The Trojan Women
Director Francesco Zambello and stars Susan Graham and Deborah Voigt discuss the 2012 revival of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, in which powerful women dominate the action. By Matt Dobkin
Les Troyens is one of the biggest epics in all of opera. How do you handle its countless moving parts?
Francesca Zambello: Well, having done some other pieces on this scale, it always comes down to, how can you tell the story in an emotional, passionate, and clear fashion for an audience? And a work like Les Troyens actually has a very clear story throughout. I’ve directed the Ring, I’ve directed War and Peace, Khovanshchina, and in a way, they have much more complex plots. This plot, on the other hand, is very much a quest story—you are following the hero from beginning to end. But I want to be clear: it’s not easy!
Debbie, you sing Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess, and Susan, you’re Dido, the Queen of Carthage. Tell me about these roles.
Deborah Voigt: I love Cassandra’s character and personality. She has dignity and pathos, and her heart is breaking for her people and what they are about to endure. And the music Berlioz composed for her reflects every bit of this woman’s richness. I love singing her music. I love the intensity of her feelings, but I also love the “compactness” that Berlioz used to compose her music and express who she is.
Susan Graham: I have to say that this opera, for me, is Mount Everest. There’s nothing bigger. It’s epic. The storytelling arc, the vocal arc—it’s enormous. We meet Dido as she’s rebuilding the civilization of Carthage, and it’s all very optimistic, everything’s going really well—except for her sad heart. And then this dashing warrior, Aeneas arrives. And we see her go from being this beloved public figure to having this youthful rebirth of her feelings of love.
Graham as Dido
This opera is about war, empire-building—traditionally “male” things. And yet these women really drive the story, and they’re so complex.
FZ: I think what’s interesting is that both women are highly political, and that’s something you don’t get in many operas. These women are always driven by their duty versus their desires. Cassandra, in many ways, chooses the political over love, in the end. And Dido—you know, Indira Gandhi, Imelda Marcos before she went wrong, Eva Perón, all of those women of the 20th century who had an incredible connection with their people are, I think, wrapped up in this character.
What makes Berlioz such a revolutionary composer?
SG: Well, I’m a huge Berlioz fan—I love telling stories through his incredible imagery, the orchestration, the drama that he puts into everything, the lyrical beauty of the love scenes. It’s a thrill to undergo it. I think that he’s one of those rare birds where there’s this revelatory orchestration that was groundbreaking—but he also has such a foot in the tradition of Gluck, who he was so influenced by. In all the Iphigénies and everything that I’ve done, I can always feel Berlioz coming.
FZ: Berlioz speaks in a way that is very dramatic and that’s utterly unique—his voice is so different from his contemporaries writing around him, whether it was Verdi or late Rossini or Wagner getting going.
DV: He’s probably the ultimate Romantic composer, but he’s not too grandly, overly expressive. There’s a kind of elegant restraint to even his most sweeping, emotional passage—he doesn’t go on forever expressing how the character is feeling. Not only is this artistically appealing, it saves the singer, too!
Voigt as Cassandra
Francesca, you and Debbie did this production together at its premiere in 2003. What do you remember most about that collaboration nearly ten years ago?
FZ: When we did it the first time, it was just a year after 9/11. So we talked a lot about Cassandra in the context of being frightened about something that would happen, and watching a society plummet toward its own ruin. Those are questions that we have to ask, I think, all the time.
DV: I can remember talking about the collective emotion of a besieged metropolis and how that was relevant. Francesca looks at absolutely everything in the history and background of a piece—as any talented director might do. But the difference is that Francesca knows what to use and what to discard. You know, kicking around a concept or ideas or even character aspects that will never be used onstage is still a very rich and important part of the creative process, and I love doing this with her.
SG: It’s interesting—I’ve only ever done my character once before, and that was also ten years ago, though not in this production. You know, in ten years of a person’s life, especially a woman in her middle years, a lot happens. A lot happens in your life, in your head, in your heart. There’s a lot of growth, love, loss, pain, joy. That makes a person richer and it makes their characterizations richer.
Matt Dobkin is the Met’s Creative Director, Content & Strategy.