By Bryson David Hoff
Going to the opera house in 19th century France was a dramatically different affair than in 21st century America.
As with most theatrical forms, the largely well-to-do audience showed up at whatever time they pleased, were more interested in who was in the audience than what was happening onstage and often cared more about ogling the ballet dancers than taking in the virtuosity of the singers or orchestra.
While audience expectations have changed, the struggle in staging operatic works from this time period lies in making what was designed to be background to a night out into a focal point for aesthetic appreciation. In this struggle, the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Hector Belioz’s Les Troyens emerges victorious.
For the unfamiliar, the opera follows the plot of the first section of Virgil’s Aeneid. Opening at the end of the Trojan War, the Greeks appear to have abandoned their decade-long siege of Troy, leaving behind a giant wooden horse as an apparent offering to the goddess Athena. Despite the sinister premonitions of the prophetess Cassandra (soprano Christine Goerke), the Trojans bring the horse into the city, allowing the Greek soldiers hidden inside to emerge and sack the city. Thanks to the supernatural interference of the ghost of Hector (bass-baritone Bradley Smoak), the warrior Aeneas (tenor Brandon Jovanovich) is warned of the attack and gathers a band of soldiers to escape the city, heading to Italy, where he is told he will found a city, Rome, that will grow to be the greatest empire in the world.
While en route, the group of refugees encounters the recently settled city of Carthage, ruled by the beautiful Queen Dido (mezzo-soprano Susan Graham), whose peaceful existence is threatened by conflict with the neighboring Numidians. Aeneas and his men are able to aid the Carthaginians in repelling the threat and, in the process, spark a heated love affair between Dido and Aeneas. However, when the time comes for the Trojans to leave for their final destination in Italy, one woman’s heartbreak becomes the grudge of a whole nation, foreshadowing the rise of Hannibal and the bloody Punic Wars that will prove Carthage’s downfall and cement the power of Rome.
Though no less epic in scope, the Lyric has jettisoned the typical lush, period sets in favor of a modernist design by Tobias Hoheisel that suggests both the monolithic nature of classical architecture and the weighty severity of a Cold War-era fortress, all concrete and rebar. The fact that the same set in different configuration stands for both Troy and Carthage serves to reinforce the theme of cyclical history.
The costume designs, also by Hoheisel, follow the same trend, evoking a post-industrial aesthetic that is nevertheless not tied to a specific time or place. We may be in the aftermath of World War II, behind the Iron Curtain during the rise of the USSR, or even in the aftermath of some conflict yet to come. Thus, the design concept openly invites the audience to consider the parallels between the story presented and the world they inhabit without proposing any kind of one-to-one allegory that might come off as overly simplistic or distract from the inherent aesthetic value of the score.
Director Tim Albery and conductor Sir Andrew Davis have assembled a fantastic cast of singers to bring the opera to life. It goes without saying that in a world-class company like the Lyric the vocal talent is unimpeachable, however it is in their acting abilities that Albery’s cast truly set themselves apart. Special accolades must be given to the leading ladies, Goerke and Graham, who both display a deft talent for allowing the vocal line to inform their physicality. The result is to bring a human face to a geopolitical story.
In fact, that last sentence might be taken as a miniature mission statement for the whole production. It is telling, for instance, that rather than building a giant Trojan Horse, as nearly every other production of Les Troyens does, the Lyric production instead opts for a projection of the structures enormous shadow, slowly advancing across the faces of the chorus, singing their patriotic anthems despite the audience’s knowledge that they are all doomed to die. The violent spectacle is not the focus, but rather the human tragedy.
It’s no secret that times look particularly dark right now and many are confronting an uncertainty in their future and angst over what they can do about it. Les Troyens is, in its way, the perfect opera to answer these fears. In Aeneas’s story, the audience is shown a hopeful story of surviving upheaval and adversity to go on to greatness. In Dido, they are reminded that, for better or worse, political leaders are only human and subject to the same passions as anyone else. The Trojans are a cautionary tale of allowing one’s emotions to eclipse their reason. The Carthaginians are a warning against allowing allegiance to the whims of a leader to inform personal decisions.
The opera is smart enough to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problems of this world, but provides some sign posts that, if follows, can help minimize the human tragedy of political conflict. In recognizing and highlighting these themes through clever design work, artful staging, and masterful artistry, the Lyric Opera of Chicago has succeeded in making Parisian Grand Opera more relevant than ever.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “Les Troyens” at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, through December 3. More information and tickets are available here.