Lyric Opera's Les Troyens Credit: Todd Rosenberg

Hector Berlioz died in 1869 without ever seeing a full production of the project dearest to his heart—his grand opera, Les Troyens, which he had completed in 1858.

There was a reason he couldn’t get it produced: the five-act, two-part work, based on parts of Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid, runs about five hours (with cuts), and calls for a chorus of 100 voices, along with 22 featured characters, a ballet troupe, and an enormous orchestra—all able to navigate a demanding score.

Even now, Les Troyens is seldom mounted: Lyric Opera’s current production, directed by Tim Albery, is a first for the company and is being promoted as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the audience.

Ostensibly the story of the Trojan warrior, Aeneas (sung here by the fine tenor and actor Brandon Jovanovich), Les Troyens is really a tale of two women: the Trojan princess and seer Cassandre (powerful soprano Christine Goerke), and the Carthaginian queen Dido (silver-voiced veteran mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who stepped into the role after Sophie Koch backed out for “personal reasons”).

Part one deals with the infamous Trojan horse attack by the Greeks, agonizingly foreseen by Cassandre and unwittingly facilitated by Aeneas. Part two finds Aeneas and his soldiers in Carthage, where he falls in love with the widowed Dido, but abandons her because he’s destined to travel to Italy and found Rome. Both Cassandre and Dido become so distraught they kill themselves.  

There are some issues. You can’t sign on for a five-hour performance and then complain about the length, but Berlioz’s libretto—he wrote his own, drawing on Virgil—is not consistently compelling. (The folks who could be seen bailing out during the second intermission, after a rather somnolent fourth act, missed performance highlights by Jovanovich and Graham in act five.) And Tobias Hoheisel’s spare, mostly gray sets and costumes (which seem to set the action in the 1940s) may be aiming for a film-noir effect, but are just unrelentingly drab. The major set component, a huge rotating shell that stands for both ancient cities, is as likely to bring to mind the oil-storage tanks of Gary, Indiana. Projections (water, fire, the shadow of a giant horse, and one that looks like it came from a planetarium show) don’t make up for the overall lack of visual interest. It’s a production drained of color, except where it’s most important—in the music.

And the music is great. All three of the internationally celebrated leads do justice to their difficult, high-voltage roles, as do the many featured singers, including, most notably, mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau as Dido’s sister, Anna. The Lyric Opera orchestra, led by music director Sir Andrew Davis, delivers every dramatic nuance of Berlioz’s beautiful score. And the real star of the show is the Lyric Opera chorus, under the direction of chorus master Michael Black. Doubled in size, it’s a magnificent vocal presence—from the opening scene of the Trojan masses to the stunned Carthaginians grouped around Dido’s pyre.

Devoted opera lovers will want to add this notch to their belts. For less dogged fans, Lyric opens a new production of Mozart’s Magic Flute next month.

Les Troyens Mon 11/21, 5:30 PM; Sat 11/26, 5:30 PM; Sat 12/3, 1 PM, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, 312-332-2244,, $17-$299.