Chicago’s Lyric Opera mounted director Tim Albery’s absorbing “modern dress” production of Berlioz’ epic opera, “Les Troyens [The Trojans]” with a brilliant cast led (in alphabetical order of the artists’ surnames) by Christine Goerke (Cassandra), Susan Graham (Dido) and Brandon Jovanovich (Aeneas). Notably, the major artists and almost the entire cast are American-trained singers.
[Below: the Trojan populace believes that war is behind them, but Cassandra (Christine Goerke, top right) is insistent that disaster is ahead for the kingdom of Troy; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Christine Goerke’s Cassandra
Soprano Christine Goerke brought vocal power and dramatic intensity to the role of Cassandra, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy.
One of the greatest of contemporary Wagnerian sopranos [see Review: Jay Hunter Morris, Christine Goerke Lead a Vocally Strong “Siegfried” Cast – Houston Grand Opera, April 20, 2016], Goerke was mesmerizing in the role of Cassandra.
[Below: Christine Goerke as Cassandra; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Cassandra, the dominant figure of the first third of the opera, accurately prophecied the destruction of Troy, but her prophecies were disbelieved by all. Berlioz provides Cassandra with music as richly melodic as it is dramatic. Showing mastery of the music that Berlioz composed, Goerke portrayed Cassandra’s anguish and resolve in an arresting characterization.
Goerke’s Cassandra is at its most intense in the vivid scene representing the final moments of Troy. In this scene, Goerke’s Cassandra and the remaining women commit suicide rather than becoming slaves to the Greeks.
Susan Graham’s Dido
Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham is closely associated with the role of Dido, which she has performed to acclaim in both Europe and North America. Graham’s character, Dido, is the insecure ruler of Carthage, a North African realm that she and her followers have created following a coup that killed her husband, the King of Tyre.
As Dido, Graham projects a pragmatic leader, loved by her nation, who is determined not to surrender to a neighboring ruler who wishes to conquer her lands. Before the arrival of Aeneas and the Trojans, Graham’s Dido has no desire to remarry, despite the advice of her sister Anna that she do so for both her realm’s safety and her personal well-being.
Graham also performed in Sir David McVicar’s production of “Les Troyens” [see Review: Susan Graham, Hymel, Antonacci in a Magnificent “The Trojans” from Sir David McVicar – San Francisco Opera, June 7, 2015.]
[Below: Susan Graham as Queen Dido; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Graham is renown for singing Berlioz’ lush melodies [see Berlioz’ Faust Fantastique: Lyric Opera Does “Damnation” – Chicago, March 8, 2010]. In “Les Troyens” Berlioz’ musical palette enhances the range of emotions displayed by Graham’s Dido. Graham engages in beautifully sung close harmony with Dido’s sister Anna (performed by German soprano Okka von der Damerau), in Dido’s rapturous love music with Brandon Jovanovich’s Aeneas, and in Dido’s rage, desperation and resignation in preparation for the death she wills for herself.
Brandon Jovanovich’s Aeneas
The musical line that Berlioz created for his hero Aeneas is extraordinary. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich’s attractive spinto tenor proved well suited to the French heroic tenor style and especially for Berlioz’ Aeneas.
Jovanovich is a convincing actor. Every moment that Jovanovich’s Aeneas is onstage, he commands attention. Jovanovich brilliantly performs rousing calls to arms to rally the troops for battle in Troy or Carthage. He portrays Aeneas’ humanity through the affecting moments with his son Ascanius.
[Below: Aeneas (Brandon Jovanovich, left) comforts his son, Ascanius (Annie Rosen, right); edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
The character Aeneas, who is the son of the goddess Venus, becomes the lover of Queen Dido. Jovanovich’s Aeneas and Graham’s Dido are believable as a couple in love. This makes Aeneas’ abandonment of Dido and her Carthaginian realm especially poignant as Aeneas pursues the destiny the gods has set out for him.
[Below: Dido (Susan Graham, left) and Aeneas (Brandon Jovanovich, right) express affection for one another; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Lucas Meachem’s Chorebus
North Carolina Baritone Lucas Meachem’s lyric voice was enlisted for the role of Cassandra’s skeptical fiancé Chorebus. Meachem was most effective in the challenging duet sung with Goerke’s Cassandra.
[Below: Lucas Meachem as Cassandra’s fiance, Chorebus; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Always an impressive actor, Meachem as Chorebus was the personification of Troy’s inability to believe Cassandra’s prophecies of disaster.
Christian Van Horn’s Nardal and Okka von der Damerau’s Anna
As Queen Dido’s most trusted Carthaginian advisors, Christian Van Horn was Nardal and German soprano Okka von der Damerau was Dido’s sister Anna. Both were engaging singers leaving strong impressions.
[Below: Nardal (Christian Van Horn, left) and Anna (Okka von der Damerau, right) contemplate the impact of the Trojans departure on the Kingdom of Carthage; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Other Cast Members and Musical Performance
Illinois-born bass-baritone David Govertsen and Texas mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin brought dignity and stylish singing to the roles of the King and Queen of Troy, both of whom succumbed in the destruction of Troy.
[Below: David Govertsen (right) is King Priam and Catherine Martin (left) is Queen Hecuba; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Connecticut mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen was Aeneas’ son Ascanius. Chinese tenor Mingjie Lei was an attractive Iopas. Georgia tenor Jonathan Johnson gained audience sympathy as the homesick sailor Hylas. Bass-baritone Philip Horst was Panthus, tenor Corey Bix was Helenus.
North Carolina bass-baritone Bradley Smoak was an arresting presence as the ghost of the fallen hero, Hector.
[Below: Bradley Smoak as the Ghost of Hector; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Rounding out the cast were New Jersey bass Patrick Guetti and Japanese baritone Takaoki Onishi as, respectively, a Greek Captain and a Trojan soldier.
Many of the most familiar numbers in “Troyens” are the big choruses, the rousing chorus of Trojan warriors under Aeneas’ command, including the Trojans’ (ultimately delusional) victory chorus and the anthem celebrating Queen Dido.
The Lyric Opera Orchestra performed with distinction under the leadership of Sir Andrew Davis.
Two major British productions, those of Tim Albery and Sir David McVicar, include most of Berlioz’ musical score for “Les Troyens”. Even with a few minor cuts, the resulting work with intermissions is around five hours. In Chicago (as McVicar’s production was in San Francisco) the performance was well-received with an impressive ovation at final curtain from the large, enthusiastic Lyric audience.
Tim Albery’s Stage Direction and Tobias Hoheisel’s Sets
Tim Albery’s costume scheme and weaponry suggested modern times, although his staging did not depart from the story, based on the first five books of Virgil’s The Aeneid.
Hoheisel’s sets are comprised of large structure that at first represents the battered world of Troy, much of it in shambles as the result of the ten years’ siege. Later the structure represents the intact but defensive walls of the land over which Queen Dido rules.
[Below: Aeneas (Brandon Jovanovich), preparing to leave Carthage, wanders outside of the Carthaginian walls; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
The structure is on a turntable that periodically moves as the scenes change. The structure’s walls provides the background for projected images.
Memorable projections included the shadow of the Trojan Horse being pulled into Troy’s inner walls, the canopy of stars and planets that shine above Dido and Aeneas as they express their love, and the magical fountains and waterfalls that accompany a ballet taking place in Dido’s realm.
[Below: the setting of a ballet; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
For opera-goers that have discovered or are curious about Berlioz’ operatic masterpiece, I enthusiastically recommend this ambitious production.
Because of its length, I would not recommend it as a first encounter with opera, but for those who know they like opera, the Lyric Opera’s superbly performed production is a profoundly rewarding experience.