Saturday, June 13, 2015

les troyens —the trojans, more or less

Okay.  Now that I've sat through the whole 5 ½ hour opera that Berlioz wrote and composed, I get to forever more call it by its French name, Les Troyens, instead of The Trojans. And of course, I never have to see it again.  Which is not to say that I didn't like it enough to see again (which I didn't), but rather that it is unlikely to be produced in its entirety ever again in my lifetime, at least in San Francisco.

My worries about Les Troyens started before we even got there. I was hoping they'd skip the whole dying soprano thing. But no. Long-winded female suicides started even before the first intermission.  And the really long-winded soprano suicide, well—we had to wait 5 hours to get to that one.

Berlioz was obsessed with telling this story since his dad read to him about Troy when he was a kid. So. It just festered until he finally got to write a version for himself (words and music both). Clearly a work of love. Only I think nobody told him that works of love require an editor. A really brutal editor. I think the first two or three acts could have been taken care of in about 5 minutes.  Ten minutes, tops.  But Berlioz really wanted us to suffer along with everyone else in the production.

I started suffering long before we found parking. Mostly about whether I could make it through the whole thing without running out to go pee. Turned out that was on a lot of people's minds. The silver-haired set predominate at the opera.

The curtain finally opens. And I'm already confused. Everyone's dressed in clothes from the wrong period. So. Clearly, I say to myself,  this opera is supposed to be a parable about something. But the program said nothing about it. And I didn't do my homework early enough to already know. Looks like the 1850s to me. I figure, Troy. Hm, that's Turkey. 1850's the Ottoman Empire was strong, but also just starting to fall apart. The Tanzimat reforms at that time tried to raise enough money to keep the Empire going... Maybe it's a commentary about the fall of the Ottoman Empire? But, no—the Empire hadn't fallen yet. And Berlioz wasn't that prescient, was he?

Trying to figure out the time period got me through the first couple of acts. And already a bunch of suicides, Cassandra's being the most prominent.

Turns out it wasn't entirely an Ottoman parable, but  a commentary on the Crimean War. Which did have something to do with the Ottomans. But also the Russians (apparently, they lost), the French and the British. During the first intermission the place lit up in iPhones tuned to Wikipedia trying to figure out the same thing.  Now, I'm pretty fuzzy about the Crimean War in the 1850's—but didn't Putin just invade and take over Crimea. Again?

So. Berlioz was on to something.

Needless suffering. That's what opera is about. And this opera is full of it. Needless to say, all the main female characters reminded me of my mother. Especially when they're groveling on the stage floor, tearing their hair out and threatening suicide.

There's also a lot of steampunk touches. The Trojan Horse, piles of military crap lying around here and there, and a giant Trojan Warrior that's meant (I think) to be heroic, but has a prominent cable holding up its arm. Very broken marionette. Very distracting.

I didn't think I was going to make it past the first intermission. But I thought I'd be brave and try. At Act III I was rewarded grandly when the curtain lifted onto an enormous North African ksar, or citadel—nicely accurate, at least for the northern Sahara—though I'm not sure Carthage ever looked like that. Still. It was beautiful! Finally some color! No more drab Crimean War steampunk and gray, but just the right reds and yellows and greens and stripes, and Berber tattoo patterns on the mud walls of the ksar.  I was a happy camper.  And so were the (entirely new) set of characters. Sweetness and joy and beauty and generosity ensued for a brief moment in time. At least until the Trojans hit town. After that, it's more rending, needless torment, and even more needless female suicide.

So. What I learned is that thinking about the fall of the Ottoman Empire can get me through more than an hour of drab scenery and singing. And the sight of something blatantly North Africa after all these years still instantly brings me joy. A ksar on the stage of the San Francisco Opera House can keep me staying put for 5 ½ hours, no problem.

The entirety of Les Troyens—and maybe all operas—really ought to be rewritten. By women. Not to supplant all the great operas out there. But as just plain antidote.


  1. The mass suicide in Act I (or was it II--who can tell them apart?) could have been averted with a much more sensible plan if we didn't keep letting the men write all the operas. In my version, they would have caught the next ferry to Lesbos and set up a nice little Utopian farming village instead.

    1. 'Sensible' is not in opera vocabulary for some reason. Is that because the music is not sensible?

  2. Halloo to you, Beautiful Professor Z! I am about to visit your corner of the Universe and would love to visit. Is there is a spot in your schedule for lunch, dinner, or a stroll through your lovely city on Monday or Tuesday, June 29- 30? Looking to reconnect and am also hopeful you kept my journey-to-motherhood journal :) I left it with you to bind us to another time, ya know. – Tiffany 949-201-5387

    1. I've got family in town, so I'm not sure about availability. Let's try. The journals may still be at the Dept. on campus. Not sure. I didn't take them with me. Best to email me or FB re: getting together. Good to hear from you!