War and Not-Peace

Dan Friedman

Picture the scene:

Surrounded by a coterie of fanatical priests, a crazed Lebanese leader exiled in North Africa swears an eternal vow of enmity to the West. The leader promises armed opposition that will last, generation to generation, on land and sea, until it culminates in a bloody massacre of the Western enemies that will horrify the world. The speech comes to an end and the audience rises to its feet in a thunderous ovation.

This isn't a scene from a political rally in Libya, Algeria, or Morocco, but the closing scene of New York Metropolitan Opera's latest new production, Hector Berlioz' Les Troyens. The crazed leader in question is Dido, recently fled from Tyre to Carthage, and the direct focus of her curse is the departing Aeneas who has also left his homeland - Troy -- to fulfil his destiny and found Rome with the remnants of the Trojan army. The audience is not the so-called "Islamic mob" that haunts the nightmares of the West (sometimes under the name of the "Arab street"), but the wealthy patrons of New York society.

Although the performance of the opera is part of the long-planned 200th anniversary celebration of Berlioz' birth, the topicality of Les Troyens is unavoidable. I usually write in Zeek about films, which, by and large, are produced by wealthy corporations for mass consumption a year or two later. When thinking about opera, in contrast, it is important to remember that the turnaround, even for a massive production like this one, is less than a year. It is also worth remembering that the vast majority of the audience is white, heavily educated, old, wealthy, and, for this production, located in the city where the first battle of this war was lost on September 11th 2001, when New York was turned into a war zone for the first time in over a century. In these contexts, Les Troyens feels eerily prescient. We see the torch of history passed from one proud city-state to the next, and see how that torch can burn as well as illumine: Troy is destroyed, Carthage turned to demonic worship, Rome doomed by a curse before it was even founded, and now we sit in New York, waiting for the onslaught.

The director, Francesca Zambello, was faced with two major battle scenes to adapt for the stage - the Greeks jumping out of their horse to slaughter the Trojans, followed by the combined forces of the Carthaginians and Aeneas' Trojans beating the Numidians so badly that they are forced to the depths of the desert. Zambello deliberately chose to dodge both of those bullets. We barely see the first battle - the lights come up on some fallen Trojans who get up and sneak away as hapless Greeks forage and Trojan children run between them. The Numidian rout is entirely removed and replaced by a thunderstorm and a dance between Trojans and Carthaginians demonstrating the love between Dido and Aeneas. Deliberately, and desperately, avoiding any representation of these battles is the first acknowledgement of the fact that to do so would be cutting a little too close to the bone, because to all intents and purposes, we are no longer at peace.

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March 2003

Readings and Misreadings
Zeek live, March 20 at Makor

surrender monkeys
Michael Shurkin

the reason for
Hal Sirowitz

Jay Michaelson

war and not-peace
Dan Friedman

Only Shelter
Bryn Canner

Abraham Mezrich

josh goes to prague
Josh Ring

David Stromberg

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