Longtime UC Davis music professor D. Kern Holoman flew to New York recently to appear as part of a speaker panel discussing “Les Troyens” (“The Trojans”), the epic opera by Hector Berlioz.
The opera will be broadcast nationally on the radio Saturday. It can be heard locally starting at 9 a.m. on Capital Public Radio’s music station (88.9 FM). The 9 a.m. start of the broadcast is an hour earlier than usual owing to the opera’s length. A high-definition video version will also be screened in some Sacramento area movie theaters.
Holoman is an internationally recognized authority on Berlioz — Holoman’s biography of the composer (published by Harvard University Press in 1989) is widely read and often quoted, and Holoman’s 1987 catalog of the musical works of Berlioz has been described as “indispensable” by researchers. (The catalog’s H. numbers attached to individual works are to Berlioz scholarship what the K. numbers — named after Ludwig von Köchel — are to the music of Mozart.)
“Les Troyens” — a grand opera in five acts — runs more than five hours in performance. The story is drawn from Virgil’s epic poem “The Aeneid,” and includes the siege of Troy (yes, the Trojan Horse); the prophetess Cassandra; the doomed, tragic Queen Dido of Carthage, and more. Composed between 1856 and 1858, toward the end of the composer’s life, it is widely regarded as the capstone of his career. Owing to the challenges of staging a lengthy opera that requires a particularly large cast, Berlioz never had a chance to hear the complete opera in performance; he died in 1869, and the opera was not staged in complete form (over the course of two nights) until 1890.
Holoman spent a week at the Metropolitan Opera in early December, attending a rehearsal and taking part in other events, including the panel organized by the Metropolitan Opera Guild.
Also on the panel were Berlioz scholars Peter Bloom of Smith College and Karen Henson of Columbia University, along with the celebrated director Francesca Zambello, who was in charge of the current Metropolitan Opera production.
Holoman told The Enterprise that while he and the other academics raised some of the finer points about Berlioz and his music, “the inimitable Francesca Zamballo — all 10 feet of her! — pretty much stole the show.” (Holoman is fairly tall himself.)
“While we sat there and argued for venerating every Berliozian flyspeck in the score, she kept returning to the problem we were there to face: what do you do about a five-and-a-half-hour megawork that the composer never saw or heard in its entirety, and so couldn’t polish?”
Holoman said Zambello admonished Bloom and himself, saying ”Boys, boys. Think about what an unsavory fellow Aeneas is: taking the treasure of Troy, leaving the girls behind, then doing the very same thing to Dido, and never really understanding why he’s doing it. The most repellent character in opera … No, wait, that’s Siegfried” (from the opera by Richard Wagner).
Holoman said “(Zambello’s) production, first seen and heard during the Berlioz centennial in 2003, is big and bold and gripping. It’s been considerably retooled and rethought, not least because Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who triumphed then as Cassandra, died in 2006. (Davis audiences may recall Hunt Lieberson’s recital at the Mondavi Center in Fall 2002).
“Susan Graham returns in the great role of Dido,” Holoman added. “You left thinking there couldn’t be a much better Dido, with Deborah Voigt’s Casssandra not far behind.” (Graham sang at the Mondavi Center in 2009, in a performance of Henry Purcell’s early English opera “Dido and Aeneas” with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra; Voigt gave a recital at the Mondavi Center in 2007).
“But the star of the Met production was the chorus, as it should be. And after that, the ballet company,” Holoman said.
In addition, the opera featured 140 voices in the chorus, 100 supernumeraries, two dozen children, and “a mighty fine horse.”
“I really enjoyed being at the dress rehearsal, which lasted pretty much all day,” Holoman said. “Things went wrong with the stage pieces and the rigging; there was a wonderful scramble in the orchestra when the horn parts didn’t line up right, and a timpanist was seen to be madly turning pages, trying to find out what was wrong with his book.
“But the sheer energy being expended onstage and off by all those hundreds of people determined to get ‘Les Troyens’ right was pretty thrilling. And I enjoyed bumping into Davis’ own Malcolm Mackenzie (who has appeared in some Metropolitan Opera productions in the last few years) and Sacramento favorite Noah Stewart, who had come round to check out the action.”
The New York production of “Les Troyens” follows last summer’s “Olympic” production at Covent Garden in London.
“Hugh Macdonald, the English musicologist who made the modern, authentic score used for virtually all modern-era revivals, warns however that ‘recent productions of “Les Troyens” have nearly all contrived superfluous action while ignoring Berlioz’ stage directions and the obvious implications of the music’,” said Holoman, about the man who refused to see any further productions until it was done correctly.
“I know what Macdonald means,” Holoman said. “The most moving ‘Les Troyens’ any of us has seen and hear was with James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra — and no sets or costumes. The mind supplied them to full effect. But it was really nice to see this wonderful score come alive in New York — all six hours of it.”
And the celebrated director Francesca Zambello? “She went off to China, then back to Washington, where she becomes the artistic director of the National Opera on Jan. 1. She will be in San Francisco in the fall with her production of ‘Show Boat,’ which opened at the Lyric Opera of Chicago with tremendous success,” Holoman said.