An ancient walled city reduced to rubble by a long and devastating war. An enemy bearing the gift of a fake peace. A prophecy of doom no one is willing to accept. A mass suicide by women who would rather take their own lives than be raped and enslaved by their conquerors. A refugee population battered in a perilous journey at sea, but welcomed by a foreign state where it helps fend off an enemy. A great but guilt-ridden love that ultimately cannot withstand the call of a homeland.
‘LES TROYENS’ (‘THE TROJANS’) Highly recommended When: Through Dec. 3 Where: Lyric Opera Chicago, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Tickets: $34 – $349 Info: www.lyricopera.org Run time: 5 hours, with two intermissions
All this might sound like a story grabbed straight from contemporary headlines. Yet it just happens to be the essential narrative of “Les Troyens” (“The Trojans”), the mid-19th century masterwork of Hector Berlioz, the French Romantic composer (and, in this case, librettist) who was obsessed with Virgil’s “Aeneid,” the epic first century BC account of the Trojan hero who traveled to Italy and became the “founding father” of Rome.
Without hammering home the obvious similarities of “then” and “now,” the five-hour production of “Les Troyens” that opened Sunday in a new production and Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere, brings this ancient story to life with such compelling musical, dramatic and scenic brilliance that you might well leave the theater wishing Berlioz, who never lived to see his five act opera performed in its entirety, could be watching it from some “better place.”
A massive undertaking, “Les Troyens” has been staged with superb clarity and emotional heat by British director Tim Albery, whose cast could not be more sublime. And it is buoyed continually by the exquisite work of the Lyric Opera orchestra under the masterful direction of Sir Andrew Davis, who brings the extraordinary beauty and fervor of Berlioz’s score to roaring life. The production also is a glorious showcase for the formidable voices and personalities of Lyric Opera’s grand chorus, led by chorus master Michael Black.
Perched on a giant turntable, German designer Tobias Hoheisel’s set stunningly evokes the formidable walled cities, separated by a stormy sea, where the two distinct parts of the story unfold — Troy (current day Turkey), and Carthage (now the North African country of Tunisia). His costumes are mostly modern, yet timeless.
The epic begins as the battle-scarred Trojans are rejoicing in the belief that their long war with the Greeks has finally come to an end. It appears their enemy has sailed for home, leaving only a huge wooden horse (lovely projection work by Illuminos) at the city gates. But Cassandra (the lush-voiced soprano Christine Goerke), daughter of Troy’s King Priam, and the prophetess no one will believe, senses something is very wrong, and tries to convince her fiance, Chorebus (powerful baritone Lucas Meachem), to flee. Her warnings fall on deaf ears all around. And then, after the handsome Trojan hero, Aeneas (golden-voiced tenor Brandon Jovanovich), reveals further bad omens, the Greek soldiers hidden in the horse emerge and wreak havoc. In the midst of it all, the ghost of the slaughtered hero, Hector (fine work by bass-baritone Bradley Smoak), tells Aeneas to escape and establish a new Troy in Italy. Meanwhile, faced by the marauding Greek soldiers, the women of Troy commit suicide rather than face enslavement.
The second half of the story unfolds in Carthage, where the widowed Queen Dido (Susan Graham, in quasi-Angela Merkel mode, who uses her rich mezzo-soprano ideally) praises her people yet warns of gathering war clouds. Dido welcomes boatloads of refugees from Troy who, under Aeneas, join with the Carthaginians to repel the enemy. Meanwhile, Dido’s sister, Anna (the lustrous-voiced mezzo soprano Okka Von Der Damerau, superb in duets with her sister), tries to convince Dido to remarry. And though guilty about falling in love again, she succumbs to her passion for Aeneas, despite the warning of her minister, Narbal (the impressive bass baritone Christian Van Horn).
The passion between Dido and Aeneas is embodied in a lavish, erotically charged ballet sequence choreographed by Helen Pickett. Adding to the beauty here is a “country song” performed by the poet Iopas (an exquisite turn by Mingjie Lei), and a most winning portrayal of Aeneas’ son, Ascanius (mezzo soprano Annie Rosen, ideal in a “pants” role).
Of course Dido is devastated when Aeneas realizes he must live out his destiny and head to Italy. And as she stabs herself to death in despair, she cries out the name of her avenger, the Carthaginian general, Hannibal. Yet she also knows that her kingdom will eventually fall to Rome, and the voices of her subjects can be heard cursing Aeneas and his descendants.
There have been a few other productions at Lyric I would describe as once-in-a-lifetime experiences — chief among them “Dialogues of the Carmelites” in 2007 and “The Passenger” in 2015. “Les Troyens” easily joins that very short list.