Understudy wows audience in Les Troyens

A scene from 'Les Troyens' (Ster Kinekor)

A scene from 'Les Troyens' (Ster Kinekor)

It’s the stuff of legend: the star of the show is ill, an understudy is thrust into the role at the last minute – and a star is born. This happens in opera as well as on Broadway – witness the standing ovation South African soprano Pretty Yende was treated to last month when she stepped into a starring role at the last minute in Le Comte Ory.

In the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens in December, the story was repeated, but with a twist. The tenor singing the major role of Aeneas drew terrible reviews and walked out after three performances.
Casting around for a quick replacement, the Met found Bryan Hymel, a young tenor who had sung the role six months earlier at Covent Garden, taking it on at the last minute when famed tenor Jonas Kaufmann fell ill.

Hymel was still in London but made it to New York in time for one quick rehearsal and the last four performances. Fortunately, the filming of the Live in HD production was scheduled for the final performance – and in the film currently at Ster-Kinekor Cinema Nouveaus across the country, it is Hymel who sings Aeneas. He does it beautifully, whether he is powerfully rousing the Trojans to battle or singing gently and lyrically of his love for Dido, the queen of Carthage.

Acts I and II deal with the fall of Troy, with soprano Deborah Voigt as Cassandra trying vainly to warn the Trojans that the wooden horse they have broken down the city walls to take inside is a trick and the clank of iron they hear from the horse’s interior is the sound of Greek swords. Acts III, IV and V are in Carthage, where Aeneas and his men are shipwrecked, where Aeneas and Dido – sung by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham – fall in love, and where Aeneas ultimately deserts his queen to fulfil his destiny, the founding of Rome.

There’s a huge chorus – 130 people shuffling around on stage during most of the first half – and an interesting contrast: for acts set in Troy, the stage is sombre and so are the costumes. In Carthage, however, there is light, and a change of costume. Everyone wears white, even the dancers.

And there is a lot of dancing – much more dancing than one usually sees in opera. Lovers of ballet will be delighted. Berlioz apparently wanted to showcase the different styles of music he was writing, and ballet music was presumably prominently on the list.

The opera is long – four and a half hours, stretching to well over five hours when one adds in the Met’s lengthy intervals. Because of its length, and the demands made on the tenor playing Aeneas – not only in the breadth of note but in style – Les Troyens is seldom staged. Berlioz wrote his own libretto based largely on Books I, II and IV of Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid.

Voigt is heartbreaking in the most dramatic moment that ends the first half, when she tries to convince the Trojan women to commit mass suicide rather than submit themselves to slavery.

And Graham is brilliant throughout, whether handing out awards to the farmers and builders of her colony, singing a love duet with Hymel or raging against him at the close of the opera.

Still, this production could have been more exciting – the chorus had little to do except sing and the Trojan horse was a head-and-shoulders silhouette far upstage – but it could not have been better cast. From Hymel, Graham and Voigt to mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill as Anna, Dido’s sister, who urges her to find love, and bass Kwangchul Youn as Narbal, Dido’s adviser, the singers are among the best one will find anywhere.

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