Monday, January 14, 2019

Seattle Opera: Il Trovatore

Is there a sillier story in opera than Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore?  I don’t think so.  And the competition for that honor is intense: The Magic Flute, Tales of Hoffman, almost everything by Wagner, etc.  But at least those stories work on the level of myth or fairy tale.  Il Trovatore doesn’t have that excuse.  It’s set in the everyday world of common reality.  And yet the story is such a jumble of the improbable, the over-wrought, and the just plain ridiculous that it’s a wonder that it has never been laughed off the stage entirely (and since its premiere in 1853 many a critic has tried to do so).  By comparison the stories of Verdi’s other works of this period - La Traviata and Rigoletto - are realistic and believable (as opera, of course).  They’re about real people doing relatively real things.  But that doesn’t matter.  Despite its story, Il Trovatore is as much a masterpiece as the other two.  It’s a work of genius.  And I mean that literally.  Sometimes there are works of art (Gone With the Wind and Hamlet come to mind) whose story is so poor, whose source material is so meager that it’s entirely by the pure talent of their creator that they rise to the highest level of art. Il Trovatore is such a piece.

And if you have any doubt about that go see the Seattle Opera’s current excellent production of Il Trovatore and it will put your mind at rest on this point.  I greatly enjoyed it, but in all honesty it’s a strange production.  Some parts of it were poor but others were outstanding.  It does right what needs to be done right, although it tends to fall short in other aspects.   The evening got off to an unusual start when Seattle Opera’s General Director Aidan Lang came out before the performance to tell us that Adam Lau, who was singing the role of Ferrando, wanted us to know that his (Lau’s) voice wasn’t quite 100% but that he would soldier through the role nonetheless.  He just wanted us to know that he could do better.  OK.  Good to know.  When Lau came onstage in the first scene, which is dominated by Ferrando, you could feel the strain in his voice but he managed to pull it off.  

There were two stars in this show.  The first was the orchestra under conductor Carlo Montanaro (I’ll get to the second one in a moment).  They were magnificent.  You’re not likely to hear a better performance from the pit for Il Trovatore.  Montanaro and his musicians seemed to treat Verdi score as if it were a symphony.  Every nuance, every subtlety of orchestration was given its due.  It was like hearing the music afresh.  In many performances of Verdi’s operas the orchestra takes second place to the singers, but not in this one.

Before I get to the singers, though, I’m going to have to delve into the fakakta story so you’ll know who’s who.  It’s medieval Spain and Leonora, a noblewoman, has fallen in love with Manrico, the troubadour of the title.  He loves her too, but so does the noble Count di Luna.  Sadly for the Count, Leonora doesn’t love him at all.  When Manrico and the Count meet they swear eternal and murderous operatic hatred towards each other.  So far, so good.  Manrico’s mother is Azucena, a crazy gypsy woman.  Her mother was also a gypsy woman and many years before the start of the play's action the Count di Luna’s father (try to keep up) accused of her of being a witch.  Suspecting that she cast a spell on one of his children, he had Azucena’s mom burned at the stake.  As the flames engulfed her she called out to li’l Azucena to avenge her, who immediately did so by taking the Count di Luna’s dad’s ill child and throwing it onto the fire - although there are reasons to believe that the bones recovered from the ashes were not those of the noble child.  It shouldn’t require a degree in Convoluted Bullshit, to figure out that Manrico is actually the Count di Luna’s long lost brother.  But this won’t be made clear until the end of the opera.  


But until then it is the music which makes Il Trovatore irresistibly appealing and it’s the singers who make this performance so good.  The second star of the evening - and really the main one - was Leah Crocetto in the role of Leonora.  The night belonged to her.  From the moment of her entrance she dominated the show.  She has a voice of unique beauty, warmth, and fullness.  It easily reached the back rows (where I was sitting) and in its quieter moments it takes on a gentleness and expressiveness which one doesn’t normally get from a singer with that kind of power.  Sadly on opening night she missed the high C in the aria Tacea la notte placida but soon recovered, and the rest of her performance went off without a hitch.  She’s so good I even thought about buying another ticket just so I could hear her hit that high C.  Lester Lynch also shone as the Count di Luna.  The Count is a dreary fellow and hard to like, but Lynch made him human and understandable, which is a greater accomplishment than making him likeable.  He also brought a sense of vulnerability to the role.  At one point he softly sings Leonora’s name with such longing and tenderness it’ll break your heart.  Manrico was sung by Arnold Rawls and his performance was a little uneven.  There were times when his voice had difficulty rising about the orchestra.  He succeeded wonderfully with Ah si, ben mio, coll’essere, one of Il Trovatore’s least appealing arias, and yet for the show-stopping Di quella pira his voice seemed small and distant, almost as if he were singing it in a room next door.  I also had problems with Elena Gabouri’s Azucena.  She didn’t seem to have much range; for awhile I wondered if whatever was hindering Adam Lau’s voice was also effecting hers.  Still, Rawls and Gabouri got better as the night went on.  Their duet Ai nostri monti was beautifully performed and ended touchingly with Manrico giving his mother a goodnight kiss as she drifts off to sleep.

The problem I had with this production were the scene changes.  Il Trovatore has a lot of shorts scenes and making the smooth transitions between them can be a challenge. Experimental or adventurous productions can often get around these difficulties with great ingenuity but this production is a very traditional, even staid, one.  When the curtain comes down after a scene, it stays down.  And for a while, too.  Three or four minutes (yes, I counted).  This completely destroys the rhythm of the show.  We all sit there quietly in the darkness of the opera hall, waiting and waiting.  Coughs and sneezes echo through the cavernous space.  People check their cellphones.  There is much shuffling in seats.  Conversations start up.  At one point, someone in the second tier seats called out to the curtain “Need some help?” and got a round of applause and laughter.  I’m not saying that we took out a beach ball and began bouncing it around the audience like folks do at the ball game, but it was getting close.  These delays also had an alienating effect on the audience.  While waiting for one scene to start, the title card announced the upcoming location: “Outside the Torture Chamber.”  That one got a good laugh.  And when the curtain did come up it was basically the same set as before but with different props.  I anticipate that this problem will be fixed for future performances.

Il Trovatore will play at the Seattle Opera until January 26th.

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