Five Short Hours With Berlioz's the Trojans in San Francisco

Was it harmonic convergence or just a coincidence that I was able to see two hughly anticipated music events in the same week? Both featured famed singers, mesmerizing music and monumental sets. The rock'n'roll event of the summer was, of course, the three Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well concerts in Chicago. The event of the San Francisco Opera summer season was The Trojans -- a five-hour-long spectacle so massive and complex, it had not been performed here since 1968. In fact, unlike fortunate local opera goers, the composer himself never saw the whole thing.

Hector Berlioz, who also wrote the libretto, must have known how difficult it would be to get his masterwork, which is based on Virgil's Aeneid, produced: Before he began writing, he confessed in his Memoirs, "For the last three years, I have been tormented by the idea of a vast opera," and later told his friend Franz Lizst, "I am trying to resign myself to the misery this work is bound to cause me." (Quotes from an excellent essay in the SFO program.)

Any opera lover would be delighted he succumbed to such pressing inspiration. The first two acts are set in Troy just after the Greeks have seemingly ended their long siege, leaving a massive horse, presumed an offering to the goddess Athena, outside the city gates. Though Cassandra, daughter of King Priam -- and the heroine of this part of the opera -- has foreseen the destruction of Troy, the horse is brought into the city, and we all know how that ended. At the intense conclusion of the second act, Cassandra and the surviving women commit suicide rather than face the dishonor of rape and slavery, while the warrior Aeneas sets sail with a few men to found an empire and die a hero's death in Italy. In the opera's final three acts, he and the men escape a shipwreck off Carthage, in North Africa, where Aeneas falls in love with the queen, Dido.

While Berlioz, of course, envisioned his epic of war and love as a coherent whole, the world premiere, in Paris in 1863, consisted of only the second part, The Trojans at Carthage. He never saw a production of the first part, later named The Capture of Troy. After viewing the opera as Berlioz intended, I can understand the difficulties and heartily applaud San Francisco Opera and its co-producers (Vienna State Opera, Milan's Teatro alla Scala and the Royal Opera, Covent Garden), with director David McVicar, for taking them on.

And for doing such a splendid job! Berlioz himself could not have asked for more moving and impressive singing, for a better-sounding orchestra, for larger or more dynamic sets. The numbers alone give pause: 134 artists onstage (this includes the invaluable SF Opera Chorus and almost 20 dancers and acrobats); 64 stagehands dealing with a set weighing more than 32 tons. The stage had to be reinforced to handle all that weight, which includes not just the massive city walls of shadowed Troy and vibrant Carthage, but that magnificent horse. Made of steel with custom-pressed fiberglass appliqués depicting old weapons and war debris, it stands 23 feet high and took a year to create.

The burning of the horse at the climax of the second act is echoed at the end of the fifth. When Aeneas finally leaves Dido and departs to fulfill his destiny, she builds a funeral pyre of the gifts they gave one another. Standing atop it, royally enraged, she envisions a general (Hannibal) to avenge her before stabbing herself with Aeneas's sword. Just before she dies, she sees her beloved Carthage destroyed by Rome.

This opera is nothing, then, if not dramatic, and the music has you in its grip from beginning to end. And the singing! Soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, who had sung the main role in Marco Tutino's Two Women just the night before, was an amazing Cassandra. If her acting was a little too witchy and twitchy at times (being ignored in a crisis can do that to you), her singing was majestic, powerful and quite beautiful in her duets with baritone Brian Mulligan as her fiancé, Chorebe. When tenor Bryan Hymel came onstage briefly as Aeneas, I said to myself, "I can't wait to hear him again."

Then, after the intermission, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham appeared as Dido, and all thoughts of the Trojans vanished. What a performance! Metaphorically speaking, Cassandra's role calls for just one note, while Dido's is an opera in itself, moving from satisfaction as ruler of a sun-filled land to inner conflict as her sister, Anna (the charismatic mezzo Sasha Cooke, last seen here in The Gospel of Mary Magdalene), encourages her to love again; from rapture in her unexpected passion for Aeneas to vindictive fury when he leaves her. And who could blame her? With his clear, strong, gorgeous voice and solid presence, Bryan Hymel, in his SFO debut, is a performer I want to see again and again.

In addition to an epic narrative, Berlioz created some gorgeous music, masterfully performed by the 95 musicians conducted by former SFO Music Director Donald Runnicles, who got whoops and cheers every time he appeared. In Carthage, the love duets almost left me in tears. And just to show he was in no hurry to reach the end, Berlioz added a couple of set pieces -- sung by tenors René Barbera as Dido's court poet and tenor Chong Wang as a sailor longing for the home he will never see again -- that may not move the plot along but are anything but expendable.

Les Troyans won't be back next season, nor, perhaps, anytime soon. But you can watch this production on Blu-ray and DVD, and that's something. If you're in the city, you can swing by the mezzanine of the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F., 415.864.3330, or go to shop.sfopera.com.