Nuit d’ivresse: Susan Graham and Brandon Jovanovich.
This and all photos ©Todd Rosenberg courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago.
When Lyric Opera of Chicago announced that Susan Graham would be stepping into the role of Didon in Berlioz’s Les Troyens this fall, I welcomed the news. I’ve heard her each time she’s sung this opera, and I had supposed that her performances in San Francisco last year would be her last — no matter that she had never sung Didon better. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” I said to myself, and made plans to fly to Chicago.
Little did I realize how, days after the announcement, the plot of Les Troyens would come to seem so timely: the opera depicts the collapse of not one but two governments, the demise of one civilization and a prediction of the demise of a second. Yet it wasn’t until the performance began that I fully understood the necessity of what was, in effect, a pilgrimage.
Lyric’s production, the company’s first, featured a vast cast, most of whom but Susan were new to their roles; and a vaster chorus of 94 singers, with Sir Andrew Davis in the pit and Tim Albery providing stage direction. Sir Andrew and the orchestra got off to a blurry start on November 17, when the sheer strangeness of the music simply didn’t come across. Berlioz is creating a sonic environment that’s meant to be like nothing we’ve ever heard, automatically transporting us to another time and place. But within a few measures Sir Andrew corrected course and steered us ably onward. Part of the satisfaction of the performance was the vivid sense that the Chicago musicians had been yearning to play this score.
Albery’s best decision may have been to keep so much of the principals’ action downstage, where we could better appreciate the relationships. For example, virtually every principal in Act II is a member of one family, and the stage groupings and the singers’ interactions made this clear. We weren’t merely watching heroes of legend, we were watching a family, people like us. When my biggest complaint is that the curved wall of Troy should be convex when the Trojans are outside it, and concave when they’re inside (instead of vice-versa), you know Albery succeeded overall.
Singing this opera for the first time in her career, Christine Goerke was the production’s great revelation, so right is she for the role of Cassandre. She sang magnificently, coloring her immense instrument with a wide range of emotions, knowing precisely when tenderness is required and when to let it all hang out. Her acting brought me to tears at the end of Act II, something no other Cassandre has accomplished. Now I may have to become a camp follower for Goerke’s Cassandre, the way I’ve been for Susan’s Didon.
Okka von der Damerau was the wittiest Anna I’ve seen, a gleeful schemer in the scenes where she plays matchmaker for her sister, Didon, which makes for a nice contrast with her sorrow when that match goes awry at the end of the opera. Hers is a plush voice — she’s sung Erda with Lyric — so that vocally this was the definition of luxury casting. Lucas Meachem sang Chorèbe with great feeling, and he and Goerke made a plausible couple, giving the sense of a real history to the characters’ relationship. Annie Rosen was lively and appropriately gamine as Ascagne.
The afternoon began with the announcement that tenor Brandon Jovanovich had a cold. At first my heart leapt — did this mean that my friend Corey Bix would step in to sing Enée, as he did when I heard Troyens in San Francisco? No, it did not; though he did step in for one performance after I left Chicago, Corey sang the role of Helenus this afternoon. Apart from a couple of notes (to which honestly I might not otherwise have paid attention), I’d never have known that Jovanovich was indisposed. His voice has matured so handsomely since I first heard him, and I’m hoping he’ll continue to sing Enée and to grow in the role.
And then there was Susan. Albery’s production sets the opera in a non-specific near-present, and Tobias Hoheisel’s first costume for Didon made her look distinctly more like a prime minister or president than like a queen. Was it compensation — or the cumulative effect of having sung the role so many times — that made Susan’s Didon more regal than ever? The character’s awakening to love (a transition made more gradual by another nice directorial touch, making the “Royal Hunt and Storm” ballet the embodiment of the sleeping Didon’s dream*) became clearer: as she fell in love, she really did let her hair down.
For financial reasons — namely, the need to avoid paying overtime — Sir Andrew and the team cut some music, pretty judiciously. Yes, I noticed the absences, but the plot didn’t suffer, and one passage (the long sequence of tributes in Act III) can be theatrically boring, no matter that the music is nice and it’s fun to hear people going on endlessly about how terrific Susan — I mean Didon — is.
But some music in Troyens you wish could go on forever, particularly the duet “Nuit d’ivresse” that closes Act IV. As the music spun out in its dreamy, voluptuous whirls and eddies, Albery made use of Lyric’s new revolving stage, and Didon and Enée’s love carried them beyond all earthly concerns, beyond the earth itself, with stars and planets (projections by Illuminos) looking on. I hesitate to say “perfect,” but this was close to perfect, an entirely apt visual representation of what we heard and the characters felt.
French repertoire has provided Susan with so many opportunities to revel in the sheer sensuality of her voice, and perhaps none better than “Nuit d’ivresse.” But she doesn’t stop there: then come the blind fury of Didon’s fight with Enée and the anguish of “Adieu, fière cité,” leaving me an emotional wreck. At a talkback after the performance, Susan said she thought she’d sung the aria better that afternoon than she’d ever sung it before — and I was in a position to confirm that she was right.
It’s been a helluva ride, as I’ve followed Susan to Paris, New York, San Francisco, and now Chicago with Les Troyens. A friend estimates that I’ve spent two full days of my life sitting in theaters and listening to her Didon. She has made this music so meaningful to me, and never more so than this fall, when much of the world has seemed to be collapsing around us all. Didon is more, then, than a signal achievement in the career of an artist for whom I feel both admiration and affection. It’s a gift of art that Susan has shared, when we need it most.
So if it should happen that she decides to sing it again — in Brussels or Barcelona or Bug Tussle — I’ll find a way to be there, too.
*NOTE: To a degree, the start of the ballet reminded me of Laurie’s Dream in Oklahoma! — and I mean that in a good way. I’d love to see this staging concept developed further.