Giordani/Hymel, Voigt, Graham, Bernstein, Croft, Boulianne, Cargill, Cutler, Appleby, Youn / Luisi
Everyone who ended up seeing this show with Marcelo Giordani as Enee (Aeneas) instead of Bryan Hymel deserves a refund. From the former one expected solid if not particularly fluid vocalism and a decent enough stock presence... unfortunately neither delivered here. The singing, on opening night, ranged from strained to -- in, unfortunately, the final climactic scene -- dire, but the real damage was done phrase by phrase. All the curves and turns of Berlioz's music were turned into dead straight lines, with particularly devastating effect in the climactic Act IV love duet. Here Aeneas has finally been seduced into accord with Dido's endless dilation of the moment: Giordani's inability, even at this height of his character's rapture, to trace the satisfied full course of his line made their relationship, Dido's love, and indeed the audience's engagement in the above sadly implausible. There must be some piece of Aeneas that shares Dido's desire to ignore (or at least put off) fate... not only does the libretto say as much, it's the echo of Virgil's own contribution to epic -- that inner hesitation and doubt of a melancholic pastoral poet put in harness as apologist for fate's (probably, for the time) least-worst but nevertheless hard & bloody outcome (the triumph of Rome over the world and Augustus over Rome). Stock Italian tenor-heroisms (Giordani's physical presentation was basically the same as for his Calaf in November) encompass none of this.
In truth, of course, the dramatic tenor with true poetic sensibility, lurking or overt, is very much the exception -- for which Ben Heppner got too little credit in the premiere run of this production. And in fact Bryan Hymel isn't Heppner or Klaus Florian Vogt or anyone in that vein.
In fact there's really nothing easy about Hymel's singing: the irreducible baseline effort one notices is, I suspect, why he wasn't the first choice Enee to begin with. But as the part moves from conversation to declamation and passion, Hymel's singing follows easily, the effortful part of it becoming both insignificant and (in any case) in accord with the moment. The huge long cries of "Italie" that capped off both his final solo and, perhaps even more impressively, the ensemble finale thereafter (for which he could well have receded into the massed sound) were thrills perhaps unmatched in the Met's history of the opera. And if his stage presence wasn't a poet's, it was complementary to his full-dynamic presentation, energetic and responsive to all the bewildering things around him.
This alone improved the effect of Susan Graham's performance. Where Giordani was basically a wall, Hymel provided a real partner in their arc of stolen time and doomed love, and so the personal arc was well and movingly carried off. As a queen, though... Graham's Dido seemed to make no distinction from the start between public and private, appearing in her personal free self at the ceremonies kicking off Part II as naturally as in her grief-wracked incarnation at the end. It's a legitimate interpretation, and certainly her singing was beautiful and moving, but Graham's downplaying of Dido's regal side and role -- her burden, parallel to Aeneas' -- left something important out. This part was, as many will remember, the first and last great triumph of Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson's Met career -- the opening night of this production a validation that few singers experience in such concentrated form -- and so perhaps it's unfair to invoke the comparison (not least because the subsequent performances in the run were very good but not at the same level)... but it's irresistible nonetheless. LHL as Dido contrasted stillness with motion, outer firmness (composed for her people and position) with inner pure feeling, and when the latter of each broke the former, at first tenderly in the love sequence and then in the violence of her footlight soliliquy the effect was overpowering. For Graham there was no such contrasting compulsion to measure and highlight her Dido's flow of feeling.
But Graham didn't architect the entire evening. In a rather strange turn, Francesca Zambello's revival stage direction of her own production actually seemed to have sabotaged what had in its original incarnation been a brilliantly-directed whole. Perhaps it was Giordani's presence through these new rehearsals, perhaps simply the passage of time, but for some reason the deft and well-proportioned bits of direction then became, at every turn -- the overwrought Andromache, the bizarre apparent consummation of the romance before the Royal Hunt, the jarringly violent anger of Narbal in Act IV -- overdirected cliche now. So it's hard to blame even Karen Cargill's overly earthy wink-wink-nudge-nudge panderer of an Anna on the debuting mezzo herself... but she didn't help things either.
The other principal reprise -- Deborah Voigt, Cassandra again as in 2003 -- and conductor Fabio Luisi had, I thought, surprisingly analogous flaws and virtues. For Voigt it was a huge reversal: 2003's Troyens was one of the last appearances of that original "fat Voigt", full and luxuriant of sound but similarly un-angular in character, the stimmdiva par excellence. Her Cassandra then was all wrong in its basics -- alienation, hysteria and desperation come out full blast in the score, but found no outlets in Voigt's fate-favored, well-grounded person or voice. Now, she can almost no longer sing the part -- the tone isn't great, and bottom notes are particularly lacking -- but is nevertheless a much better Cassandra. Harassed in her way by fate, having ended the long original cooperation with her body's size and glorious strength, and having run headlong and repeatedly into the limitations of her new form and voice, 2013's Voigt can show desperate, can look ruin in the face, lose patience with her fiancee, and generally get the basic moment-to-moment expression of Cassandra's dramatic position right... but the sonic limitations kick in and limit the force of what should be climactic expression.
Luisi's orchestra sounds good -- which I'd thought would always be the case, but Aida showed otherwise. And his constant characteristic attention to texture and detail and shape in the moment is basically just what the essential time-defying expansiveness of Berlioz in this opera demands. But, even if this achieved and thematized neo-classical courtly patience is the unique feature of the piece, it's not the exclusive one: in the end, Troy burns, Carthage sees its doom, and the lovers' idyll is broken. None of these climactic outcomes quite get their due from Luisi, who as we'll recall found ways to be coolly classical even in Forza, Elektra, and Lulu... It's not (unlike for Voigt) physical limitation that hampers these climaxes, but Luisi's choice.
Still, the basic fit between these roles and their players counted for much, and with Hymel's fire the whole show worked.
The supporting cast was, as usual for the Met, strong. Grossly under-appreciated American bass-baritone Richard Bernstein was probably the most impressive (as Panthus), though Julie Boulianne (Ascanius) and Paul Appleby (Hylas) also made for a strong Trojan contingent. Among the Cartheginians Youn (Narbal), despite the jarring character direction/portrayal, was the strongest vocally, though it's probably unfair to tenor Eric Cutler that his predecessor Matthew Polenzani was a perfect Iopas. For what's a court without an official dreamer?