The Trojans

MUSIC BY Hector Berlioz

The Fall of Troy and The Trojans at Carthage
Libretto by the composer


NEW PRODUCTION

One of the largest, most magnificent pieces in the entire repertory, this rarely staged epic is presented here for the first time in 47 years, the way it was originally meant to be seen: two operas—The Fall of Troy and The Trojans at Carthage—in one spectacular evening! The tragic fall of Troy, the passionate love of two great leaders, the urgent pull of destiny: all unfold as part of Berlioz’s visionary masterpiece—French grand opera's answer to Wagner's Ring. Former Music Director Donald Runnicles, who masterfully conducted the Ring cycle in 2011, returns to lead this intensely lyrical, colorfully orchestrated, viscerally exciting score. David McVicar’s visually striking new production, “a major event” (The Guardian, London), moves the action to the mid-19th century. The world-class cast stars, as the ill-fated lovers Dido and Aeneas, the “vocally sumptuous and alluring” Susan Graham and Bryan Hymel, who gives “an impassioned and confident performance of a heroic role” (The New York Times). The “musically intelligent and vocally splendid” Anna Caterina Antonacci (The New York Times) alternates with Michaela Martens to take on the dramatic role of the prophetess Cassandra.

Commemorative special edition posters by Michael Schwab are available at the San Francisco Opera Shop.
(shop.sfopera.com)

Pop-up Beer Garden
Be sure to check out the pop-up beer garden on the Loggia. Our outdoor Loggia terrace is located on the third floor of the Opera House, overlooking City Hall. Open one hour before curtain and at intermission.

Pre-order Food and Drink
We are pleased to offer online pre-order meal packages and drinks for performances of The Trojans this summer.

Open Curtain Intermissions – June 20 & July 1
Always wanted to see the inner workings of our stage? Click here to learn more!

For a complete listing of all performances of The Trojans at San Francisco Opera, visit our online performance archive.

Sung in French with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 5 hours, 5 minutes including two intermissions

Please note early curtains: 6pm evenings and 1pm matinee.

Pre-Opera Talks are free to ticketholders and take place in the Opera House in the Orchestra section, 55 minutes prior to curtain.

Co-production with Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Teatro alla Scala, Milan and Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna

Audio excerpts (except Marche Troyenne): ©LSO Live 2000 (LSO0010) / performed by London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Sir Colin Davis, conductor
http://lsolive.lso.co.uk/collections/cd/products/berlioz-les-troyens-the-trojans
“Gloire à Didone”/Chorus; “Ô blonde Cérès”/Kenneth Tarver (Iopas); “Nuit d’ivresse”/Michelle DeYoung (Dido), Ben Heppner (Aeneas), Mark Stone (Un chef Grec)
"Marche Troyenne"
©Naxos Classical Archives (9.80633) / performed by Lamoureux Orchestra; Jean Martinon, conductor


Cast

Cassandra Anna Caterina Antonacci JUN 7, 16, 25; JUL 1
Cassandra Michaela Martens * JUN 12, 20
Dido Susan Graham
Aeneas Bryan Hymel *
Ascanius Nian Wang *
Anna Sasha Cooke
Coroebus, The Ghost of Coroebus Brian Mulligan
Narbal Christian Van Horn
Pantheus Philip Horst
Iopas René Barbera
Helenus Chong Wang *
Hylas Chong Wang *
King Priam, The Ghost of Priam Philip Skinner
Queen Hecuba, The Ghost of Cassandra Buffy Baggott
The Ghost of Hector Jordan Bisch
Greek Captain, Voice of Mercury, Sentry Anthony Reed *
Trojan Soldier, Sentry Matthew Stump
Trojan Chief Jere Torkelsen
Andromaque Brook Broughton
Polyxena Rachel Speidel Little *

Production Credits

Conductor Donald Runnicles
Production David McVicar
Director Leah Hausman
Set Designer Es Devlin *
Costume Designer Moritz Junge* *
Original Lighting Designer Wolfgang Göbbel
Lighting Designer Pia Virolainen *
Chorus Director Ian Robertson
Choreographer Lynne Page *
Fight Director Dave Maier
Associate Choreographer Gemma Payne *

* San Francisco Opera Debut

Synopsis

THE FALL OF TROY
Act I


After ten years of siege, the Greeks have departed from Troy, leaving behind a giant wooden horse as an offering to Pallas Athena. Only the prophetess Cassandra, daughter of the Trojan king Priam, wonders about the significance of their enemies’ disappearance. In a vision, she has seen her dead brother Hector’s ghost walking the ramparts. She has tried to warn her father of impending disaster and now urges her fiancé, Coroebus, to flee the city, but neither man will listen to her. When Coroebus begs her to join the peace celebrations, she tells him that she foresees death for both of them.

The Trojans offer thanks to the gods. Hector’s widow Andromache brings her young son, the heir to the throne, before King Priam and Queen Hecuba. The warrior Aeneas arrives and reports that the priest Laocoön is dead. Suspecting the wooden horse to be some kind of a trick, Laocoön had thrown his spear at it and urged the crowd to set fire to it, when two giant sea serpents appeared and devoured him and his two sons. Priam and Aeneas order the horse to be brought into the city to beg pardon of Athena. Cassandra realizes that this will be the end of Troy.

Act II

Aeneas is visited by the ghost of Hector, who tells him to escape the city. His destiny, he says, is to found a new empire that someday will rule the world. As the ghost disappears, Aeneas’s friend Panthus runs in with news that the Greek soldiers who emerged from the horse are destroying the city. Aeneas rushes off to lead the defense.
The Trojan women pray for deliverance from the invaders. Cassandra prophesizes that Aeneas and some of the Trojans will escape to Italy to build a city—a new Troy. Coroebus has fallen, and Cassandra prepares for her own death. She asks the women if they will submit to rape and enslavement. When Greek soldiers enter, the women collectively commit suicide. Aeneas and his men escape with the treasures of Troy.

THE TROJANS AT CARTHAGE
Act III


The people greet their queen, Dido. In the seven years since they fled their native Tyre following the murder of Dido’s husband, they have built a flourishing new kingdom. Dido’s sister Anna suggests that Carthage needs a king and assures her sister that she will love again. Visitors are announced who have narrowly escaped shipwreck in a recent storm—they are the remaining survivors of the Trojan army, with Aeneas among them. Dido welcomes them. When news arrives that the Numidian ruler, Iarbas, is about to attack Carthage, Aeneas identifies himself and offers to fight alongside the Carthaginians. Dido accepts, and Aeneas rallies the united forces of Carthage and Troy, entrusting his son, Ascanius, to the queen’s care.

Act IV

Aeneas has returned victorious to Carthage. During a royal hunt, he and Dido seek shelter from a storm in a cave. They discover their love for each other.

It is several months later. Narbal, the queen’s adviser, is worried that since Dido fell in love with Aeneas, she has been neglecting her duties. He fears that in welcoming the Trojan strangers, Carthage has invited its own doom. Dido enters with Aeneas and her court to watch an entertainment of singing and dancing. She asks Aeneas to tell her more about Troy’s last days. When he talks about Andromache, Hector’s widow, who married Pyrrhus, one of the enemy, Dido sees a parallel to her own situation. Alone, she and Aeneas again proclaim their love, as the god Mercury reminds Aeneas of his duty and destination—Italy.

Act V

At night in the Trojan camp by the harbor, a young sailor sings a homesick ballad. Panthus and the Trojan captains are worried about omens and apparitions that remind them of their failure to move on. Aeneas enters, torn between his love for Dido and his duty to leave Carthage. He makes up his mind to see the queen one last time. But when the ghosts of Priam, Hector, Coroebus, and Cassandra appear, urging him to leave, he orders his men to set sail before sunrise. Dido appears. Aeneas swears that he loves her but must leave her. She curses him. As dawn breaks, the queen asks her sister to persuade Aeneas to stay, but the Trojan ships are already on their way out to sea. Furious, Dido orders a pyre built to burn his gifts and remembrances of their love. Now resolved to end her life, she bids farewell to Carthage and everything she held dear.

The pyre has been set up. Priests pray for Dido, who predicts that her fate will be remembered: a future Carthaginian general, Hannibal, will avenge her against Italy one day. Then she stabs herself with Aeneas’s sword. Dying, she has a vision of Carthage destroyed by eternal Rome. As the Roman Capitol is seen like a vision in the distance, the Carthaginians curse Aeneas and his descendants.

“A Virgilian Opera on the Shakespearean Plan”

Thomas May

“For the last three years I have been tormented by the idea of a vast opera,” wrote Hector Berlioz at the end of the first edition of his Memoirs, in 1854. This oblique reference to the still-to-be-written The Trojans suggests that the composer, then just 50 years old, intuited the difficulties awaiting him. “I am resisting the temptation, and trust I shall continue to resist it to the end.”


Hector Berlioz (1803–69) composing Les Troyens by Lionello Balestrieri
Bridgeman art Library
 
PDF of article

It wasn’t birth pangs per se he feared. Within an astonishing two years (1856–58), Berlioz composed both the text and the music for The Trojans, working with intense focus as he sustained a high pitch of inspiration. What he feared was the agony of getting his work produced— a struggle that, sadly, turned out to be even more bitterly disappointing than he foresaw. Fortunately, the impulse to create The Trojans proved strong enough to override his early anxieties. However improbably ambitious an undertaking, Berlioz’s magnum opus at the same time represents the inevitable culmination of his life and thought as an artist.

If the stakes seemed impossibly high for Berlioz, the same could be said of his source material. Virgil himself allegedly complained to the Emperor Augustus that he must have been “mad” to have undertaken the Aeneid. According to tradition, the dying poet (he lived from 70–19 BCE) indicated that he wanted the manuscript to be burned, for it lacked his finishing touches. Not only was Virgil competing directly with the Homeric epics venerated as the foundation of literature (to his contemporary Romans, Homer was a quasi-divine poet, already several centuries older than Shakespeare is in relation to ourselves): with the Aeneid he attempted nothing less than to rewrite the national narrative. By depicting the sufferings and victories of the Trojans, Virgil’s epic aimed to make sense of a period of cataclysmic social and political transformation.

Virgil had come of age during a century of civil war, a time of apocalyptic uncertainty: his nuanced vision of human pathos and endurance has resonated across the centuries with countless other artists and thinkers. For generations those who consulted the pagan Virgil’s text regarded him as a source of spiritual wisdom. As with the bible, randomly chosen lines from the Aeneid, if properly interpreted, were believed to provide a prophetic glimpse into the future. The Aeneid was used from the start as a powerful tool for imperialist propaganda, which represents merely one dimension of its influence. The poetry of Virgil had acquired, as T.S. Eliot put it in 1944, “the centrality of the unique classic; he is at the center of European civilization, in a position which no other poet can share or usurp.”

When Berlioz prepared to embark on his operatic treatment of the Aeneid, he confessed to Franz Liszt, a champion of his music, that “I am trying to resign myself to the misery this work is bound to cause me.” It was in fact Liszt’s partner at the time, Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, whom Berlioz credited as the principal instigator of The Trojans (he dedicated the score to her). “If you shrink from the difficulties this work may and must bring you, if you are so feeble as to be afraid to face everything for Dido and Cassandra, then never come back here— I refuse to see you again”: so Berlioz reported the Princess’s challenge during a visit he paid to her and Liszt in Weimar. According to the Berlioz scholar Ian Kemp, the composer “was probably unaware that her interest in his work was an attempt to generate a challenge to Wagner [at the time in the thick of composing the Ring], whom she mistrusted and whose influence on Liszt she resented.”

 

Cassandra by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys
Bridgeman Art Library

For all his worry about the intense disappointment he predicted lay in store for him, various letters record snapshots of the enthusiastic state in which Berlioz created The Trojans, beginning with his drafting of his own libretto adapted from Virgil’s epic in May and June 1856. Bouts of ill health made it impossible to work for stretches yet could not dim Berlioz’s faith in the quality and significance of what he was giving birth to. He even faced another temptation requiring resistance: to interrupt progress on the libretto and compose the music he felt brimming inside. Berlioz did cave in to jot down the music for the love duet in Act IV (he likened the frame of mind in which this pressed itself on him to intoxication), but in principle he insisted that it was necessary first to finish structuring and versifying the text.
What was at stake in this process was the central aesthetic challenge Les Troyens posed for its creator: how to achieve the most effective synthesis of music and drama, of feeling and form. Berlioz—who of course could not have yet experienced the Ring and knew of Wagnerian music drama only in terms of its theory—disdained what he considered “Wagner’s crime” of wishing to “dethrone music” in favor of an all-purpose declamatory style, Berlioz formulated the essential challenge he faced as follows: “How to find the means to be expressive and truthful without being any the less musician, and how to give the music new means of action…”

The score, part of which he composed out of sequence, occupied Berlioz from August 1856 until April 1858; revisions naturally followed (including changes that were made as reluctant concessions for the first staging). To his favorite sister he proudly announced that the music he had written “is noble and grand” and “has a poignant veracity” and “a number of ideas which would make the ears and perhaps the hair of all the musicians of Europe stand on end…”  The late David Cairns, author of the canonical English biography of Berlioz, unhesitatingly calls The Trojans “his greatest score and his most daring and eventful—a conscious summing-up and a reaching out into new regions.”
Yet even if creating The Trojans, as Berlioz wrote, had gratified “my musical and Virgilian passions,” disillusionment set in when it came to the compromises necessitated by the initial attempts at performance. The composer’s exhausting campaign to secure a production at the central institution of the Paris Opéra failed—not surprisingly, given the cultural ethos of Paris during the Second Empire and the demand for lighter entertainment. His previous work for that stage, the semiseria (semi-serious) opera Benvenuto Cellini, had been a humiliating fiasco in 1838, even triggering a riot. (In the meantime, while The Trojans remained unperformed, Berlioz went on to write his only opéra comique, a treatment of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing titled Béatrice et Bénédict and premiered in Baden-Baden in 1862.) At the smaller Théâtre Lyrique the impresario Léon Carvalho committed to giving the world premiere, but in the end Berlioz was forced to agree to a presentation of only the second part, The Trojans at Carthage (acts three through five), along with a new brief prologue necessitated by this restructuring. He never saw a production of the first two acts (which became known as The Fall of Troy).

From the start Berlioz had conceived The Trojans as a single unified work to be experienced in one performance. Yet from this compromise at the Théâtre Lyrique there arose a longstanding misconception that the opera comprises two quasi-independent parts. The French remained notably resistant to honoring the composer’s vision, while champions in the German- and English-speaking worlds paved the way over the succeeding century toward full-scale stagings of The Trojans. San Francisco Opera played an especially important role in the opera’s reception history: it was here, in 1966, that the “professional stage premiere” in the United States was produced (following a version by Boris Goldovsky’s New England Opera Theater in 1955). Even that San Francisco Opera production, however, was heavily cut. With David McVicar’s production, the complete score of The Trojans appears for the first time on San Francisco Opera’s stage (with no numbers cut and only minor cuts and repeats not taken).

Surprisingly, the severely truncated Théâtre Lyrique premiere, which took place in 1863, generated a good deal of positive response—despite the fact that during its run even the famous Royal Hunt had to be cut after opening night, and the great Act V duet between Dido and Aeneas also got chopped. Giacomo Meyerbeer, then celebrated as a master of French grand opera style, attended multiple performances, he declared, “for my pleasure and instruction.”  Still, the lack of a definitive full-scale production when The Trojans was new to the world caused even more long-lasting damage than Berlioz had pessimistically foreseen. The division and cutting of the work perversely underscored the notion that Berlioz had written a sort of heroic “ruin” that lacked coherence and integral construction. Kemp writes of the legend that emerged of The Trojans as “a monster so unwieldy that it had to be split in two and trimmed to size.” Worse, distorted perceptions of The Trojans encouraged stereotypes of the composer as a washed-up Romantic revolutionary who had lost his fire and reverted to a more “conservative” approach (a fashionable interpretation in the wake of the success of Wagner’s operas and their ideology of music drama). The triumph of Wagner and Wagnerism more than anything else, notes Kemp, eclipsed the chance for a proper assessment of The Trojans until the tide had changed in the twentieth century. With a new climate. “Berlioz’s music in general and Les Troyens in particular could be welcomed.”

A map of the ancient world, with Troy (Troja) on the easternmost point of what is modern day Turkey and Carthage (Carthago) on the northern point of Africa.
Bridgeman Art Library

Berlioz’s abiding love of Virgil meanwhile provides another indication of the centrality of The Trojans to his creative thought. This further undermines the misunderstanding that the opera marked an aesthetic “retreat” by including traditional forms in the fifty-two individual numbers comprising the score. From his vivid childhood memories of the soul-searing experience of reading of Dido’s fate—Berlioz learned to read the Aeneid in Latin, patiently instructed by his physician-father — Virgil retained a presence Cairns likens to “an underground river running beneath the external reality of his life.” Indeed, the composer’s well-known veneration of Shakespeare almost pales in comparison to his love affair with Virgil. “Shakespeare, to Berlioz, was a kind of humanistic God the Father,” writes Cairns, “…but with Virgil it was something more intimate, a companionship, a sense of identification.” Berlioz himself said, “I feel as if I knew Virgil, as if he knew how much I love him” and also referred to the characters in the Aeneid as if they were actual presences, alive for him.

By adapting the Aeneid, Berlioz confronted the challenge of transforming a widely ranging epic narrative into a sequence of dramatic events. The Aeneid itself is structured in two interconnected halves that allied to the epic precedents of the Odyssey (the Trojans fleeing Troy, the sojourn in Carthage, and the arrival in Italy, recounted in Books 1-6) and the Iliad (the series of wars through which the Trojans stake their claim for a new homeland in Italy, recounted in Books 7-12). Berlioz chose to focus on events that occur in Books 1, 2, and 4.

Along with the necessary foreshortening, he elaborated some incidents and characters who are merely mentioned in passing by Virgil—the invading warrior Iarbas and, most notably, Cassandra, who becomes the heroine of the first two acts. At the same time, Berlioz interpolates Aeneas’ destiny to found a new Troy in Italy as the epic through line—the big picture—that insistently punctuates the drama, most remarkably of all in the final visual scenario that accompanies Dido’s tragic death. Like Wagner with the finale of his Ring, Berlioz reworked the problematic ending of his epic opera, finally calling for a vision of the future capitol in Rome and the new civilization that will be the result of Aeneas’ separation from her. In musical terms, Berlioz represents this epic thread via the recurring brass theme of the Trojan March, first heard in Act I during Priam’s fatal decision to lead his people in celebration outside the gates of the long-besieged city of Troy. The theme is always instantly recognizable thanks to its fanfare-like profile—hinting of French Revolutionary fervor—though subtle harmonic alterations signal the varying stages of the drama. In the end, the march theme acquires significance as a musical representation of the unstoppable momentum of change, of the force of history itself.

San Francisco Opera presented the "professional stage premiere" of Les
Troyens in 1966, starring Régine Crespin as both Cassandra and Dido and
Jon Vickers as Aeneas.
Photo by Carolyn Mason Jones

 
The two separate settings of The Trojans (Troy and Carthage) reinforce the overarching unity of the work through parallels and cross-references, which simultaneously contribute richer layers of meaning. Cassandra and Dido share an obsessive nature and are presented in both public and private settings. Cassandra’s sense of mission ironically prefigures that of Aeneas, who must deafen himself to Dido’s pleas as Cassandra had done to her lover Choroebus in the first act. Parallel scenes of ritual celebration likewise punctuate the opening of Acts I and III, while Aeneas suddenly takes center stage later in each of these acts with a heroic spotlight (respectively, as he announces the horror of Laocoőn’s destruction and declares his support of his new host Dido against the invader Iarbas).
Berlioz smartly constructed his libretto to include moments that call for memorable wordless passages, such as the affecting clarinet solo accompanying Andromache’s silent appearance and the orchestral interlude known as the Royal Hunt and Storm (at the start of Act IV), in which the love of Dido and Aeneas is “enacted” by the orchestra prior to its theatrical representation in their love duet. “Here Berlioz comfortably meets grand opera traditions on his own orchestral terms, ones in which the characters become puppets in an instrumental drama,” observe Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker in their recent joint A History of Opera. “The finest vocal moments do something similar, with the characteristic Berlioz monologue format best seen as a dialogue between the character and the orchestra.”
It is in moments such as the Royal Hunt and Storm that Berlioz pursues the aesthetic familiar from his earlier “dramatic symphony” based on Romeo and Juliet. In his preface to that work, he wrote that his imagination required a “freedom which the limiting sense of sung words would never allow,” and which is explored by the purely instrumental music of the nighttime “scene of love” and the “Queen Mab Scherzo.”

Shakespeare in fact takes his place alongside Virgil in The Trojans as a crucial model. Cairns discerns the Shakespearean key in the Bard’s “open form and mixing of genres and his making coherent by means far transcending the unities of time, place, and action.” The influence of Shakespeare “is manifest in the far-flung topography of the action, in the elements of the homely and the grotesque and the supernatural which are allowed their part, in the closely woven web of poetic, psychological correspondences and resonances, and in the juxtaposing of sharply contrasted scenes…” Berlioz aptly summarized what he created as “a Virgilian opera on the Shakespearean plan.”

As for the confluence of Berlioz and Virgil in The Trojans, the composer himself laid out the different kinds of musical passages Virgil immediately inspired: “You can easily enough imagine what the scenes of passion are like, also the love scenes and the depictions of nature, whether calm or stormy, but there are scenes too of which you cannot possibly have any conception. Among these is the ensemble in which all the characters and the chorus express their horror and fear as they learn that Laocoőn has met his death devoured by snakes, also the finale of the third act and Aeneas’s last scene in the fifth.”

The sound world Berlioz conjures in The Trojans mirrors the strategies of Virgil’s epic with wonderful innovation and vividness. To cite just the opening of the opera, there is the beginning in medias res (“in the middle of things”) without an overture, as winds and brass burst forth in an ironically jaunty mood of festivity. (Berlioz wanted to withhold the sonority of strings until Cassandra’s entrance, which ruled out starting with a self-standing overture.)  The celebrating Trojans later appear to the tune of their hollow triumphal march as Cassandra watches in horror. Such emotional polyphony shows, in microcosm, how attuned was Berlioz to the dark ambiguity that underlies Virgil’s vision.
Along with its magnificent choral writing, The Trojans is replete with orchestral “special effects,” from the stopped horns at the first appearance of Hector’s ghost and menacing trombones for the serpents to the serene Mediterranean night music of the love duet and the lulling marine surge in Hylas’ song (composing which, said Berlioz, he thought of his son Louis, a merchant marine).

The very “contradiction” that  gave pause to earlier commentators on Berlioz—the alleged contradiction between the young revolutionary and the conservative-tending composer who rejected Wagner’s reforms but found an ally in the eighteenth-century sensibility of Christoph Willibald Gluck—turns out to mirror a similar characteristic in Virgil: ultimately, a balance of the Romantic and the Classical perspectives. The Trojans, writes Ian Kemp, “is Virgilian in countless ways. There is the blend of romantic rhetoric and classical restraint, of monumentality and pictorial vividness; the fondness for mixing genres and in particular for using the lyrical to diversify the tragic and at the same time to bring it into sharper focus; the systematic alternation of scenes of passages of violence and calm as a structural rhythm in the composition of the work; the combination of an aristocratic aloofness with an awareness of the sufferings of ordinary humanity; the sense of fatality, of obscure inimical powers that lie in wait for man, and of the madness that can strike a people and drive it blindly to its own destruction. (The two men have also in common their fear of the collapse of civilization as they knew it, and the doubts that assailed them at the end about the value of their work.)”

Thomas May writes regularly for San Francisco Opera and blogs about the arts at www.memeteria.com.

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A Dream Fulfilled

Speight Jenkins

The Trojans (Les Troyens) fulfilled the dream of a four-year-old boy, Hector Berlioz. When his father read his precocious son Virgil’s Aeneid, the boy was so moved at Dido’s death that “I was seized with nervous shuddering and ran off to give myself up to Virgilian grief.”


San Francisco Opera presented Les Troyens at the Greek Theater on the campus of UC Berkeley in 1968.
Photo by Musura


PDF of article

His father, realizing his son’s pain, stopped reading, but the emotions stirred up never left Berlioz. Almost a half century later Berlioz, speaking to Franz Liszt and his mistress, the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, talked of composing an opera about Dido and Aeneas. The Princess jumped on the idea, encouraging him to do what he had thought was impossible. She never let up, at one point, telling him that if he didn’t compose the opera, she would not speak to him. That did it, and straight away he began to write the libretto. Afterwards he said that The Trojans was created to satisfy a passion that flamed up in his childhood.

The resulting work, composed between 1856 and 1858, did not break the pattern of French opera because of the grandeur of the work or its musical construction. It followed Gallic tradition in its use of ballet, arias, and duets, choral episodes, and a story that was easy to follow. But its intensity, gravity, and stoic heroism distinguished it from French grand opera of its time exemplified by the operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer and Charles Gounod, making it as revolutionary as any of Wagner’s works. Les Troyens did not just entertain; it involved the audience in a very real way in its tragedy. It was too real, too immediate, too shocking for the 1850s. Though it seemed to follow the grand opera patterns, it was as unique as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, composed in the same period.

Berlioz at the time was almost better known as a discerning if difficult music critic than composer, and his requirements for The Trojans were so vast that in his lifetime only the last part of his opera, severely cut, ever received a performance. There was no way for this excerpt to be a success; on hearing only a third of Verdi’s Don Carlos or Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, two equally immense works,  no public could have appreciated either opera. The Trojans was reputed to be some gigantic white elephant, and did not receive a mostly complete performance until 1890, in Germany. A century after it was composed, it finally received an uncut production in London under the Czech conductor, Rafael Kubelik.

To this day The Trojans is only performed by opera houses with great resources and by a leader who believes that this great work is worth the time and funds to bring it to the public. San Francisco Opera presented a very abridged version of the opera in the 1960s. The Metropolitan Opera ventured a production in 1973, and whenever the opera is performed it is a significant happening. The problem is not the length (though overtime figures into every opera manager’s thinking), but the forces of dance, chorus, the number of principals, the sheer demands of the mythic story. For instance, one cannot really present the opera properly without a Trojan Horse, one that is large enough to house a lot of Greeks, and there are multiple technical problems in Carthage, such as “The Royal Hunt and Storm”, one of the great musical joys of the piece but one that demands all the elaborate action of a French pantomime opera of the eighteenth century.

The key to understanding what Berlioz succeeded in accomplishing come in his own words when he described his opera as a Virgilian opera on the Shakespearean plan. Because he loved Shakespeare as much as Virgil, the composer managed to include in this opera not only plenty of soliloquies (arias), massive choral scenes (the chorus is onstage and active for three-quarters of the opera, a figure almost surely not equaled in any opera in repertory today), great poetry, and even comic relief. In the fifth act at the most surprising moment Berlioz introduces two soldiers griping as they patrol, which calls to mind the Porter in Macbeth and countless other Shakespearean moments.

The wonders of the score are many. Cassandra, daughter of the King of Troy, who was given the power of prophecy but doomed to have no one believe what she foretold, dominates the first part. Her dismay in her first aria, her misery in realizing that Corebus, her fiancé, doesn’t believe her, the wild frustration she feels when she hears of the priest Laocoön’s death as he tried to warn the Trojans of the horse, the Trojans’ ignoring the noise of armor inside the horse, all this is spelled out in music of tremendous force and excitement. Best of all is Cassandra’s exhortation to the Trojan women to commit suicide, thus avoiding rape by the Greeks.

Berlioz carefully painted Carthage in lovely colors, an idyllic and happy kingdom ruled benignly by a great queen. One of the opera’s most exciting moments—equal to me to Sieglinde’s naming Siegmund in Die Walkuere—is when the disguised Aeneas, realizing that he can find a safe haven for his Trojans in an heroic defense of Carthage, throws off his disguise and proclaims himself as the hero he is. The love duet between Dido and Aeneas expresses a passion beyond sexual excitement, one of complete and total love. And the final moments of Dido have an immediacy of grief not experienced elsewhere. Norma asks her father to take care of her children and bravely walks to the funeral pyre with Pollione, Brünnhilde joyously incinerates the world she knows in order to make a better one, but in The Trojans, a real woman, Dido, bids farewell to her city, her country, and her people in immediate and direct pain.
 
San Francisco is more than fortunate to have the opportunity to enjoy a work that encapsulates a lifetime of emotion of a great and complex composer. There is no opera like it.

Cited by Opera News Magazine as one of the 25 “most powerful” names in American opera, Speight Jenkins served as general director of Seattle Opera from 1983 to 2014. His passion for opera and deep knowledge of the art form influenced Seattle Opera’s many innovative productions, substantial publications, comprehensive education programs and services, and helped build the great audience for opera in Seattle. Jenkins strengthened and extended Seattle Opera’s reputation as a Wagner center by producing all ten of Wagner’s major operas, including two very different Ring productions. Prior to his work at Seattle Opera, Jenkins was an editor of Opera News, wrote reviews and articles for a number of publications including the New York Post, and hosted the Metropolitan Opera telecasts.

 

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Anna Caterina Antonacci: An Important Presence on the Opera Stage

David J. Baker

Sopranos often hesitate to perform a part closely identified with a legend like Callas, Sutherland or Nilsson. But what about a role that is forever associated with Sophia Loren? What opera singer can follow in those special footsteps?
            The answer is Anna Caterina Antonacci, an Italian diva of striking beauty, vocal sensitivity, and dramatic presence, a true singing actor who is unique on today’s opera stage.
            In Two Women, a new opera by Marco Tutino, based on the 1958 Alberto Moravia novel La Ciociara that was the basis of the 1960 Vittorio de Sica/Loren film. San Francisco has a rare opportunity to see this unusually gifted singing actress in a role that virtually no one else could fill.
            “She is the kind of singer, said Maestro Riccardo Muti recently, “that when she walks onstage, you realize there is an important presence. When I decided to do Gluck’s Armide, immediately I thought of Antonacci. In fact I don’t remember if I chose Antonacci and then the opera, or the opera and then Antonacci.”
            Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who has performed and recorded with her, said: “I love many singers. But she’s one I also admire, especially for her integrity. She’s not someone who will adapt to certain roles because she has to. She listens to her own feeling and to the music.”
            Antonacci’s repertoire is as unusual as her vocal and dramatic skills, encompassing Bizet and Monteverdi, Handel and Berlioz, Rossini and Poulenc. Besides the leading role in Two Women, she appears in San Francisco Opera this season as Cassandre in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, a work rarely heard today, especially with a cast of this caliber (including Susan Graham and Bryan Hymel)
            In a conversation soon before San Francisco Opera’s Summer season, the dynamic Antonacci spoke about the role of Cesira in Two Women and other milestones in her remarkable career.


Anna Caterina Antonacci (photo by B. Ealovega)


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What prompted you to take the leading role in this opera based on Moravia’s Two Women? Did Tutino write it with you in mind?
 
Yes, Marco Tutino composed this opera knowing that I would be the interpreter. I had already performed an opera by Marco, ten years ago at La Scala—Vita, based on the play Wit, by Margaret Edson, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. In this case too, there was a cult film, this time directed by Mike Nichols with Emma Thompson. Vita was one of the most intense and extraordinary experiences of my career. I look forward to a similar cathartic experience with Two Women.
 
Does a new work like this require unusual preparation?
 
Everyone in Italy, at least through my generation, has seen La Ciociara (Two Women), the De Sica film, at least three times. We know it by heart. In this role, Loren reached the summit of her art and of her extraordinary beauty. And I have also read the Alberto Moravia’s novel.
           
For every new character that I prepare to play, I read, I see films and go to the theater as much as possible, to have my memory full of all these references that connect me with the story, the text, the various interpretations. Then, often during rehearsals, I have the feeling that this preexisting substructure has disappeared and that everything I am doing comes entirely out of the work with the director and my colleagues. But in the end, in some way or other, everything reemerges and flows together.
 
Do you find Loren’s performance helpful—or a hindrance to you?
 
Most definitely, it’s a help to me—and a great inspiration.
 
Is there a special challenge in portraying a violent, depressing drama and a character who is raped by invading soldiers?
 
This happens to be a historically true story. Moravia speaks of “Italy raped by the war,” and he refers to the atrocities committed by the Moroccan troops allied with the France who disembarked in Italy after 1943, who were given freedom to pillage and to commit countless rapes. Entire villages were defenseless victims of these barbarities, with the cynical permission of the French. It’s a story truly repugnant and tragic, one that has never been discussed enough. I don’t find it at all depressing to depict or to recall these actions which really occurred against innocent people.
           
While studying Two Women, I realized that it will be a completely atypical opera, very close to the cinematic genre, with long orchestral commentaries and superimposed scenes almost as fade-ins and fade-outs. It’s a real challenge for Francesca [Zambello], our director. Yet, even without knowing yet how the staging will look, I already know that I will love her ideas, both visual and conceptual. I have worked with Francesca, first at the start of both our careers—in Rome, in Cimarosa’s Orazi e Curazi—and then more recently in London, in Carmen. She is a great director. I can’t imagine anyone who commands greater skill and a greater range of talents to guide us on this adventure.
 
Tutino’s musical and vocal style has been compared to Puccini, Mascagni and other verismo composers, a manner not especially common in your repertoire to date.
 
The musical style of this opera seems to me a verist, or realist, style in the way it adheres closely to the dramatic text, every note corresponding to a syllable. And that means it’s not all that far from the sung recitative of a Monteverdi opera; there are no actual arias in the classic sense, but ariosi, between song and recitative. Here, moreover, every character has his or her own leitmotive, and is introduced by a musical theme. Most important, Marco writes so well for the voice, and never “forces.”
 
San Francisco is fortunate to see you in two operas this season. What makes Cassandre, in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, a favorite role of yours?
 
With Cassandre it was love at first sight. I had the good fortune to be invited by John Eliot Gardiner to sing the role in Paris in 2003, and ever since then it’s been my favorite role. Cassandre is special because she sees what other people don’t, she has the courage that they lack, she suffers and is harassed by everyone, and she is alone because no one can understand her.
           
Her family, the man she loves, all her people are about to be destroyed, and she mourns everything that has been, that could have been, and will be no more. She is touching for her fragility and powerlessness in the face of events that she cannot forestall, and then at the end she is capable of inspiring all the Trojan women to kill themselves, with a cold force almost like a religious martyr or a kamikaze.
 
Have you changed your approach to the role since you first performed it?
 
Not substantially, I would say. The differences have been due more to the various visions of the directors with whom I’ve worked.
           
The first time, in Paris, the director was Yannis Kokkos, and with him Cassandre was a luminous figure, mournful and tormented, but fragile, private, and timid, like an autistic person or an epileptic treated with pity by everyone. In the staging by David McVicar, on the other hand, everything is darker and more dramatic and Cassandre is a disturbing, obsessive character with a demented gaze and unnatural gestures, who shows all the shattered violence of her horrible visions.
 
You have sung with important conductors such as Riccardo Muti, John Eliot Gardiner, and others. Can you describe some highlights from those collaborations?
 
My experience with Muti was definitely exalting, but also quite intimidating for me. He has an overpowering and magnetic personality. I would have given my soul to have been equal to his expectations, but—ahimé—I certainly was not, because of my technical limitations and experience and also from a solid inferiority complex that has stayed with me for such a long time! He has the ability to create orchestral atmospheres of such sublimity that I feared I might ruin everything with my performance.
           
Gardiner is a fascinating musician, a conductor full of inventiveness, curiosity and an enthusiasm that transports all interpreters, inspiring them to transcend their own limits for the sake of the final success of the work itself. He is responsible for my passion for French music, particularly Berlioz, and it was he who first offered me the role of Cassandre. He has a command of this repertoire, including minor and obscure works, that is unparalleled today. We also share a love for Monteverdi and the Italian Baroque. We worked together quite a bit, including in the marvelous Carmen at the Opéra Comique in Paris and by now I consider him in fact a friend.

Antonacci (Carmen) and Jonas Kaufmann (Don Jose) at Covent Garden, 2007
photo by Catherone Ashmore / Royal Opera, Covent Garden


And your colleagues have included Jonas Kaufmann. How was that experience?
 
We worked together in Carmen at Covent Garden in 2007, conducted by Pappano and staged by Francesca. In that kind of framework, it was pure joy to go to work every day, and extremely difficult to have to go on to something else when it ended.
 
Concerning your career, would you say that you have tended to do things in your own personal way?
 
Probably my career has been atypical, but I can’t say it was always as a result of my own choices. When I started out, I presented myself as a Rossini soprano in the Colbran repertoire—a gifted soprano (1785–1845) who influenced her husband Gioachino Rossini on a number of his creations, the title roles of Armida; Zelmira; Ermione; Elizabeth, Queen of England—and as a Mozart soprano, singing Fiordiligi (Così fan tutte) and Donna Elvira (Don Giovanni). But I was immediately offered rare and obscure roles in the Baroque and nineteenth-century repertoire. And that peculiarity has not changed—in two years I’ll sing Britten’s Gloriana! I accepted offers that interested me, but on my own it wouldn’t have occurred to me to learn those roles. I’ve been truly fortunate.

You are rare in opera in that you seem unafraid of the camera. If you had not been a singer, would you have wanted a career in film?

Even though film is one of my great passions, I don’t know if I would have wanted to work in that medium. It certainly has its advantages. In two months, movie stars earn what we would earn in two lifetimes. They become world famous and admired, and basically all they have to worry about each day is staying beautiful.

The singer’s life is a lot less fun, and the life of a stage actor is downright grim. That’s why I love and admire them so much, these prose actors, who put on their own makeup in dreary dressing rooms, and rehearse every day, repeat the same play month after month, learn thousands of lines of text by heart. They’ve studied for years to project their voice and make it powerful, incisive, smooth, flexible and to be able to use it even when they’re tired. Every evening, they have to create the magic again, to convince and move an audience. And their power is totally ephemeral, it vanishes when the theater empties out.

The final lines of Cyrano de Bergerac, before his death, seem to me to define the work of an actor:
“The battle’s not for glory or for gain,

No, far nobler yet – it’s fought in vain.”

If I hadn’t been an opera singer, I’m sure I’d have aspired to be a stage actor.
 


Antonacci as Elle in Poulenc's La Voix Humaine at San Antonio Opera this spring
Greg Harrison / San Antonio Opera


What new roles do you hope to sing in the future? What about the other heroine of Les Troyens, Didon?

Didon is a magnificent part, and all the great singers preferred it to Cassandra, including Régine Crespin, one of my great role models, who found the role of Didon more “feminine.” But I would hate to abandon Cassandra, and it would seem a real betrayal. So I’ve kept fighting for this role. I’m not looking for new roles. I’m delighted, next season, to return to Fauré’s marvelous Pénélope and to Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine.

What are some of the interests and pastimes that make up your non-professional life?

I can’t really speak of “pastimes,” unfortunately, since I never have time to pass, and all the rushing and moving takes a lot out of me. When I can find a moment, I usually read, see a film or a play. Literature, poetry, cinema and theater have always been essential parts of my life, since my father introduced me to those passions. My father was speaking about art right until his last days, and I find that marvelous. I try to pass this interest on, as well as I can, to my fifteen-year-old son. He will start to study drama next year. In another life, I would hope to pursue gardening, biking, pastry making, and flamenco, all of which I was dying to attempt in this life—I just never had the time.


Antonacci made her San Francisco Opera debut in 1992 in the title role of Rossini's Ermione.
Larry Merkle
 
How does it feel to be returning to San Francisco?

It goes without saying that San Francisco is a stupendous city, with a stupendous opera house. This will be my third engagement here. The first harks back more than twenty years, in Rossini’s Ermione. The second was in 1998, a marvelous production of Norma alongside Carol Vaness, conducted by Patrick Summers. I’m especially eager to appear here for the third time in these two extraordinary operas and these magnificent casts.


 

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"It's grand. It's glorious. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Majestically conducted, strongly cast, and presented in a handsome and spectacular production, The Trojans stands in all its idiosyncratic glory as the grandest, and greatest, French grand opera."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
Susan Graham was "a tour de force of vibrant vocalism and searing theatricality."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Bryan Hymel made one of the most impressive debuts of recent years, singing with poise and heroic ring."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"Anna Caterina Antonacci was triumphant...singing flawlessly."

  –San Francisco Examiner
"Susan Graham and Bryan Hymel were a magnificent pair of lovers, breathtaking in their love duet 'Nuit d’ivresse.'"

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"Donald Runnicles and the Orchestra were greeted with the most thunderous applause heard in the Opera House since their great Wagner Ring days."

  –San Francisco Examiner
"An abundance of delights...sumptuous music, elaborate spectacle and epic vision."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"The Chorus was outstanding. The cast was wondrous."

  –San Francisco Examiner
"The Chorus was outstanding. The cast was wondrous."

  –San Francisco Examiner
"Susan Graham’s noble rage and despair in her death scene, especially, were the stuff of legends."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"Ian Robertson's Opera Chorus, in superb collective voice, made its own huge contribution to the success of the opera."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
Susan Graham "rose to the full measure of the Carthaginian queen's majesty.... There's no one better in this repertoire."

  –San Jose Mercury News
Bryan Hymel "sang with ripe, clarion tone."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"The Orchestra sounded fantastic under the leadership of Donald Runnicles."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
Anna Caterina Antonacci "delivered an urgent, shapely performance as Cassandra, lending the tormented character's predictions a penetrating dramatic fervor."

  –San Jose Mercury News
Donald Runnicles "paced the opera so well and had such command of the work's monumental proportions that it seemed the shortest five-hour opera ever."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"There was no denying the intensity and fervor with which Anna Caterina Antonacci conveyed Cassandra's plight, or the vocal majesty she brought to the assignment."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"When she has to hold the audience spellbound through the sheer emotional potency of her singing, Susan Graham rose to the occasion with unbridled virtuosity."

San Francisco Chronicle
 
"In duets with the bright-toned, tireless tenor Bryan Hymel making his Company debut as Aeneas, and with the lustrous mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as her sister Anna, Susan Graham provided lush and impeccable partnership."
 
San Francisco Chronicle
 
"Christian Van Horn gave a muscular performance as Dido’s minister Narbal"
 
San Francisco Chronicle
 
"The versatile Brian Mulligan is a noble and tender Chorèbe."
 
–San Francisco Classical Voice
 
"Rossini tenor René Barbera is Iopas, and floats his serenade 'O blonde Ceres' with easy skill."
 
–San Francisco Classical Voice
 
"As Ascagne, Enée’s young son, Adler Fellow Nian Wang was adorably boyish and sang with a lovely, light mezzo."
 
–San Francisco Classical Voice
 
"Tenor Chong Wang, an Adler Fellow, brought down the house in Act 5 with a remarkably soulful and beautiful rendition of the homesick lament of a young sailor." 

  –San Francisco Chronicle

PERFORMANCES

  • Sun 06/7/15 1:00pm *

  • Fri 06/12/15 6:00pm

  • Tue 06/16/15 6:00pm

  • Sat 06/20/15 6:00pm

  • Thu 06/25/15 6:00pm *

  • Wed 07/1/15 6:00pm *

Save up to 30% when you select your own dates for all three Summer 2015 operas.

Call the Box Office at (415) 864-3330 to order!

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret-Taube Media Suite.

Sponsors

Company Sponsors John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn are proud to support this production. This production is made possible, in part, by Roberta and David Elliott, The Goatie Foundation, the Edmund W. and Jeannik Méquet Littlefield Fund, Koret Foundation, Dianne and Tad Taube, Taube Philanthropies,


Dr. and Mrs. William M. Coughran, and Keith and Priscilla Geeslin. Additional support is provided by the Columbia Foundation and by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Ms. Graham's and Ms. Antonacci’s appearances are made possible by a gift to the Great Singers Fund by Joan and David Traitel.


Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.