Review: ‘The Trojans’ at San Francisco Opera (*****)

by Hugh and Mary Behm-Steinberg
Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

The Trojan is an unforgettable image in San Francisco Opera's producction of Berlioz's masterpiece. Set design by Es Devlin. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.
The Trojan horse is an unforgettable image in San Francisco Opera’s producction of Berlioz’s masterpiece. Set design by Es Devlin. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

Although “The Trojans” is often referred to as Hector Berlioz’s masterpiece, it is seldom performed  because of its massive production demands. We are fortunate that San Francisco Opera has taken on this challenge: the current production is a profound, once-in-a-lifetime experience, one of the best operas this team of reviewers has ever seen.

“The Trojans” (a co-production of San Francisco Opera, Teatro alla Scala, Vienna State Opera and the Royal Opera, Covent Garden) is a five-hour long visual extravaganza that, in Leah Hausman’s staging, comments on the nature of imperialism, duty versus desire, and fate. Adapted from Virgil’s “The Aeneid,” and completed in 1858 (but not fully staged until midway through the 20th century), the energy of “The Trojans” is not rooted in surprising plot twists, but in how the different characters react against their tragic fates.

While the plot is predictable, the singing and staging more than make up for this weakness. Michaela Martens delivers a nuanced performance as Cassandra, and underscores the success of the San Francisco Opera’s Merola program in nurturing new talent (Martens is a Merola alum). Other notable performances by Merola program participants included Adler Fellows Nian Wang as Ascanius, and a longing aria by Chong Wang as Hylas, a homesick sailor. Brian Mulligan as Chorebe provided a strong counterpoint to Martens’ Cassandra, mansplaining the many reasons he could not take her advice and lovingly but firmly reiterating her curse to never be believed.

Towards the end of the first act, we see the Trojan Horse emerging from the smoke. Rocking back and forth, the horse more than anything resembles a colossal chess piece, seemingly constructed out of the debris of war machines (but actually made from cast fire-resistant fiberglass and taking over a year to construct). It would be perfectly at home at Burning Man, or as a gift from the Gods. Well-designed and executed, it set off the 19th Century European costumes and buildings well, and underscores the timelessness of the military and imperialist themes that are integral to the Aeneid.

Conducted by former S.F. Opera music director Donald Runnicles, the score feels timeless and exacting. Berlioz is noted for his choruses and under Ian Robertson’s direction the SF Opera chorus does not fail to deliver. Their constant presence gives strength and energy throughout “The Trojans” as both observers and participants in the action of the opera. Their performance is especially moving at the end of Act 2, as Cassandra and the women of Troy weigh choosing their own deaths against certain capture and enslavement at the hands of their Greek conquerors.

Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.
Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

As Cassandra predicts, Troy falls, but Aeneas leads a band of refugees away from the burning city, setting off for Italy where the Gods have promised Aeneas a new empire and a glorious death. Before that happens, however, the Trojans visit Carthage for Act 3, where Queen Dido holds court. Carthage is depicted as a utopia in the making; the characters sport across a model of the city in progress. The Trojan refugees arrive just in the nick of time to save Carthage from invasion, and Aeneas and Dido fall in love. This being French opera, ballet serves as an integral component to the performance, and it is very satisfying.The color and flash during the couples’ extended dance scene is highlighted by the orientalist costuming. which in its own way further enhances the imperialist overtones of the opera.

There are several haunting moments of stagecraft (designed by Es Devlin) in the second half of the production. When Mercury appears to insist on Aeneas’ duty to his fate in Italy, he is lit from behind, producing a massive winged shadow on the walls of the city while his voice echoes through the set. The miniature city in Act 3 floats above the stage in Act 4, a heaven just out of reach. In Act 5 it is shattered in two. When Dido is shouting out her prophesies of destruction, a colossal Hannibal rises up as if from a nightmare.

Though the sets are magnificent, the most poignant moments in the opera occur with the curtain down. Susan Graham as Dido brings an emotional punch to her aching pleas for Aeneas to defy his fate and remain in Carthage. Graham makes us care about the character and what will happen to her. Bryan Hymel’s Aeneas brings home the emotional tear of wanting to stay and knowing he cannot, with the desire to spare Dido the heartbreak of his departure.

Most memorable about “The Trojans” is the juxtaposition of the destiny of nations versus the crushing emotional stakes borne by individuals caught up in the larger tides of fate and the will of the Gods. Troy falls, Carthage will fall, and one day Rome will fall, too. “The Trojans” implies that it is the nature of empires to engender their own destruction. Yet in Act 4, Dido’s sister Anna, played with great clarity by Sasha Cooke, claims there is no god more powerful than love. Whether or not one should believe this to be true is one of many questions “The Trojans” leaves unsettled.

Berlioz’s masterpiece deserves to be staged more than once every 45 years.

“The Trojans” plays at the War Memorial Opera House through July 1st. For further information, click here.

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“The Trojans” by Hector Berlioz,  co-produced by San Francisco Opera, Teatro alla Scala, Vienna State Opera and Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Director: Leah Hausman. Conductor: Donald Runnicles. Set: Es Devlin. Costumes: Moritz Junge. Lightning Deign: Wolfgang Göbbel and Piro Virolainen. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. Choreographer: Lynne Page. Fight Director: Dave Maier.

Cassandra: Anna Caterina Antonacci or Michaela Martens. Dido: Susan Graham. Aeneas: Bryan Hymel. Ascanius: Nian Wang. Anna: Sasha Cooke. Coroebus + Ghost of Coroebus: Brian Mulligan. Narbal: Christian Van Horn. Pantheus: Philip Horst. Iopas: René Barbera. Helenus: Chang Wang. Hylas: Chang Wang. King Priam + Ghost of King Priam: Philip Skinner. Queen Hecuba + Ghost of Cassandra: Buffy Baggott. Ghost of Hector: Jordan Bisch. Greek Captain + Voice of Mercury + Sentry: Anthony Reed. Trojan Soldier + Sentry: Matthew Stump. Trojan Chief: Jere Torkelsen. Andromaque: Brook Broughton. Polyxena: Rachel Speidel Little.

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