Troyens" (photo: Cory Weaver)

The Trojan Horse, designed by Es Devlin, in the San Francisco Opera production of “Les Troyens” (photo: Cory Weaver)

SF Opera’s ‘Les Troyens’ a vocal and visual tour de force

Looking a gift horse in the mouth has never revealed so much

By James Sohre
Contributing writer

From the moment Donald Runnicles gave the downbeat at San Francisco Opera’s Les Troyens, I knew I was in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Maestro Runnicles and his superb orchestra were aglow from the first bars of a definitive reading of this Berlioz masterpiece, and they slowly and surely fashioned a performance of inexorable beauty. I caught the closing night of the run and found a cast of first-tier singers, dancers and instrumentalists just let ‘er rip — and with infectious passion. The evening was, quite simply, on-fire.

It’s hard to over-praise the accomplishments in the pit (and in the wings, for that matter). For nearly five hours, the orchestra showed increasing levels of strength — from the overpowering tutti sections to fanciful moments decorated with filigree, ominous cadences, playful dances and flawless solo work (that horn! that clarinet!). The SF Opera Orchestra just kept covering itself in glory.

If this performance is any indication, Runnicles seems to have transitioned from being merely wonderful to being peerless. His was a perfectly judged reading of one of the repertoire’s most challenging warhorses. Transitioning from moments of quiet introspection and tightly controlled nuances to epic moments of total abandon and all points in between, the Maestro was indeed masterful.

On this happy occasion I was reminded once again that SF Opera is not just one of the nation’s finest companies, but also one of the world’s finest companies. For Les Troyens the company assembled as starry a cast of world-class singers as imaginable.

Bryan Hymel as Aeneas (photo: Cory Weaver)

Bryan Hymel as Aeneas (photo: Cory Weaver)

Bryan Hymel appears born to sing the role of Aeneas, the Everest of all French tenor roles. The part requires several different types of delivery, all of which are securely in Hymel’s arsenal — sensual French lyrical singing, conversational declamations and heroic (almost Wagnerian) outbursts that soar above a full orchestra.

The extended Love Duet at the end of Act Four is especially suited to his interpretive gifts. His honeyed tone and perfect voix-mixe resulted in melting phrases suffused with heartfelt romantic joy. And when Berlioz demands it, this tenor is able to summon a muscular, masculine instrument with an evenness, buzz and primal bite throughout its substantial range. Hymel’s forceful delivery of Aeneas’s great Act Five number brought the house down. I never heard the great Jon Vickers during the years he owned this role, but I think the torch has passed to a most worthy successor. Hymel is truly a towering talent.

Susan Graham as Dido  (photo: Cory Weaver)

Susan Graham as Dido
(photo: Cory Weaver)

Susan Graham’s Dido is the very finest performance I have yet heard from this acclaimed artist. Indeed, for all the assets she has brought to past roles I was still not prepared for the total investment she brought to this evening’s Dido. She is a consummate French stylist — tasteful, knowing, musical and refined.

After a beautifully judged opening scene of consummate lyric singing, the mezzo immersed herself in the dramatic progression and tore into the part with a ferocity that was breathtaking. By the climax, Graham spun out her impassioned phrases with palpable raw emotion — to the point where it grew almost unbearable. Contrast this with the Love Duet that brimmed with ecstasy and yes, eroticism — a virtual masterclass in sotto voce intensity. By any standard, this was arguably the greatest Dido of our time.

In The Capture of Troy, the indefatigable Anna Caterina Antonacci was back on stage after starring the day before in the company’s production of Two Women, this time as a riveting Cassandra. Antonacci sounded fresh and spirited, and she imbued the troubled prophetess with fervor and incisive tone. The Italian soprano brings a sort of Norma Desmond flavor to the part, utilizing clever poses and stances that underscore Cassandra’s plight. Her focused voice sliced through the orchestra without sacrificing its rich timbre.

Rene Barbera as Iopas (photo: Cory Weaver)

Rene Barbera as Iopas (photo: Cory Weaver)

The rest of cast, too, was uniformly strong. In the minor role of Iopas, tenor René Barbera sang suavely and persuasively, and his pliable lyric tenor was perfectly matched to his Act Four aria. There were audible gasps in the audience as Barbera held lengthy sustained notes above the staff, swelling the volume and then scaling it back seamlessly as the phrase descended. A show-stopper, to be sure.

Strong contributions also came from Brian Miller, whose burnished baritone perfect for Coreobus; Philip Skinner, a characterful King Priam; Sasha Cooke, whose assured singing was most affecting as Anna; Nian Wang, a limpid and touching Ascanius; and Christian Van Horn, whose rolling bass served his character Narbal well.

Ian Robertson’s chorus was in spectacular form — full-throated, dramatically engaged and stylistically savvy. The corps of dancers and acrobats contributed immeasurably to the spectacle and authenticity of the production. Associate Choreographer Gemma Payne has restaged Lynne Page’s dances with considerable skill. The dance movement here is a beautiful stylistic mix of Twyla Tharp and George Balanchine — sometimes beautifully individualized and loose, and other times stunningly precise and coordinated. Adding to the visual realizations were ebullient acrobatic moves choreographed by David Greeves, as well as some compelling fight direction by Dave Maier.

All of this talent was brought into intense and seemingly effortless focus by director David McVicar, with his work restaged for San Francisco by Leah Hausman. His is a remarkable piece of stagecraft, painted with large and ever-fluid groupings of people and scenic effects. Moreover, the direction never loses focus of the individual stories. This is grand opera at its grandest.

SF Opera Chorus in Es Devlin's three-tiered rounded tower structure during the opening scene of Act One (photo: Cory Weaver)

SF Opera Chorus in Es Devlin’s three-tiered rounded tower structure during the opening scene of Act One (photo: Cory Weaver)

No corners were cut in Es Devlin’s monumental set design, which is as visually imposing as it is dramatically engaging. Devlin used a three-tiered rounded tower structure to good advantage at the beginning of the production, and the direction placed the bulk of the chorus on these levels with the principal dramatic action unfolding in front of it. The tower could be split in the middle and open to reveal different structures behind it, including a magnificent, gigantic Trojan horse head — comprising a brilliant collage of metal gears, wheels and you-name-it.

In spite of its massive size, a costumed crew could move the horse fluidly about the stage. Indeed, at one point it seemed poised to invade the pit. But it soon pivoted and glided back upstage, eventually bursting into flames as scripted — vivid theatricality at its very best. The craftsmanship and artistry of this highly functional design was beautifully lit with imagination and consummate skill by designer Pia Virolainen.

This SF Opera Les Troyens is one of the finest musical and theatrical experiences I have been privileged to attend. Indeed, this monumental achievement was almost too much for me to take in. As I do walked the six blocks back to the hotel, tears still falling, I finally realized that I was uncontrollably muttering aloud “Oh, my God” every few steps. Now that’s entertainment.

James Sohre recently completed a 40-year career with US Army Entertainment, much of it spent in Germany as the Command-level Entertainment Chief. He continues to travel extensively and write about opera and musical events. He is production coordinator for Opera Las Vegas and heads the Young Artists program for which he just directed “A Passion for Puccini,” an evening of staged arias and scenes from all of Puccini’s works.

Details Box:
What: Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens, libretto by the composer
Who: San Francisco Opera
Production: David McVicar
Director: Leah Hausman
Set designer: Es Devlin
Performance reviewed: July 1, 2015 (final performance)

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