The only thing better than one new opera recording by opera star Joyce DiDonato is two, and both are irresistible to lovers of vocal music. One is Hector Berlioz’s 19th-century French opera “Les Troyens,” and the other is a new opera by American composer Jake Heggie, “Great Scott.”
“Les Troyens” is Berlioz’s massive work based on Virgil’s “Aneid.” Warner Classics/Erato’s recording is from two live concerts of the four-hour uncut work. Conductor John Nelson has made a specialty of the opera and leads the impressive orchestra and choruses of Strasbourg and a top-flight cast.
The action starts with the Greeks suddenly disappearing from their siege of Troy but leaving behind a giant wooden horse. The prophetess Cassandra (the daughter of the Trojan king) warns her people of their coming destruction, but they don’t listen.
The Greek soldiers are hidden in the horse and when they attack, the Trojan women collectively commit suicide. Meanwhile, Aeneas and some of his army escape. They land in Carthage, where the widow Dido is queen.
When that city-state is threatened with attack by the Numidians, Aeneas combines his army with the Carthaginians and collectively they defeat the invaders. Aeneas and Dido fall in love, but the god Mercury and the ghosts of the Trojan royal family urge him to fulfill his destiny and go to Italy and found a new kingdom. He leaves with his men during the night without even saying goodbye to the queen. When Dido learns of his departure, she utters curses and then kills herself.
Marie-Nicole Lemieux is effective as Cassandra, but the most memorable performance is DiDonato’s Dido. She conveys a full range of emotions, from mourning her husband to love of Aeneas to fury after he sneaks off to sea. Tenor Michael Spyres is terrific as Aeneas.
Others in the standout cast include mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa (as Ascagne), tenors Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Hélènus, Hylas) and Cyrille Dubois (Iopas), baritone Stéphane Degout (Chorèbe), and basses Nicolas Courjal (Narbal) and Jean Teitgen (Ombre d’Hector, Mercure); mezzo-soprano Hanna Hipp (as Anna) and the Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly (as Panthée).
DiDonato has had a long and fruitful collaboration with composer Jake Heggie. They and librettist (and noted playwright) Terrence McNally previously teamed on “Dead Man Walking,” an opera dealing with capital punishment. By contrast, “Great Scott” is a comic opera, written especially for DiDonato, which raises some serious questions along with the jokes.
The lead role, played by DiDonato, is Arden Scott, an American diva who is about to star in a forgotten Italian bel canto opera. The problem is that the premiere is going to coincide with the home team’s Super Bowl game. And, Arden faces competition from a rising Russian soprano, wittily played by Ailyn Pérez. Also on hand is baritone Nathan Gunn as Arden’s former lover Sid, mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade as donor/volunteer Winnie and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Roane, the stage manager and friend of Arden.
Heggie shows off his skill at creating imitation bel canto as well as molding a new opera, which mixes comedy with serious questions about the past and future of opera in this country. The opera was recorded in live performances at the Dallas Opera with Patrick Summers conducting.
The laughter and cheering audience shows that if a new opera is written in a melodic style and contains an amusing libretto, it will connect with 21st century operagoers.
While DiDonato is great on disc (this one also by Warner Classics/Erato), she is even better in person. She will play the title role of “Cendrillon” (Cinderella) in Jules Massenet’s opera at The Metropolitan Opera from April 12 until May 11. Ailyn Pérez in her third starring role at the Met this season will appear as the female lead in Charles Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” from April 23 to May 12. For tickets, call 212-362-6000 or visit MetOpera.org
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.