This review was corrected on Feb. 19, 2003.
Right after firing up a stage version of “Aladdin” at one of Disney’s theme parks, director Francesca Zambello made a cultural U-turn and parked her magic carpet outside the Metropolitan Opera. Although Zambello is among the world’s best-known opera directors, she hasn’t been seen thereabouts in a decade, since her infamous production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” ignited the kind of old-fashioned furore dear to the hearts of the town’s rabid opera fanatics. (It was promptly replaced by a safely stodgy new version that came with the mothballs conveniently attached.)
For her return, Zambello has been entrusted not with a chestnut from the regular repertoire — Joseph Volpe can’t risk another in the current fiscal climate — but with a new production of Hector Berlioz’s massive opera adapted from Virgil’s “Aeneid,” only the second production of the opera in the company’s history. (It made its decidedly late arrival in 1973.)
Musically captivating, the evening was neither the kind of provocative reimagining that raises hackles nor a safe retreat to traditionalism. Attempting to render Berlioz’s rhapsody on themes from antiquity in universal terms, Zambello opted for visual abstraction and emotional specificity — the opposite of the standard, often dreary operatic recipe. The choice resulted in some terrific theater — particularly the heartrending Dido of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson — but it stinted on the kind of visual opulence that could match, and enhance, the grandeur of Berlioz’s music, in which passionate Romanticism meets the stately beauty of the classical ideal.
The company dedicated the production to the late Maria Bjornson, the accomplished set designer (a Tony winner for “The Phantom of the Opera”) who died in December at a sadly young age. “Les Troyens” represents her posthumous Met debut, so it would be nice to celebrate her achievement. But her contributions to the evening were problematic. The stage was dominated by a striking piece of sculpture, a curved wall of slatted metal with a massive semi-circle cut out to provide a frame for additional design motifs. But this structure stayed in place throughout the evening — all five-plus hours of it — and visual fatigue gradually set in. And since this item filled only the upper half of the stage space, much of the action took place against a background of dark blankness augmented only by various smaller structures that did little to establish atmosphere and were opaque in their significance: What exactly was the meaning of those trees in gilded cases, or that tilted disc on which Dido and her sister seemed to be either playing a 3-D game of Monopoly or conducting some idle city planning?
Economy may be to blame, and perhaps Zambello and Bjornson were aiming to stress the unity of an opera with a painfully fractured history. (Only the second part was produced in Berlioz’s lifetime, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that the opera began regularly to be performed in its entirety.) But there are musical and dramatic distinctions between the opera’s two parts that enhance its theatrical appeal, and these were shortchanged by the monotony of the visual aesthetic.
They were most powerfully indicated by a change in the palette of Anita Yavich’s costumes: For the first two acts, which take place in Troy and depict the chaotic conclusion to the famous war — you know, that trick pony? — the Trojans were swathed in dark colors befitting a martial culture on the ropes. In Carthage, where civilization flourishes anew under the benevolent Dido, pure white was the order of the day, with royal purple robes for both Dido and her beloved Aeneas, the Trojan leader who languishes in thrall to the bewitching queen before heeding the call of history and departing to found a new empire in Italy.
Traditionalists might also decry Zambello’s rendition of the opera’s famous “Royal Hunt and Storm” interlude at the top of the fourth act. Berlioz’s specific musical cues, linked to a complicated, admittedly somewhat silly visual pageant replete with waterfalls and frolicking fauns, were mostly ignored. Instead we saw Aeneas and troops returning from battle, followed by a ballet depicting the Trojans and Carthaginians uniting en masse, while on high Dido and Aeneas consummated their love in an aerial ballet. (The latter, inevitably and unfortunately, came across as just as hokey as prancing fauns.)
Doug Varone, a skilled modern dance choreographer, had heavy duties here: In addition to this interlude, there is a long ballet in the fourth act. Overall his contributions were skillful but bland. Zambello’s staging as a whole emphasized continuity of movement, with transitions between scenes and acts kept fluid — sometimes to a fault: There was no real distinction between the various Trojan locales of part one, somewhat confusingly. And an elaborately choreographed re-enactment of the death of the priest Laocoon was distracting.
No need to worry about dramatic tempi, really: The opera actually moves along fine at its own pace. Although its length is often cited as the chief cause of its many decades in operatic oblivion, it is in fact shorter than the larger slabs of Wagner, and much lighter on the palate: The orchestrations and the musical fabric are rich and varied, with powerful passages for chorus alternating with introspective arias for the principals. The music’s mixture of grandeur and restraint give it a singular beauty, and James Levine delivered a typically meticulous and sumptuous reading.
The Met’s cast captured the work’s distinctive style impressively. Berlioz’s reverence for Gluck can be heard in the stately sound of the vocal writing, which eschews the florid ornamentation that was the ideal of his operatic age. Deborah Voigt sang Cassandra with her usual pure, powerful tone, bringing a blazing ferocity to the character’s desperate prognostications of doom and defiant plunge into martyrdom. Ben Heppner, who has been plagued by vocal trouble over the past year, sounded robust — and looked remarkably slim — as Aeneas; a few sour notes in the last act were easily forgiven after a long evening spent largely in the higher reaches of the tenor tessitura. There were excellent contributions from Elena Zaremba as Dido’s sister Anna and Dwayne Croft as Cassandra’s lover Coroebus, as well as an expert rendering of Iopas’ lyrical aria by Matthew Polenzani.
But it was Hunt Lieberson’s Dido that truly captivated. This highly regarded singer has only appeared in one other operatic performance at the Met — in a small but show-stopping turn as Myrtle Wilson in “The Great Gatsby.” A mezzo with a voice of ample luster and polish, she is a clean, impassioned actress and a singer who imparts meaning with every line. The contrast between the public Dido, inspiring her subjects with her patriotic pride, and the private queen languishing for a sustaining affection, was poignantly rendered. And Dido’s rage, humiliation and sorrow at the loss of her lover brought the evening to a suitably intense climax. Here Zambello’s emphasis on personality over pageantry paid unforgettable dividends, in a performance that marvelously fulfilled the composer’s desire to illuminate the harrowing beauty in a great figure’s suffering and sacrifice.