Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera

DC Metro. Camera: Canonet QL-17. Film: Trix400.
Got to experience my first live Troyens over Thanksgiving weekend, thanks to Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production...

The headline casting coup here was the one-two punch of Christine Goerke and Susan Graham as Cassandre and Didon. Goerke's vocalism towered over the Troy acts, the part a great fit for her voice and a showcase for how she can convey urgent drama while maintaining that beautiful rounded tone throughout. Companies thinking about dipping their toe into Troyens need to get on it stat to give her more opportunities to sing this role, which could very well be a signature part for her.

Graham, a late replacement for the originally scheduled Sophie Koch, has has of course owned Didon for a decade now, and her portrayal remains an essential assumption, especially in Didon's harrowing breakdown over the course of Act 5. Her middle voice is perhaps a bit less plush than I remember from the HD broadcasts in 2012, but the her soaring, powerful top remains an incredible vehicle for Didon's passion and rage.

The third punch (?) was supposed to be Brandon Jovanovich's Aeneas, but he cancelled shortly before curtain time due to illness, and the production's Helenus, Corey Bix, went on in his place. Now before making any critiques, I want to make clear that people who cover Aeneas deserve our gratitude, are assured a place in heaven, etc. And moreover, people that can create a full-fledged, musically satisfying performance and essentially save huge stretches of the show like Bix did Saturday night are to be especially praised.

That said, Bix didn't get too far beyond checking the (admittedly pretty extraordinary) boxes for this part. The voice is loud, but somewhat colorless and lacks the heroic styling and timbre that would take the vocal portrayal to a more rarefied level. In softer music (like the love duet), the essential attractiveness of the voice is clear, but once the demands get more intense a sort of curdled sound takes over and the focus turns to getting through the music (again, no small task) rather than making something more with it. Bix has now replaced Issachah Savage in Virginia Opera's "Der Freischutz" in February, and while I am very bummed about missing another chance to hear Savage, will look forward to hearing Bix under friendlier conditions than the most intimidating cover situation possible (though I hear he also filled in for a number of Hymel dates in SFO--apparently he makes a habit of this grueling task).

Breaking down the rest of the endless cast in detail would get pretty tiring but here's a quick shout out list: as Iopas, tenor Mingjie Lei turned in a very beautiful Ceres song; Okka von der Damerau made a lot of out her turn as Dido's sister using her very dark, interesting mezzo voice; young artist Jonathan Johnson made a good impression in Hylas' Act 5 opening ballade; and Bradley Smoak brought a fine rich bass to Hector's ghost.

The production design is hit or miss. A large curved wall revolves to create different spaces in the cities of Troy and Carthage. Filled with rubble that provided a variety of playing spaces during the two Troy Acts the set looked great and served as a vehicle for some effective design moments like the huge projection of the Trojan horse drifting across the front of the ramparts while Cassandre sings her heart out from the top of the ramparts.

Unfortunately, after cleaning up the rubble for the Carthage part, things got considerably less visually interesting. The production tried to solve this with projections onto the huge expanse of the back wall of the set, but these often fell prey to the old crappy projection syndrome (CPS). A bit with stars and bad looking planets moving across the wall during the love duet was especially risible. In Act V they just stopped trying and most of the action was played out against a generically lit whitewashed wall.

Direction of the principal's scenes and crowd management during the big ensembles was fine I guess, but c'mon--with all the great inventive productions of greek and greek-adjacent theatre over recent decades this is the best we can do? I don't know if the goal was something understated, if they ran out of money, or if they just ran out of ideas, but this felt like a poorly conceived production and something of a missed opportunity given the tremendous canvas Troyens provides.

Costumes were nondescript modern dress, but sometimes confusing, as with an extremely unflattering schoolmarm skirt suit for Graham in Act III which was tried and failed to indicate "head of state." Graham's elegant "nondescript classical period" blue robe for the final Act was much more in line with what you'd expect for Troyens but it's hard to explain how it existed in the same universe with the earlier getup.

The orchestra and chorus, led by Andrew Davis, set a very high musical bar for the evening. I'll admit I had lost track of my opinion of the Lyric band and assumed it would be solid but nothing special, but was promptly put in my place by the big, exciting sound that poured from the pit. Davis served up some truly thrilling climaxes, for instance, Act 2's suicide chorus, one of those special moments where the drawbacks of the theater fall away and you are only aware of what a spectacular melding of chorus, soloists and monster orchestra you are witnessing.

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