Opera lovers who survive Hector Berliozs marathon Les Troyens deserve an Olympic medal of some kind. It takes stamina to perform this grandiose pageant and endurance to sit through five hours plus change. From Cassandras prophecy (Deborah Voigt) to Queen Didos suicide (Susan Graham), the story unspools in five acts with two intermissions. Thats almost three movies worth of war, betrayal, high drama, love, more betrayal, an unseemly departure and a curse to end all curses.
The story starts way back, after the Greeks supposedly abandoned a 10-year siege of Troy. Their infamous gift horse remains, and Cassandras warning not to trust anything made in Greece goes unheeded.
By Act II, Troy has been plundered and Hectors ghost has told Aeneas (Marcello Giordani) to get out of town, fast. The hero of Virgils epic on whom the opera is based learns he is destined to establish a great race elsewhere. Rome beckons.
After intermission, Aeneas has shipwrecked in North Africa. He promptly offers to be a Carthaginian ally against the Numidians. Queen Dido, the former kings beautiful widow, accepts Aeneass help and promptly falls in love with him. By the end of Act IV, the battle-triumphant pair sing some of the most spectacular love music youve ever heard.
After the next intermission, however, all Carthage collapses. More ghosts appear; Aeneas wrestles with that pesky prophecy and his conscience. Finally, he abandons Dido for his Roman destiny. Betrayed and left behind, Dido picks up his sword and bitterly sings Mon souvenir vivra, her prelude to suicide. The opera ends with her curse on you-know-who.
There are many layers to this high-calorie operatic feast. First, there is Virgils great story. Thickly spread rich gobs of arch Romantic musical frosting and fill with a dream cast from the Metropolitan Opera. In addition, put all on stage in the now legendary set design by Maria Bjørnson.
Lavish and unsettling, Bjørnsons set was almost complete just before her sudden death in 2002. Its a study in modern expressionism. Act I boasts an enormous Trojan Horse with a splayed out sky. It ends with Queen Didos tragic pyre.
Among Bjørnsons many credits, her ground-breaking 1986 London production of Phantom of the Opera stands out. Nothing like the falling chandelier or the subterranean gondola had been seen before. Since then, Bjørnsons designs stretched and influenced contemporary theatrical design in Europe and America. She died unexpectedly at the peak of her career at age 53. Her Les Troyens production was last seen at the MET in 2003, so its one more reason to persist and see all five-plus hours.
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at email@example.com.