Review: ASO’s Donald Runnicles triumphs in San Francisco Opera’s magnificent “Les Troyens”

The San Francisco Opera performance of "Les Troyens." (Photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)
The San Francisco Opera performance of "Les Troyens." (Photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)
The San Francisco Opera performance of "Les Troyens." (Photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)
The San Francisco Opera performance of “Les Troyens.” (Photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

SAN FRANCISCO — The arrival of David McVicar’s acclaimed 32-ton production of Hector Berlioz’s opera, Les Troyens, at San Franciso Opera, which was possibly the most important event in America’s music season, just ended. And it might well have been the most significant single series of performances in the career of its conductor, Donald Runnicles, principal guest conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Though Les Troyens is an amazing opera and the favorite of many serious fans (a colleague just confessed to owning over 70 different recordings of the work, many of them hard-to-obtain bootlegs), it is rarely performed. Written in 1863, it wasn’t staged at all in the U.S. until 1955 in Boston and 1966 here at San Francisco Opera. 

The extreme rarity stems from many factors. One is casting: like Wagner’s Ring cycle, this one requires a number of rare and major voices. Its five acts beg for massive sets, scores of dancers and extras, and a giant chorus. And it places significant demands on the orchestra. 

ASO principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles flawlessly conducted the opera.(Photo by J.D. Scott)
“Les Troyens” was ASO principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles’ “finest hour.” (Photo by J.D. Scott)

Based on Virgil’s Aenid, the opera tells the story of the Trojans from the fall of Troy through their departure from Carthage for the founding of Italy. The first acts are set in Troy, depicted here as a multi-story metal cylinder on which the chorus can be deployed, which opens in half to permit the entry of the Trojan Horse. The latter, a giant metal head, created, like the city, from discarded weaponry, was both a work of art and a dramatic coup de theatre, rotating and gliding on stage surrounded by smoke.

When the opera moved to Carthage, we got another cylinder, this one concave and seemingly made from desert sand, the chorus arrayed on its layers as in the Troy set. In the foreground was a scale model of Carthage. And somehow, on the cramped remaining space, the vast parades of chorus members and supernumeraries were played out, as well as extensive ballet scenes.

The company chose to leave out nothing — hence all the dancing — considered essential to French grand opera in its heyday. In truth, the dance music is far from the most compelling in the five-hour opera. But in this case, the dances were executed so well, it became an indispensable part of the show. All night, the audience was immersed in this extravaganza, an experience which also owes much to its extraordinary choral and orchestral writing. 

As Cassandra, the company cast Anna Caterina Antonacci, the most formidable singer alive for this role, though her lengthy career has taken place almost entirely in Europe. [I heard her last year at La Scala in this same production. Then, she was simply a force of nature, owning the stage in a way few singers alive can do.] For the San Francisco performance I saw, the role was sung instead by Michaela Martens, who got through the night without embarrassment but was still the weakest link in this extraordinary cast.

Susan Graham and Bryan Hymel.
Susan Graham and Bryan Hymel.

The immortal Susan Graham portrayed Dido with gripping, moving intensity and a strikingly clear, open sound that belied the fact that this was her 25th anniversary with this company. Fast-rising tenor Bryan Hymel was superb as Énée. His career has been uniquely tied to this role. At Covent Garden, he stepped in to replace an ailing Jonas Kaufmann in 2012, to great acclaim. Later that year, he replaced Marcello Giordani in the same role in the Metropolitan Opera’s fine new production, and subsequently sang the HD telecast. Here in San Francisco, he was the original Énée. 

The rest of the large cast was superb, perhaps as good as can be assembled today for this opera.

Runnicles was a tour du force. The recent performances at the Metropolitan Opera, where Fabio Luisi conducted, and at La Scala, under Antonio Pappano, were still relatively fresh in my ears. Not to mention Sir Colin Davis’s 2002 recording (he recorded it twice) with the Royal Opera. 

Runnicles’ reading is easily the most eloquent and sweeping. There was never a moment when things seemed to be on automatic pilot. Each aria, duet or ensemble came through as a show-stopper. Runnicles approach was leisurely, yet infused with drama and energy, and the daring slow pace exposed the orchestra’s fine balances and intonation. 

Much of Runnicles’ work unfolds in Europe, and in Atlanta he rarely gets to perform the kind of works that are his great strengths: the big operas and the late Romantic symphonic repertory, especially Mahler. Of the nights I’ve heard him conduct, this was Runnicles’ finest hour. 

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