At The Met: Queen Dido Abandoned Yet Again

Deborah Voigt played Cassandra

Deborah Voigt played Cassandra

The Metropolitan Opera staged a performance of the great Hector Berlioz work Les Troyens this season. This production attracted a lot of attention in December ’12 and January ’13 for a couple of reasons: first because, an up-and-coming French-American tenor stepped in to save the day, capping an extraordinary year for him.

Second, simply because Les Troyans is very demanding for the singers, especially for Aeneas (in French, Énée). Its scale is part of the problem. Les Troyens lasts five hours. Énée is in both the Trojan and the Punic portions, in contrast to the female lead of the first half (Cassandra) or that of the second (Dido). He is on stage, singing, a heck of a lot by any standards that prevail outside of Bayreuth. Beyond scale, there’s the range of styles. Énée has to be performed by a very versatile tenor.

Deborah Voigt played Cassandra (see above). Susan Graham was Dido. But let’s talk for a bit about that tenor, Bryan Hymel.

He was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in August 1979, to a French-speaking family. He made his operatic debut in 1998, when he played the Philistine messenger in Samson et Dalila, the Camille Saint-Saens work, for the New Orleans Opera.

hymelHymel, shown right, made his European debut in 2007, at the Westford Festival Opera (in Ireland) where he played the Price in Rusalka, a Dvorak work. This was an important milestone for him because Hymel’s career since has largely played out in the great European opera-houses, including La Scala in Milan and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, central London.

Royal-Opera-HouseLast year, 2012, represents Hymel’s great Breakthrough into global superstar status. Jonas Kaufmann was playing Énée in the rehearsal stage of that venue’s staging of Les Troyens. Kaufman became ill, and was expected to be out of action for two weeks.

Hymel said, “yes, I’ll come to help out with rehearsals and then leave.”

But Kaufman’s condition worsened, and he withdrew. The casting director naturally offered the job to the guy who had already been rehearsing it, and Hymel accepted.

Another Convent Garden production, another withdrawal: Juan Diego Flórez, who had planned to perform there in the title role of Meyerbeer’s Robert Le Diable, bowed out. Hymel stepped in.

Discreet Feelers and a Rescue

Then, while performing Robert le Diable in December 2012, Hymel received what Opera News in its article about Hymel in its latest issue, calls “discreet feelers about his schedule.” Would it be possible for him to “sing some performances of Les Troyens right after Robert” at some unspecified other opera company?

Those calls were from the Met, and he knew they were from the Met, because he has Berlioz radar!

Marcello-GiordaniBut he didn’t get he Met gig immediately. On opening night of the Met’s production, the lead tenor was Marcello Giordani, the fellow portrayed to the left.

Giordani’s take on Aeneas was not well received. In the New York Post, critic James Jordan, who found Susan Graham “elegant” as Dido: “her lyric mezzo gradually gained heat until her final scene of rage and remorse throbbed with rich, molten tone” – could find nothing nice to say about Giordani.

Jordan said Giordani had a “barnstorming style,” belting out his songs. This works well enough with Inutiles regrets, but it didn’t work at all earlier in the evening, when the scenario calls for “delicate love duets.”

Jordan was hardly alone in that estimation. Indeed, so general was the criticism that in the middle of the run, Giordani withdrew from the role and announced he was “permanently retiring the role of Aeneas from his repertory.”

So Hymel stepped in, here too. A third high profile replacement gig within a year. The backstage stuff is quite dramatic. But let’s turn now to the on-stage drama!

Mythology and History

Here’s a link to a proper synopsis. The opera represents Berlioz’ romantic take on Publius Vergilius Maro (Virgil’s) story of the doomed affair between Aeneas, (Énée), the leader of a band of surviving Trojans looking for a new home after Greek equine trickery had destroyed their old one, and Queen Dido (Didon) of Carthage.

statueBerlioz was personally responsible for both the music and the libretto here. I’ve written about Berlioz’ music-historical significance in this blog before. I’ll add now that he adhered to the aesthetic principle that operatic music is best when it expressed and develops the ideas suggested by the words, so in his view either one musical mind should be behind both or the collaborative effort must be especially close to succeed.

Berlioz felt free to take liberties with Virgil’s text, indeed in his own choice of word he planned to “Shakespeareanize” Virgil.

Musically, Les Trojans is scored for a large orchestra. The house must have at its disposal piccolos, English horn, bassoon, trumpets, and piston cornets as well as at least six harps.

Among the set pieces: Nuit d’ivresse (a love duet), Chers Tyriens (Dido’s aria) and Inutiles regrets, (Aeneas’ aria, “Useless regrets” in English though you’ve surely figured that out already).

The Words

Aeneas sings Inutilies regrets as he prepares to leave Carthage and Dido.

Here is how the libretto begins:

Inutiles regrets…
Je dois quitter Carthage!
Didon le sait, son effroi, sa stupeur
En l’apprenant, on brisé mon courage…
Mais je le dois… il le faut!

Useless regrets…

I must leave Carthage!

Dido’s understanding, her dread, her amazement

when I told her almost broke my will

But I must do it, it is needed.

A Point of Comparison

Nicolai-GeddaHymel recently told an interviewer for OPERA NEWS that Nicolai Gedda’s take on Aeneas was his own model.

“And I’m coming out of the Nicolai Gedda version … rather than the Jon Vickers or Ben Heppner, because these guys have bigger voices that sit lower than mine.”

Here, then, is Bryan Hymel’s performance of Inutilies regrets.

And here, so that you can make the comparison for yourself if you care to, is that of Nicolai Gedda.


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