The curtain at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion came down at 11:28 on Saturday
night, five hours (minus a couple of minutes) after the start of the Music
Center Opera’s production of Berlioz’ “The Trojans.” There were cheers, a
few boos, a final cry of “Viva Berlioz!” Lively productions deserve lively
audiences. Yes, a few of those boos were deserved, but so were the cheers. The real news
is this: confronted with the most challenging artwork it has taken on in its
six-year existence (a work, by the way, that has had only two previous
American fullscale productions in its nearly 150-year history) our opera
company reached out bravely. It reached out for innovative if relatively
unknown staging talent; it took some big chances in casting; it found the
conductor as qualified as anyone alive to lead the score; it endowed its
forces with sufficient rehearsal time so that even this first performance (of
five) needed none of the apologies sometimes necessitated by present-day
operatic realities. It didn’t all work, of course. There are a few terrible things about this
“Trojans.” Most of the booing seemed directed at Susan Marshall’s silly
choreography, a writhing disco scene just before Dido and Aeneas fall into bed
in the fourth of the opera’s five acts, whose greatest sin was its failure to
connect with Berlioz’ music. Some of it may have reflected shock at some of
director Francesca Zambello’s basic concepts; again, her curious
constructivist vision of Berlioz’ Carthage may have been interesting in itself
but seemed mismatched to the music. Much more, however, is fully worthy of the score. The scenes at Troy, set into
designer John Conklin’s frame of a ruined, toppled building that will, five
hours later, rise from its own ruins to become Rome’s Pantheon, are powerfully
put forth, wonderfully lit by Pat Collins. Even as seen first in silhouette
behind a screen, and then merely as a head lying on the ground, the Trojan
horse is an overpowering, fearsome spectacle. So is the tableau that ends the
Trojan scene: the women in a powerful, writhing mass, oozing blood onto
costume designer Bruno Schwengl’s virginal white nighties. (The opera goes
through quite a lot of ketchup, by the way, or whatever it is they use these
days.) There is a quality of mind in all this: ill-advised at a few times, thrilling
at many more times. The main problems occur in that ill-defined area where
Zambello’s action-plan and Marshall’s choreography meet. Given the, let’s say,
limited acting ability of tenor Gary Lakes (the Aeneas) and Carol Neblett (the
Dido), it was a ludicrous notion to let them mix into the pseudo-disco
dancing. Somewhere out in Weight-Watcher Land there might be a Dido and Aeneas
with the voices these singers have, and the onstage grace they don’t; until
they are found this one scene cries out for restaging. Ironic notion: Maria
Ewing, so miscast as Butterfly two nights before, would probably have been the
ideal Dido in both sight and sound, as Neblett wasn’t quite. Lakes is a splendid Aeneas. The highest compliment is that on Saturday night he
constantly awakened memories of Jon Vickers in the role: the voice strong,
plangent, beautifully lit with a golden thread that can turn both heroic and
tender. The Cassandra for the Trojan scenes, Nadine Secunde, was also
splendid, a strong vocal presence in a killer role, and a striking sight later
on, as Zambello hatches the bright notion of using her as a ghostly visual
presence in some of the Carthage music. Smaller roles were handsomely taken, for the most part, by the good local Music
Center Opera stalwarts: Michael Gallup, Jonathan Mack (barring a momentary
mishap on a cruelly exposed high note), Louis Lebherz and, best of all, the
splendid youngster Nikolas{{cq} Nackley, so fine in last season’s “Turn of
the Screw,” and fine again as the boy Ascanius. Over it all was the lively, probing, surging leadership of the great Dutoit,
hero of some of the best Berlioz recordings in the catalog, and now a
Berliozian hero in person as well. Under any circumstances the Los Angeles
Chamber Orchestra is one of the world’s best pit bands; under these
circumstances (and, of course, filled out far beyond “chamber orchestra”
size) it became the seething, churning, multicolored mirror of the composer’s
orchestral genius. Whatever other problems this brave, challenging, uneven
production may present, the sounds of “The Trojans” at the Music Center
these nights add up to an exhilarating imperative. THE FACTS: What: The Music Center Opera’s production of Hector Berlioz’ “The
Trojans.” Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Music Center. When: 6:30 p.m. tonight, Friday and Sept. 25; 1 p.m. Sept. 22. Starring: Gary Lakes, Nadine Secunde, Carol Neblett. Behind the scenes: staged by Francesca Zambello, conducted by Charles Dutoit,
designed by John Conklin and Bruno Schwengl, choreographed by Susan
Marshall. Tickets: $17 to $85; for information call 213 972-7211. Our rating: * * *

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