At the Lyric Opera
By Dan Zeff
Chicago— Being a Giuseppe Verdi opera, “Il Trovatore” tells a gloomy and violent story filled with passion, betrayal, intrigue, and fierce declarations of undying love and undying hate. The plot is convoluted and the emotions over the top, but the Lyric Opera revival brushes criticism aside by casting five glorious voices to carry the production.
“Il Trovatore” is based on an 1836 Spanish play that centers primarily on an overheated love triangle among the Count di Luna, noblewoman Leonora, and troubadour-soldier Manrico. The count wants Leonora for himself but Manrico and Leonora have eyes only for each other. To inject additional complexity into the storyline, Manrico and the count are brothers, though only their Gypsy mother Azucena knows it.
Azucena seeks revenge against the count because his father had her mother burned at the stake as a witch. By the end of the opera, Leonora has committed suicide and the count has executed Manrico. After the troubadour’s death, Azucena tells the count he has actually killed his brother, so the gypsy finally has her revenge.
This summary of the plot doesn’t require a spoiler alert because “Il Trovatore” is one of the most familiar works in the opera repertoire and the audience likely will be aware of all the shifts in the tangled narrative. More to the point, it’s not the plot that matters, it’s the opportunity for world class voices to enthral the listener. Verdi may not be working with a flawless storyline, but the man sure could write for the human voice.
Three of the top five roles are performed by singers making their Lyric debut—American soprano Tamara Wilson (Leonora), Polish baritone Artur Rucinski (Count di Luna), and Italian bass Roberto Tagliavini (captain of the guard). They are joined by two Lyric veterans, the Americans tenor Russell Thomas (Manrico) and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton (Azucena). Tagliavini doesn’t play a central role in “Il Travatore” but given the opportunity he sings as powerfully as his featured colleagues.
Most of the arias and duets are devoted to declarations of love or cries for vengeance. They are all showcases for the skills of the leading singers, though the arias don’t further the narrative much. Indeed, the English titles above the stage are often blank during the major numbers, as if the Lyric decided that the words were of small consequence, deferring to the sheer power and majesty of the singing to carry the listeners through the vocal glories.
First among equals is Wilson’s Leonora, who thrills the audience with the expressive agility of her voice. Her character virtually takes over the last third of the opera and Wilson’s singing is breathtaking. The spectator doesn’t require a literal translation to grasp the emotion of Leonora’s overpowering love for Manrico and her self-sacrifice for her lover.
Rucinski’s Count di Luna is supposed to be a villain but the man sings with such intensity and commitment and his hunger for Leonora is so persuasive that the viewer is inclined to cut the count some slack as a nasty guy. That touch of sympathy may lessen the impact of the count’s comeuppance for his bullying attempts at seducing Leonora and his responsibility for the death of his brother Manrico. But any character who can sing that beautifully can’t be all bad.
Thomas and Barton make an odd couple physically. Azucena is Manrico’s mother but the two singers look about the same age. An older harridan of an Azucena and a younger and more dashing Manrico might have enhanced the verisimilitude of the characters, but the magnificence of their singing makes such criticisms trivial. Tagliavini demonstrates he is ready for a prime time role and his stage presence and voice would make a quality Count di Luna or Manrico, though neither role calls for a bass. In the same spirit Lauren Decker is very good in her limited appearances as Leonora’s companion Inez.
Props go to the massive chorus, which sometimes fills the Lyric stage from end to end. Although director Roy Rallo, taking over for original director Sir David McVicar, leans toward static stagings of both crowd and solo scenes, the huge chorus is impressive, getting its chance in the famous “Anvil Chorus” of bare-chested Gypsy men. The chorus is a rare exuberant interlude in the overall grimness of the story.
The original play was set in the Spanish Inquisition days of the 1400’s and has been advanced chronologically to the early 1800o’s during the lifetime of Spanish painter Francisco Goya. The fantastic horrors of Goya’s print series “The Disasters of War” are reflected in Charles Edwards’s gloomy, dun-colored sets. There is little bright color in this production, reflecting the sensibility of the grim story. On entering the theater, the audience sees a huge stage curtain covered with blackish images of pain, suffering, and bitterness. Before a single note is played, viewers will be aware that they are not about to see an opera with a sense of humor.
The Lyric Opera orchestra, under the masterful directing of Italian maestro Marco Armiliato, rises beautifully to the challenge of playing one of the most powerful and emotional scores in opera. The technical credits all deserve applause, including Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costume designs, the revival lighting design by Chris Maravich, and wigmaster and makeup designer Sarah Hatten. Additional salutes go to chorus master Michael Black and fight director Nick Sandys.
“Il Trovatore” is the middle piece in Verdi’s great trilogy bookended by “Rigoletto,” seen last season, and “La Traviata”, coming early in 2019. “Rigoletto” is the better opera book-wise, and it was sung magnificently, but the vocal strengths of “Il Trovatore” deserve an honorable place at the table. If “La Traviata” matches its two predecessors in musical excellence, then local opera lovers can consider themselves truly blessed. Singingwise, it doesn’t get any better than this!
The show gets a rating of
“Il Trovatore” will be performed December 3 and 6 at 7 p.m. and December 9 at 2 p.m. at the Lyric Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive. For information, call 312 332 2244 or visit www.lyricopera.org.
Contact Dan at:ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com November 2018
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