"What joy!" were the first words the chorus sang when the curtain went up Sunday afternoon in the War Memorial Opera House on the first complete production of Hector Berlioz's two-part "Les Troyens" in the 92-year history of the San Francisco Opera.
Beginning with the splendid San Francisco Opera Chorus, led by Ian Robertson, portraying the Trojans celebrating the withdrawal of Greek soldiers, the joy was sustained throughout David McVicar’s remarkable production, a $6 million co-presentation with London's Royal Opera, Milan's La Scala and the Vienna State Opera.
Es Devlin's striking, humongous, 32-ton sets, and Leah Hausman's judicious staging – which swiftly moved more than 130 people onstage and also accommodated quiet segments such as the front-and-center Act 5 love duet – didn't distract from the heavenly music. It even was easy to overlook the pointless juxtaposition of ancient and 19th century worlds; the Trojans were dressed as soldiers in the Crimean War, which took place millennia after Virgil's "Aeneid," on which the opera is based.
It didn't matter: Berlioz's romantic, mesmerizing, glorious music prevailed throughout. Before the last act, Donald Runnicles and the orchestra rightly were greeted with the most thunderous applause heard in the opera house since their great Wagner "Ring" days. The conductor cut the ovation short, probably to keep the running time to five hours. (Acts 1 and 2 ran 85 minutes, Acts 3 and 4 were 92 minutes, Act 5 was 52 minutes, with two half-hour intermissions.)
Runnicles and the orchestra had everything right, both in quiet and climactic moments. Seventy-two musicians were in the pit, and 23 in backstage bands switched location all over the house. Principal clarinet Jose Gonzalez and principal horn Kevin Rivard filled the hall with big, beautiful sound.
The chorus (with a total singing time of about two hours) was outstanding, but perhaps could have been louder during the scene greeting the Trojan Horse, a moving, fire-breathing 23-foot tall steel-and-fiberglass creature. (One strange complaint overheard: "Why isn't it made of wood?")
The cast was wondrous, from Bryan Hymel's clarion-call Aeneas to Susan Graham's great Dido. Graham received the San Francisco Opera Medal after the performance, honoring her 25th year with the company.
As Cassandra, Anna Caterina Antonacci was triumphant in the difficult role of the princess who envisions disaster, not only singing flawlessly, but with movements clearly portraying a person in distress.
Sasha Cooke as Anna, Brian Mulligan as Chorebus, René Barbera as Iopas and Christian van Horn as Narbal were impressive in solos and ensembles, as were Adler Fellows making their mainstage debut in smaller roles.
The production makes the most of the many ballet scenes, which were dictated by Paris fashion and demand when Berlioz wrote "Les Troyens" in 1858. The work was not produced in full until 1890, long after his death.
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 6 p.m. June 12, June 16, June 20, June 25 and July 1
Tickets: $32 to $480
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com