Busy Mediterranean Drama, Complete With Trojan Horse

Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens is opera’s most awkward child. After two years of feverish labor to fuse the spirits of his two literary masters, Virgil and Shakespeare, into a gigantic music drama about the end of the Trojan War and Dido’s tragic love for Aeneas, Berlioz was obliged to truncate the work by half for the world premiere in Paris, in 1863. Despite the event’s critical and popular success, the verdict of the embattled composer’s cadre of detractors prevailed: This heavily populated, five-act epic was too long, too noisy, too disjointed. In despair of ever seeing the work whole, Berlioz discouraged revivals, and the full grandeur of his vision was not realized until nearly 100 years later, when opera companies finally recognized the truth of Donald Grout’s judgment on Les Troyens in A Short History of Opera (1947): “the most important French opera of the nineteenth century, the masterpiece of one of France’s greatest composers, the Latin counterpart to Wagner’s Teutonic Ring.”

Compared to the German composer’s 15-hour extravaganza, which has been more or less continuously on view for more than a century, Les Troyens is a breeze. Unlike Wagner, Berlioz was a master of compression along the lines of his neo-classical idol, Gluck. Rather than indulging in long stretches of musically inflected exposition, Wagner style, Berlioz filled in the narrative blanks with swatches of pure melody and orchestral color that speak directly to the listener’s nerve endings and imagination. The Délacroix of composers, he possessed an affinity for mythic expression that can make Wagner’s efforts in the same vein seem grandiose. Berlioz’s only agenda was aesthetic, not political (he resisted the Wagnerites’ attempts to make him a flag-waver for their hero’s radicalism), and for all his considerable influence on later French and Russian Romantics, he has remained pretty much a maverick, more known about than listened to.

If a new staging of Les Troyens is no longer a rarity (I have seen four productions in the last 20 years), it’s still an event, and in this current climate of free fall at the Met box office, the decision of general manager Joseph Volpe to go ahead with what is hardly a sure-fire crowd-pleaser is audacious. Moreover, for Mr. Volpe to turn the production over to Francesca Zambello, whose only previous Met outing was the disastrous Lucia di Lammermoor of 1992, struck many as downright reckless. Judging from what I heard and saw on opening night, the gamble has in good measure paid off.

The first thing to be said about this Troyens , which kicks off a celebration of the composer’s bicentennial (Lincoln Center’s homage, “Fantastic Voyages,” begins in early March), is that, unlike the Met’s previous production, this one moves. Fabrizio Melano’s 1973 staging, which I saw in a slightly reworked 1983 revival for Jessye Norman, was majestic but cold, reducing the heroic principals to shadows in a world of ponderous gloom that was contradictory in spirit to the score’s Mediterranean fire. If Ms. Norman, who sang Cassandra and Dido on different nights, was a pillar of alluring vocal strength, she was still just a pillar. From the electrifying opening bars, when the trumpets and bassoons skitter nervously up the scale to introduce the deluded, jubilant Trojans as they celebrate the end of the long Greek siege, Ms. Zambello propelled the Met’s not always sure-footed chorus around the stage as though they were extras in De Mille’s Ben-Hur . As the choristers dashed to and fro, came together in mass huddles, lifted children overhead and passed them around, or shook their hands wildly in the air, they seemed hell-bent on outstripping Berlioz’s music for sheer excitability. Behind me, a man who picked up the gospel vibes whispered, “Lordy, lordy.”

Over the course of the next five hours, Ms. Zambello kept things jumping in a set designed by the late Maria Bjornson, which multi-tasked cleverly as a bleak encampment outside Troy, an amphitheater in sunny Carthage, and a vision of the future Pantheon in Aeneas’ last port of call. (The canny lighting was by James Ingalls.)

A Trojan horse (clearly too small to hold more than a handful of Greeks) sailed by, contrary to the composer’s stage instructions; furtive side-plots developed among ancillary characters; the two lovers went airborne during their moment of consummation; Carthaginians, in cult-like white tunics and pants, marched around bearing all manner of utopian handiwork; the young sailor Hylas delivered his homesick aria on a swing that whisked him offstage before he was finished; dancers executed Doug Varone’s flavorless ballet divertissements with calisthenic energy. If much of it was eye-catching (the ballets were eye-closing), it was sometimes incoherent, suggesting that either the highly intelligent Ms. Zambello hadn’t had enough time to edit out the distracting bits or else hadn’t trusted in Berlioz’s endlessly resourceful score to convey what, purely on a musical level, is one of the most vividly etched stories in opera. She couldn’t even leave well enough alone in the sublime love duet that closes Act IV, cluttering a stage that should belong solely to Dido and Aeneas with slumbering Carthaginians who had no reason not to be home in their own beds.

The Met gave Ms. Zambello a cast that, on paper, could scarcely be better. On opening night, however, their efforts were variable. Deborah Voigt, the Cassandra of the first two acts, has all the vocal glamour anyone could ask for; all sunny aplomb as usual, she was utterly lacking in the visionary madness and desperate passion essential to the tragic seer. As Aeneas, Ben Heppner, who was returning to the Met after a vocal collapse in last year’s Die Meistersinger , had-astoundingly-shed 90 pounds and was virtually unrecognizable. That he cracked on a couple of high notes during his tortuous Act V aria was, given his year off, understandable; more worrisome was what, from my less-than-ideal seat under the overhang at the back of the auditorium, I heard as a loss of intensity, especially in the middle chest-voice range. Would this wonderful tenor, I wondered, ever give us another glorious Tristan?

Standouts among the well-chosen supporting singers were two young high tenors, Matthew Polenzani as the poet Iopas and Gregory Turay as Hylas. Mr. Polenzani, in particular, has a trueness of intonation and an elegance of line that recall the legendary French tenor George Thill. The Met chorus was loud but unmoving; James Levine conducted efficiently, but without consistent sensitivity to the strange colors that give Berlioz’s world its distinctive, slightly elusive character.

The triumph of the evening was Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s Dido. To her second-and first Romantic-role at the Met (she was a memorable Myrtle in John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby ), she brought the sense of sheer truthfulness that has so distinguished her appearances in Baroque opera and on the recital stage.

Perhaps not since Janet Baker has there been a singer who connects to her listeners with so little vanity, such absence of rhetoric. Although she was completely believable as the lovesick Queen, romantic abandon is not what Ms. Lieberson is all about. The singular pathos of her voice seems utterly unforced, almost innate to her-another quality that makes her an ideal heroine in this most noble of operas.