The first Met performance of Les Troyens took place in 1973. Prior to that premiere, a complete single performance of the ambitious four-hour opus had never been staged in the United States. Since the unveiling of that first Met production, there have been only two revivals of its highly praised staging, at ten-year intervals. Given the Mets low tally of performances, there was more than the usual amount of speculation about this years production. Much of it was focused on tenor Ben Heppner, who would return to the Met stage in the role of Aeneas after nearly a year-long layoff due to vocal problems. But even more was focused on director Francesca Zambello, who had been away from the Met for more than a decade. Her 1992 coffin-strewn staging of Lucia di Lammermoor, though defended by some for its conceptual daring, had been lustily booed on the opening night and was dropped by the Met soon afterward. General Manager Joseph Volpes decision to turn to Zambello again and entrust her with such a prestigious assignment as the bicentennial production of Les Troyens was considered hazardous by many.
On this opening night, Zambello fared better with the audience than in her 1992 Met debut. However, when she and her production team came up on the stage, there were still many boos among the bravos. While I wasnt one of those who booed, I did find the sets and direction distracting at times, especially in Part II, the scenes set in Carthage. The symbol-laden sets by the late Maria Bjørnson, best known for her work on the Broadway Phantom of the Opera, include a precarious-looking pile of rods, sticks, spears, miniature boats and building models which serves as Didos funeral pyre. And Zambellos direction includes a simultaneous enactment of the love scene between Dido and Aeneas carried out by two fearless dancers suspended high above the stage by wires. But the production was by no means a fiasco. There was in fact much to like, including the gorgeous costumes by Anita Yavich, and some stunning lighting effects by James F. Ingalls.
No one was disappointed with the singing. Heading a lustrous case, that included soprano Deborah Voigt as Cassandra, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Dido, and baritone Dwayne Croft as Coroebus, tenor Ben Heppner appeared in fresher voice and gave a reassuring, if not unblemished performance in the vocally demanding role of Aeneas. Ninety pounds slimmer than when he appeared in last seasons Meistersinger, he was at first unrecognizable. The fact that he cracked on a couple of high notes did not seem to alarm many in the audience, who greeted him with roars of approval when he made his curtain call.
The rest of the singers were all marvelous. Deborah Voigt with her huge, bright voice was an ideal Cassandra, fluent and tonally beautiful in both the lyric and turbulent passages. Olga Borodina was originally scheduled to sing Dido, but when she had to withdraw because of pregnancy; she was replaced by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson whose acting and singing held the audience spellbound throughout the last three acts. The perfect Dido, she was in complete technical control at all times, conveying all the queens pathos and conviction. Hers was the most impressive and moving performance of the evening. Other outstanding performances were given by baritone Dwayne Croft as a powerful and convincing Coroebus, bass Robert Lloyd as a warm yet forceful Narbal, tenor Matthew Polenzani as an elegant Iopas, and tenor Gregory Turay who as Hylas gave a hauntingly beautiful rendition of the sailors song of homesickness.
The playing of the Met Orchestra was flawless. Conductor James Levine brought out all the excitement, passion and grandeur of Berliozs score without any sense of exertion. Especially notable was principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales for his wondrous playing during the scene in which Hectors widow, Andromache, appears in mourning. And the Met chorus was, as always, wonderful.
- Further performances on February 14, 17, 22 and March 11, 15, 20, 24 & 27
- The performance on Saturday, February 22, will be broadcast live on the Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network. BBC Radio 3 broadcast at 5.30pm
- Metropolitan Opera