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Touring the Opera World With Les Troyens

February 26, 2019

Over the last few seasons, several major new productions of Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens have appeared in opera houses worldwide: David McVicar’s largely traditional production, seen in London, Milan, San Francisco, and Vienna; Tim Albery’s updated, but very straightforward, production in Chicago; and most recently, Dmitri Tcherniakov’s radical reimagining in Paris, which was part of the Opéra National de Paris’s 350th birthday season.

The Tcherniakov production was acknowledged by all as brilliantly sung, but the production itself received mixed reviews. The director moved it to an unknown modern country, put the entire Trojan royal family on stage right from the start, long before their notated entries, and posited that King Priam had sexually abused his daughter Cassandre. Énée’s wife dies in his arms, perhaps a suicide, before he flees Troy. Tcherniakov placed the entirety of the Carthage acts in a single room, representing a rehabilitation facility for those traumatized in war, with Énée and Didon so emotionally disturbed by their experiences that in the great love duet, they’re not able to approach each other.

Tenor Brandon Jovanovich (Énée) and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn (Narbal), both favorite singers in San Francisco, have appeared in all three productions, though not necessarily at the same time: Jovanovich sang the McVicar in Vienna, Van Horn in San Francisco. Both were in Tim Albery and Dmitri Tcherniakov’s productions, and during the run of the Tcherniakov, I interviewed them about what it’s like to perform this opera in such different productions, all of which I have seen. They were great fun to talk with, and this article, which must of necessity condense and edit our chat, can’t quite capture the camaraderie between the singers, the nods of agreement, and the amount of laughter in the interview room.

Somewhat unusually, our interview started with Jovanovich asking me about my recording app (Voice Recorder on Android) and Van Horn interrogating me about what I had liked about the Chicago production, to which I replied that I’d very much liked how Tim Albery staged Act 5 and how his staging clarified the political relationships throughout the Carthage acts.

The singers reported that they hadn’t gotten a lot of feedback about the production, and that it had been done on a tight budget, where David McVicar had gotten whatever he wanted. Chicago had musical cuts, also, to ensure that they’d be done by midnight, “or by 11:53,” said Van Horn. “I like the ballet. They had ballet in San Francisco, and I miss it here.”

I asked what it was like working with three very different directors. Van Horn said “I was with Leah [Hausman, the revival director] in SF. It was very businesslike, in that it was mostly pre-determined. We created a bit, but the structure was already there. We were plugged into a working machine, in a way.”

“With Tim,” he went on, “it was a completely different experience, because he seemed to be directing in the moment more. It was sometimes difficult to get the broad strokes, because we got into the details right away. It was more of a process, and I say that judiciously — sometimes the process is difficult, but the product is good. I’m willing to go through the process, but you don’t always know that it will be good when you’re in the middle of it.”

Jovanovich responded “I enjoyed working with Tim, but it’s true, you didn’t know what the end product would be. You didn’t have an idea whether it was all going to come together, or the overall shape and scope of it.” Van Horn replied, “You got into the details right away. Sometimes you just wanted to know what door to walk in.”

Jovanovich laughed. “Yeah, exactly. He’d talk for half an hour, and then you’d say, ‘But which side do I come in?’ David is very, very detailed. He’s got it all mapped out in his head, and he likes to act it out.” (While McVicar did not personally direct the San Francisco bring up, he did direct the Vienna production that Jovanovich sang in during the fall of 2018.) Van Horn said, “What I love about David is that he is willing to show you the exact emotion he wants. The man will cry in front of you to show you that’s what’s happening. For me, then I trust it: oh, you want that.”

“Yes. He gets right in there, he hangs on you. He’s got the whole thing there, he’s got everything mapped out,” said Jovanovich. “In that regard, he’s a lot like Dmitri [Tcherniakov]. Dmitri has everything down to—” “—the inch—” replied Van Horn. “—to the quarter note, the eighth note. ‘You have to turn right here,’” replied Jovanovich.

Van Horn elaborated. “I feel like McVicar allows for your own recreation, what feels right to you, where Dmitri has very specific ideas about what these characters are. He is pushing and shoving you into those boxes. We were in those boxes whether we liked it or not…. But when the director knows every single word cold, every single note…when they come to you with that preparation, all you can do is trust them, because you don’t know more.”

The Paris production, like Chicago’s, had some cuts, and the final decisions weren’t made until very late in the rehearsal process. Jovanovich remarked that there were time constraints owing to cast changes, more because of the departure of mezzo Elīna Garanča, the originally-scheduled Didon, than that of tenor Bryan Hymel. Because he himself joined the cast late, Jovanovich was simultaneously singing Énée in Paris and rehearsing Dick Johnson (La fanciulla del West) in Munich.

As he recounted, “There was supposed to be more of a balance. There was going to be a flashback of my life, and I was going to sit there and they’d march them in front of me. My wife, with Ascagne, then Didon would come in and be part of that group. And me kind of going zzt zzt zzt and [Tcherniakov] just ran out of time. About a week before opening, he said he couldn’t do it justice, and so [the flashback] was dropped.”

The controversial Tcherniakov production drew an unusual amount of audience derision, to the point that conductor Philippe Jordan had to wave a white flag from the pit to stop the uproar during one performance, including individual heckling from audience members. The singers weren’t happy about this; they hear every word from the stage, and they’re not responsible for the director’s decisions.

Still, Jovanovich likes to do updated productions, and says that always doing traditional production can get boring. “I’ll leave this production a better actor than when I went into it, with different angles and perspectives.” Van Horn, though, prefers traditional productions. “I like to go to the museum. There’s a reason we’ve put up these buildings and put these masterpieces in there. I don’t want to see the Mona Lisa in spray paint.”

Each production also had a different conductor: Donald Runnicles in San Francisco and Alain Altinoglu in Vienna for McVicar; Sir Andrew Davis in Chicago for Albery; and Philippe Jordan in Paris for Tcherniakov. I asked the singers what these conductors were like to work with. Jovanovich said that for him, “my favorite was Alain, in Vienna. He was fantastic. He has ideas about what he’d like to do, but he listens. He’s married to Nora Gubisch, who is a mezzo. He’s got a great personality too, and for me that’s everything. He’s a great guy to work with cause he’s talented, but he’s super-nice, and easygoing, and friendly and happy, and that makes a difference.”

“That’s what we like about you, buddy, those are the exact reasons everybody likes to work with Brandon. It’s what you just said: Personality is everything,” said Van Horn, to much laughter.

“Philippe is a real master of the score, in that whatever it says, we’re going to do,” said Van Horn, and Jovanovich agreed. “That’s right. If it says piano, everyone will be singing piano. If it says forte, you’re forte.” Van Horn went on: “If there’s a comma between two words, you’re not going to carry that note over.”

“That’s right. ‘Brandon, you’re singing an eighth note there, but it’s a sixteenth note.’ Every time, he would tell you: a sixteenth note. ‘Brandon, Brandon.’ Every time. That’ll change the outcome a lot.”

Said Van Horn, “I would think that with Philippe, you get more authentic Berlioz because it is exactly what is written. You do not deviate from tempo markings, dynamic markings, the text, because what’s there is what you’re hearing, which is what Berlioz surely wanted.”

“I like Andrew, I work with Andrew a lot,” continued Van Horn. “Andrew will breathe with you for sure, and he can judge in the moment how well you’re doing. If it’s going well, he might let you hang on a little more, he might pull back a little bit, he might speed up. He lives in the opera world where it’s happening, uniquely, now. The soprano’s feeling good, let’s go through this a little bit slower so she can enjoy that.” About Runnicles, Van Horn said, “He was very supportive, very consistent, and he never blew a cue. From the little bit I do in the show, he was perfect.”

Even the costumes can affect how a singer responds to a character. “In the McVicar, you’re wearing armor, so you feel like a hero,” said Jovanovich. Van Horn remarked that in the Tcherniakov, “I found that I was not standing up very straight because of what I was wearing. I felt like I looked like a shift worker from Target, and I thought he [seemed] a little bit bored, he felt less engaged, and I could tell that my shoulders were slumping. When you wear the robes [in the McVicar], you have to stand up, my whole chest was expanded the whole time. In the Albery, I looked like Kim Jong Un in that gray onesie I was wearing.”

Lisa Hirsch is a technical writer. She studied music at Brandeis and Stony Brook, and blogs about classical music and opera at Iron Tongue of Midnight.