LONDON (AP) — Other than Wagner's "Ring" cycle, few 19th century operas can compare with Hector Berlioz's "Les Troyens" ("The Trojans") for beauty and grandeur. Or for length and staging challenges.
Now this epic work (5 ½ hours, counting intermissions) has just opened in a new production at the Royal Opera House that offers terrific singing and conducting, sumptuous sets and costumes — and a few head-scratching elements like a flying saucer.
The version by director David McVicar which premiered Monday night marks the first time the company has performed the full opera in 40 years. It's an official event of the London 2012 Festival being held in conjunction with the Olympics — and in fact set designer Es Devlin is also designing the closing ceremony for the Games.
Writing an opera based on Virgil's "Aeneid" was a lifelong dream of the French composer, who adapted his own libretto. Though he rightly judged it "greater and nobler" than any of his other compositions, he never got to hear it performed in full before he died in 1869.
Berlioz divided the opera into two parts. The first depicts the fall of Troy, despite the warnings of Cassandra; the second tells of Aeneas' escape to Carthage, where he falls in love with Queen Dido, only to leave her so he can follow his destiny to found Rome.
One of the problems for any production is how to unify these two parts, and McVicar and Devlin have solved this in masterful fashion. Troy is represented by the exterior of a four-story circular wall made of rusted metal that protects the city — until its residents throw it open to admit the horse the Greeks have left behind.
Audiences expect any production of "Les Troyens" to conjure up a spectacular horse, and this one is something else! A towering contraption seemingly put together from bits of wheels, pieces of swords and other detritus from years of war, it looks like one of those mechanized monsters in a Star Wars movie.
Once the scene shifts to Carthage, we're on the inside of the circular wall, and the cold metal is replaced by a warm, orange-brown brick structure decorated with Moorish windows and archways. In contrast to the Crimean War-era military uniforms worn by the Greeks and Trojans, the peaceable Carthaginians are dressed in bright, multi-colored flowing robes (by costume designer Moritz Junge).
In center stage there's a large circular platform displaying a model of the city the people have built. Here's where the head-scratching begins: For the next scene, that platform turns upside down and rises high overhead, where it hovers like an extra-terrestrial spaceship. When night falls, it turns purple and emits pinpoints of light ( the work of lighting designer Wolfgang Goebbel) that create a lovely image — but it's a distraction.
At the very end of the opera, there's another alien invasion, this time in the form of a giant, made out of the same material as the horse, except with a skull for a head. He materializes at the back as Dido kills herself and her people swear vengeance on Aeneas and his race.
Luckily, these puzzling touches never interfere much with the musical end of things. The three lead singers are extraordinary. Soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci makes a riveting Cassandra, dramatically as well as vocally, prowling the stage like a wild animal as she tries to persuade her lover, Coroebus, to flee; then, after all is lost, calmly leading the Trojan women in a mass suicide. Her bright, tightly-focused sound lends urgency to her cries of desperation.
Soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek brings a glowing warmth to Dido's nobility and passion and a touching pathos to her downfall. The role is often taken by a mezzo-soprano, and in a few places, Westbroek's lowest notes get a bit lost, but it's a small price to pay.
The role of Aeneas was to have been sung by Jonas Kaufmann, until he came down with a throat infection. His replacement, tenor Bryan Hymel, is solid in his lower register and displays high notes of prodigious power and beauty. (Aeneas' vocal line has him venturing repeatedly up to and above high C.)
With Westbroek and Hymel blending their voices beautifully, the great love duet that closes Act 4 is the high point of the night, though conductor Antonio Pappano takes it at an awfully brisk tempo. For the most part Pappano and the orchestra do full justice to the depth and variety of Berlioz's score.
As Coroebus, baritone Fabio Capitanucci sounds ardent and sympathetic in his scene with Cassandra. Other standouts include mezzo Hanna Hipp as Dido's sister Anna; bass Brindley Sherratt as her minister Narbal; tenor Ji-Min Park as the court poet Iopas, and tenor Ed Lyon as the sailor Hylas.
This "Troyens" will be performed five more times through July 11, then shown in movie theaters worldwide in November. It's a co-production with opera companies in Vienna, Milan and San Francisco, where it will play in future seasons. Perhaps by then the saucer will have flown away.