Mounted to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French composer's birth, this production has been staged by director Francesca Zambello, her first at the Metropolitan since she debuted there in 1992 with a poorly received production of Gaetano Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammamoor" that was heavy on symbolism and depressingly bleak.
Since then, the 46-year-old Zambello has become an international star whose latest project was staging an $8 million live adaptation of the animated film, "Aladdin" that opened last month at Disney's California Adventure amusement park. Her fine production of "Le Troyens" (The Trojans) at the Met is likely to erase the memory of the "Lucia" fiasco.
Based on the second and fourth books of Virgil's epic, "The Aeneid," the opera deals with the fall of Troy as the result of the Trojan horse ruse and the subsequent mass suicide led by the prophetess Cassandra, then shifts to Carthage and the ill-fated love affair of its Queen, Dido, and Aeneas, leader of Troy's survivors on their way to found Rome. Ben Heppner sings Aeneas, Deborah Voigt is Cassandra, and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is Dido.
Berlioz was able to transcend the unwieldy, overlong structure of his opera with his genius for ravishing lyrical composition that combines originality with theatrical grandeur matched only by Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle. In bringing this monument of operatic imagination to life, Zambello has had the help of Broadway designer Maria Bjornson ("Phantom of the Opera"), who died last month, and choreographer Doug Varone.
There is more dancing in this production than usual and it does much to make Zambello's vision of beauty a reality.
Varone has taken advantage of a lengthy orchestral prelude to Act 4 to choreograph an exciting celebratory ballet for Aeneas' soldiers on their arrival in Carthage and fashioned a pantomime depicting the deaths of the priest Laocoon and his sons. His most daring innovation is a symbolic love scene between Aeneas and Dido enacted by two dancers suspended on wires above the stage.
Bjornson's has created a curving back wall against which a pattern of metallic-looking rods form the city's walls and suggest a buildup of battle spears that has occurred during the years-long war between the besieging Greeks and the Trojans. Against this background, the Trojan horse looms huge and menacing. When Act 3 opens on a vista of Carthage the stage is charged with light and the glint of golden wheat fields in the distance.
Less impressive, however, are Anita Yavich's costumes, which seem more ethnic than classic.
After Hunt Lieberson makes her appearance as Dido, the production takes on a fresh sense of power and passion. She has a mezzo soprano voice of surpassing beauty, somewhat plaintive in nature, and she portrays the widowed queen with intelligence and dramatic subtlety. It is a compelling performance, and judging from the audience applause and bravas given her at final curtain that she comes close to stealing the show.
That is not to say that Voigt, a favorite with Met audiences, was any less luminous as a soprano singing the role of Cassandra that Berlioz wrote for the mezzo voice. She sings gorgeously and with that sense of plangent lyricism that makes her one of the Met's treasured divas. She also acted with a heightened sense of emotionalism that reflects Zambello's penchant for intensity.
A slimmed-down Heppner sang with his usual robustness, especially in the upper vocal register, although his lower tenor register still seems somewhat weaker as the result of his dramatic weight loss. Others giving outstanding performances in supporting roles are Elena Zaremba as Dido's sister, Anna, Dwayne Croft as Cassandra's fiancé, Coroebus, Robert Lloyd as Dido's minister, Norbal, and Matthew Polenzi as the court poet, Iopas.
James Levine conducted with all the ardor demanded by the difficult score and drew the best from his cast, a chorus of a hundred voices, and the orchestra. The floating quality with which be imbued the shimmering septet in Act 4 was breathtaking. It is not surprising that tickets for "Les Troyens" are almost impossible to come by for the rest of its performances schedule ending March 27.