Supersized 'Trojans' lands on reinforced War Memorial stage

COURTESY BILL COOPER/ROYAL OPERACassandra and the Trojan Horse strike a dramatic scene in the Covent Garden production of "Les Troyens

COURTESY BILL COOPER/ROYAL OPERACassandra and the Trojan Horse strike a dramatic scene in the Covent Garden production of "Les Troyens

Opera director Francesca Zambello has seen the five-hour-long “Les Troyens” (“The Trojans”) more than 50 times, but she is eager to see upcoming performances in San Francisco directed by someone else. Her explanation: “I am an addict.”

Zambello, artistic director of the Washington National Opera (in town to stage San Francisco Opera’s world premiere of Marco Tutino's “Two Women”) has staged Berlioz's humongous work several times, including the Metropolitan Opera's acclaimed 2004 and 2012 productions.

Looking forward to attending as many performances as she can of Sir David McVicar's Royal Opera-San Francisco co-production, which opens Sunday, she says, “This is like a drug for me.”

She describes “Les Troyens” as “one of the most daunting and exhilarating works to experience as an audience or as an artist working on it.”

The scope and challenges of “Les Troyens” make it a rarity in the world's opera houses. The last production of opera in the War Memorial in The City took place 47 years ago, and it was an abbreviated version.

The two-part opera – “The Capture of Troy” and “The Trojans at Carthage” – is so big and complex, it took 32 years to produce. (Berlioz completed it in 1858 and the first staged performance was in 1890, 21 years after his death.) Efforts to bring the $6 million production here have been going on for a dozen years.

In addition to the full San Francisco Opera Chorus of 90 led by director Ian Robertson, the current production features 16 principals, 18 dancers and acrobats and 10 supernumeraries – 134 people onstage. Musicians number nearly 100, with 72 in the orchestra and 23 in backstage bands.

There also are costumers, makeup artists, wigmakers, ushers, guards and – most importantly – stagehands, who must deal with the company's largest and heaviest (32-ton) sets and props. The Trojan Horse, constructed of steel and fiberglass, is 23-feet tall. To handle the combined weight, the opera had to reinforce the stage.

Donald Runnicles, S.F. Opera’s former music director, conducts the production, which features tenor and Merola Program veteran Bryan Hymel (who had a success in the London production) as Aeneas; soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra; and mezzo Susan Graham as Dido.

Chorus members, ever-present playing the opera’s title role, have rehearsed for months. Like Zambello, they say the more they hear the music, the more they fall under its spell.

Patrons expecting images from Greek mythology and Virgil's “Aeneid” (the source for Berlioz's libretto) may be surprised to see 19th-century costumes in this production, and the fact that Troy resembles the battle of Sevastopol in the Crimean War. (Trojan soldier costumes are military uniforms from various nations involved in the Crimean conflict.)

According to the producers, “It is a strong statement on how, from antiquity throughout history to modern times, humanity is destined to repeat its mistakes.”


Les Troyens

Presented by San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 1 p.m. June 7 (sold out), 6 p.m. June 12, June 16, June 20, June 25 and July 1

Tickets: $32 to $480

Contact: (415) 864-3330,

artsClassical Music & OperaLes TroyensSan Francisco OperaSir David McVicar

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