Hero tenor Bryan Hymel swoops in to rescue 'Les Troyens' simulcast

Semi-local tenor Bryan Hymel (center) as Aeneas in Berlioz's five-hour- plus opera "Les Troyens." Hymel, a 2008 Academy of Vocal Arts grad, will also fill in for the noon simulcast Saturday.
Semi-local tenor Bryan Hymel (center) as Aeneas in Berlioz's five-hour- plus opera "Les Troyens." Hymel, a 2008 Academy of Vocal Arts grad, will also fill in for the noon simulcast Saturday. (KEN HOWARD / Metropolitan Opera)
Posted: January 04, 2013

NEW YORK - Hector Berlioz's epic, five-hour-plus opera Les Troyens has often been a magnet for problems - starting with the leading role, Aeneas, that brings tenors to grief. It forced Plácido Domingo to curtail his 1983 Metropolitan Opera run, and last month, Marcello Giordani bailed on the Met's current production, vowing to never sing the opera again - including this Saturday's noon simulcast in area movie theaters.

Help, however, has arrived in the person of Bryan Hymel, 33, who found himself making his Met debut Dec. 26 in a familiar scenario. This semi-Philadelphian (a 2008 Academy of Vocal Arts grad, he still works with its voice guru Bill Schuman and keeps some possessions in a South Philly storage bin) bounces between England and New York replacing tenors felled by Les Troyens.

In 2012, Hymel (pronounced EE-mel) stepped in for no less than Jonas Kaufmann in London at the Royal Opera and the London Proms, which was broadcast internationally shortly before he did a Philadelphia Orchestra aria concert with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Opera Company of Philadelphia's September La Boheme.

Even though Hymel woke up feeling under the weather New Year's Day, he sang anyway and, predictably, walked off with the lion's share of the applause (after his Dec. 26 last-minute debut, he received a huge ovation from the audience - and the cast). If Saturday's simulcast has a subsequent DVD release, as many do, it will be Hymel's second Troyens video, the first - still unreleased - having been shot at London's Royal Opera.

Why does he succeed when so many do not? High notes.    Berlioz's Aeneas is Waterloo, written for a voice that doesn't really exist anymore: a French tenor with an upward extension, one that goes high and stays there.

For years, roles like Don Jose in Carmen pushed at the limits of Hymel's lower range. At AVA, he sang roles such as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni and knew they weren't keepers. In contrast, last month in London, he successfully sang Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable, which lies so high that the high C's are hardly worth mentioning.

"It's taken me a little longer to find repertoire that fits me," Hymel said in an August interview on the heels of his London Troyens. "This high French and bel canto stuff is not done a lot. Only Bill Schuman was familiar with this rep."

Already, some companies are looking to revive works such as Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini - one of the few major tenor roles that Domingo didn't seriously consider - because Hymel can sing it.

It's not an easy ticket to the top, he says: "It's very nerve-racking when you have to sing these high things."

But so gratifying. The ethereal Troyens love duet can be sung by many lyric tenors, but when the high-lying passages have little hint of labor, the music reaches another level. Also, his French enunciation is aided by his New Orleans childhood and Cajun heritage.

Language was a shortcoming of the great Aeneas of our time, the now-retired Jon Vickers. But it remains to be seen whether Hymel can match Vickers' heroism.

What else can be expected from Saturday's simulcast?

Few Troyens productions are consistently good; though the Met's 2003 Francesca Zambello staging is better than most, with a primitive look suggesting hurricane wreckage framed with picturesque tidiness, after Aeneas flees Troy and arrives at quasi-utopian Carthage, the production veers toward generic beige. But with all its ceremonies and dance interludes, Troyens feels like an epic that doesn't want to get where it's going. It's best just to sit back and accept that this opera is in an alternative time zone.

The role of Dido is one of mezzo-soprano Susan Graham's best. But she has been ill of late, and if she doesn't recover in time for the simulcast, the less-charismatic Elizabeth Bishop has all necessary vocal and artistic goods. The role of Cassandra was an early breakthrough for Deborah Voigt; now, she doesn't seem fully engaged and has trouble being heard. But simulcasts have a way of minimizing such problems.

Meanwhile, tenor Hymel can thank Troyens for building a U.S. presence in what has been his Eurocentric career. "It's nice to come home," he said recently, "and it would be wonderful to get my stuff out of storage."

"Les Troyens" simulcast:

Noon on Saturday at area movie theaters, with an encore presentation at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 23. Find venues and purchase tickets at www.metoperafamily.org, www.fathomevents.com, or 212-362-6000.

Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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