Friday, January 11, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

We all know that Dido, Queen of Carthage, facilitated the founding of the Roman Empire by giving refuge to its founder Aeneas who had just escaped from the flames of Troy. The Greeks had pulled a fast one by giving the Trojans a gift of a wooden horse which happened to be full of Greeks who torched the city.

The subject has proven irresistible to many artists not least to Hector Berlioz who retold the story in Les Troyens, his massive opera that lasted well over five hours as shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera. 

Les Troyens requires orchestral, vocal and scenic resources that would bankrupt many small countries if they can even find such talent. The Metropolitan Opera has more resources than many countries and it provides a production on a grand scale.

There are two parts to Les Troyens, one set in Troy at the end of The Trojan War and another part set in Carthage where Aeneas stops on his way to Italy. The large cast is dominated by three soloists and a large chorus.

Cassandra, a prophetess and one of the daughters of King Priam, dominates the Trojan portion. She knows that Troy is about to be destroyed but her fate is not to be believed by anyone. The role requires a powerful voice and the evocation of deep emotional turmoil and desperate pleading in the face of ignorance and indifference. Soprano Deborah Voigt has the vocal power and stamina to sing and act the doomed Cassandra in a stunning performance.

She is not alone. Baritone Dwayne Croft is highly effective as her fiancée Coroebus as is tenor Bryan Hamel as Aeneas but the latter’s turn really comes in the second half of the opera.

The other star of the first half is the great Metropolitan Opera Chorus and here Berlioz provides some magnificent music.

The set, designed by Maria Bjarnson, looks like a primitive fortress in the first half of the opera. There is a hole in the roof and I got the impression that it had been bombed. Unfortunately, one cannot get a completely accurate view on the big screen. Director for Cinema Barbara Willis Sweete lets the camera pan across the stage and gives us good views of the chorus and singers but I am not sure if we ever get a full view of the entire stage.

The scene in Carthage is of a much more civilized society but there are no columns or statues in either part of the opera to indicate any classical connections. Troy and Carthage, in other words, are ancient societies that can be almost anywhere.

The second part of the opera is dominated by Dido (mezzo Susan Graham) and Aeneas. It is a love story complicated by the fact that Aeneas cannot stay – he has to go to Italy and get the Roman Empire started. Before he does that, Hymal delivers some spectacular singing as the tortured lover. Even more spectacular is Graham’s performance.

Not much is happening in Carthage, so Dido puts on a ballet to entertain Aeneas and it turns out to be such an interminable bore that she herself is not amused. She then asks Iopas (tenor Cutler) to entertain them and he does sing a rather insipid   Ô blonde Cérès.

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under Fabio Luisi performed heroically and magnificently.

The production is a revival of Francesca Zambello’s 2003 staging and it seems to bring out the best in the opera. As I said. one has limited access to the visual possibilities of the production but there is no doubt that this is opera on a grand scale.. At times I felt that the opera is simply too big for the theater screen and I wonder what the effect was at Lincoln Centre.

The opera is rarely performed but critics describe it as a masterpiece without hesitation. I will not argue with them but will assert that there are some boring sections and I could have done without the ballets.

And, oh yes, in the spring of 146 BC a Roman army under Scipio Africanus razed Carthage to the ground. He said he did to Carthage what the Greeks did to Troy.

Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz was shown Live in HD on January 5, 2013 at The Beach Cinemas, 1651 Queen Street East, Toronto, ON, M4L 1G5 and other theatres across Canada. For more information:

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