Review: Nicely Done “Il Trovatore” in Verdi-Friendly San Diego – April 4, 2007

Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, one of the great masterpieces of Italian opera, has, from its triumphant premiere 155 years ago, always been popular with the opera-going public, even as generations of detractors have developed their talking points on why we must not love the opera so much.

We have always been told this opera’s plot is difficult to understand and violent, although (as Charles Osborne pointed out 38 years ago in his The Complete Operas of Verdi) between the action on stage, and some very specific information about past events from Ferrando, Leonora and Azucena, it is a piece of cake to follow.

This, after all, is the 21st century, where the Academy Award for best film and best direction has gone to Scorsese’s wonderful film “The Departed”, where as many plot lines, backstories, surprise twists and acts of violence occur in five minutes as in all of “Trovatore”.

To some, the events in the opera, at least in the minds of 19th century souls, seemed unrealistic. In fact, Gilbert and Sullivan benefited almost as much financially as Verdi by more than one trip to the “Trovatore” parody well. (Exempli Gratia, Marco and Giuseppe are anti-monarchical, republican gondoliers – guess the G&S operetta – when they are informed that one of them was the crown prince of a small European country who was stolen and raised as the other’s brother. The throne is now vacant, but everyone must await the arrival of an old woman to identify which of the two brothers has inherited the throne.)

Regrettably, from our 21st century perspective, the “Trovatore” events do not seem so improbable, when perusing some of our day’s darker headlines. Stealing a child with malice and raising it as one’s own? Infanticide in an altered state of consciousness? Summary executions? These things actually happen in our world.

Even in the Viscaya region of Spain, where “Trovatore” takes place, and where Urgel’s forces are battling those of the Prince that di Luna serves, 21st century Viscayans are still known to play rough. Recall that the Aznar government of Spain spent several hours trying to determine whether it was Al Qaeda or Viscayan insurgents who bombed the Madrid subways.

Of course, no one ever asks us to worry about whether Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” is realistic, even though we know that if the kinds of events that take place between Don Giovanni’s invitation to the Stone Guest and their descent into hell were actually proven to have occurred, it would consume most of the space of the next several issues of Scientific American.

(Another curious charge against “Trovatore” is that it violates Aristotelian theatrical principles of time and space. Personally, though, I know at least a dozen Californians who apparently fail to organize their lives around even a single Aristotelian principle, and I suspect that there are hundreds more persons beyond them who are totally impervious to any of Aristotle’s teachings. This is what happens when high schools are allowed to drop their Classical Greek curricula.)

Since my “home” opera company is San Francisco’s, it has been a decade or so since I have seen a production of “Trovatore” that is worthy of Verdi’s memory. Four years ago, Seattle’s disastrous production was brought to San Francisco, but was poorly received and ultimately disavowed by the then San Francisco Opera general director, Pamela Rosenberg, who told the press she regretted not choosing a different production of that opera.

An obvious alternative would have been for her to have rented the Los Angeles Opera’s 1998 production, created by the Belgian set designer Benoit Dugardyn, in collaboration with the gifted British stage director, Stephen Lawless. Dugardyn sets of the many operas he has staged tend to the surreal, even Daliesque, and certainly demonstrate his comfort with the collections of the world’s great museums of modern art.

His “Trovatore” sets contain enough eccentricities that Rosenberg would have been happy, but with an integral part of the production being Lawless’ stage direction, that gives important weight to every word of the libretto, it would have provided San Franciscans with a reading of the opera that strayed not too far from Verdi’s intentions.

When the opportunity arose for me to attend San Diego Opera’s final performance of a four-night run of “Trovatore”, reviving the Dugardyn-Lawless production owned by the Los Angeles Opera and Washington National Opera, I jumped at the chance. Along with that production came the opportunity to attend live performances of five principal singers that I had never seen before.

As it happened, the originally scheduled Manrico was ill and was replaced by another artist, who after singing the first three performances, himself became indisposed. For the final performance, San Diego Opera director Ian Campbell was able to persuade the Michigan Opera Theatre to release from rehearsals of Puccini’s “Turandot” the honey-voiced dramatic tenor, Eduardo Villa.

The troubadour’s colleagues were played by an international quartet of promising Verdians. Italian soprano Paoletta Marrocu was the Leonora. (Collectors of Thomas Hampson DVDs will recognize Marrocu as the Lady Macbeth in the Zurich production of Verdi’s “Macbeth”. Hampson will introduce the Zurich production to San Francisco Opera this Fall, although Doina Dimitriu, rather than Marrocu, will be his Lady.) The Conte di Luna was Romanian baritone Alexandru Agache, the Azucena was sung by American mezzo Marianne Cornetti, and the Ferrando was Chinese bass Hao Jiang Tian.

Significantly, the conductor was Edoardo Mueller, who presided in 1980 at my very first performance of Verdi’s “Giovanna d’Arco”, with Adriana Maliponte, Luis Lima and Pablo Elvira, in San Diego’s Civic Theatre, which the San Diego Opera has used throughout its history.

Over the decades the Civic Theatre has been a place where great Verdian singing has been in evidence. I myself treasure memories of performances of Carlo Bergonzi, Christina Deutekom and Paul Plishka in Verdi’s “I Lombardi (1979); of June Anderson and Rosalind Plowright in Verdi’s “Il Corsaro” (1982), of Dame Joan Sutherland in Verdi’s “I Masnadieri” (1983), of Ferruccio Furlanetto in Verdi’s “Oberto” (1985), of Arlene Saunders in Verdi’s “Un Giorno di Regno” (1981), as well as more mainstream Verdi such as Sherrill Milnes in “Simon Boccanegra” (1984), Christina Deutekom, Kari Nurmela and Ezio Flagello in “Nabucco” (1981), and Dame Josephine Barstow in “Ballo in Maschera” (1982).

Comfortable in the knowledge that, unlike the opera companies of a couple of other cities on the Pacific Coast, the San Diego Opera has never set out to make a Verdi opera appear ridiculous, I attended my first Civic Theatre “Trovatore” in 27 years, the earlier one conducted by the late Calvin Simmons, leading a memorable performance with Martina Arroyo, Gemi Bini, and Juan Pons.

The Dugardyn “Trovatore” is a unit set, whose most distinctive features are very high black textured walls. As with several other productions made for the Los Angeles Opera, the walls are on curved tracks that permit frequent scene changes merely by repositioning the walls. In the interior walls there are some very tall apertures that can be opened or closed depending on the dictates of the scene (at least as envisioned by the stage director).

The stage floor contains a large number of openings into which swords can be and are stuck, so that in most scenes there there is the appearance of swords everywhere. Before the opera begins, we glimpse not only the swords but men lying down (dead or sleeping? – it turns out to be the latter) clad in chest-protective armor.

[Below: Ferrando (Hao Jiang Tian) surrounded by his retainers; edited image, based on photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

The sleeping soldiers are joined by their more wide awake comrades. The skills of Lighting Designer Joan Sullivan Genthe are employed as giant shadows of the arriving soldiers are cast upon the high black walls of the set, adding to the spookiness of the following scene.

The soldiers assemble to hear Ferrando’s exposition of important facts from the past (the kidnapping of the Count di Luna’s brother and finding a baby’s charred remains) and the present (the mysterious troubadour who is the count’s rival). Tian’s Ferrando was memorable, not just persuasively sung, but showing mastery of the art of delivering a ghost story as an operatic aria in the scariest way possible.

The walls then re-position themselves so that we see a larger space on the interior stage, representing the dark courtyard in which we hear the first of the cavatina-cabaletta combinations that I believe provide an essential structure in the architecture of this opera. Rossini had been the man to emulate and, if you could do it, excel in following the convention of composing two successive arias (cavatina and cabaletta), displaying different sentiments and emotions, that demonstrate both the technical vocal skills and dramatic abilities of the singers.

There are four such combinations, as I see it, that provide the backbone of “Trovatore” – one each for Leonora in the first and last acts, with another such combination for the Conte di Luna and one for Manrico. As far as I am concerned, the most masterful display of the convention was by Verdi in “Il Trovatore”. He abandoned the convention in his later operas.

As usually written, the cavatina part is a slower, quite lyrical section, but the ensuing cabaletta is a vocal showpiece, which usually follows the pattern of (1) a pretty energetic melody written to a passionate verse, followed by (2) a transitional piece (called the “stretta”) returning to (3) a repeat of (1), almost always to the identical words.

As interest grew through the decades in performing operas that were theatrically interesting, the “strettas” and the repeats of the verse of cabaletta were almost always cut, so that a “Trovatore” in the early 1950s (or the 1870s) would have the cavatina but only the first verse of the cabaletta. This is true of such illustrious recordings as that of Milanov and Bjoerling recording of the 1950s.

In the 1960s, complete operas began to be recorded, including the strettas and second cabaletta verses, but were almost never sung in live performances. (I have witnessed only a single exception to this convention, by Richard Margison, who, as Manrico, in the ill-fated 2002 San Francisco mounting of the Seattle production referred to above, did sing the original verse, took part in the stretta, and sang the repeat of the verse of “Di Quella Pira”.)

One of the local press members suggested that Maestro Mueller reverted to all of the traditional cuts heard in the historical recordings from the 1950s, but this was not true. Not only was the first part of Leonora’s important final act cabaletta “Tu vedrai” restored, but other smaller musical phrases in the opera cut in the old recordings were performed also.

With Tian making a fine impression as the principal basso, Marrocu signalled that the soprano territory was in good hands (and voice) with the earlier of her two cavatina-cabaletta tours de force. We enter into the murky courtyard created by the repositioning of the walls. In a wall at center stage right two doorways open, when slabs of the wall are lifted vertically, and a tree branch descends from the sky to suggest outdoor foliage. Wandering through the abundant swords stuck in the courtyard grounds, she handles both “Tacea la notte placido” and “Di Tale Amor” competently. Although not a particularly large voice, it was right-sized for the San Diego Opera’s friendly Civic Theatre.

In a Lawless innovation in staging, Leonora drops a handkerchief, obviously intended for Manrico, the lute-playing object of her affections. But in the darkness, Manrico’s rival, the Count, picks it up instead. For a moment Agache’s di Luna imagines it is for him, but the sound of Villa’s Manrico, serenading Marrocu’s Leonora, causes him to grip one of the swords as he mutters “Io fremo”. But the misbegotten handkerchief has reinforced the confusion that will be soon be created by Leonora’s mistaken rush into the arms of the wrong suitor.

Verdi’s music propels into a superbly balanced soprano-tenor-baritone trio, in which Manrico’s emotions shift from anger to joy and di Luna’s from joy to anger, as Leonora makes it clear her initial embrace of the Count is a case of mistaken identity in the dark. The trio ends with both men angry and embattled and Leonora terrified.

We have now heard all of the principals except the mezzo, and know that this has been an extraordinary first couple of scenes of “Trovatore”, no matter what we get in the gypsy scenes.

Predictably, the walls shift again and the swords that were such prominent features of di Luna’s courtyard, now, bathed in blue light, become features of the gypsy encampment. Openings appear when several portions of the wall ascend vertically. Through these apertures crawl some of the gypsies, while others find places to sit within the wall openings.

In the Lawless “Trovatore” the gypsies show the same penchant for cruelty as the Count’s men have shown, that we have already heard about in the story about the murder at the stake of Azucena’s mother. The opera’s signature gypsy chorus dispenses with anvils and instead forces a captive to defend himself in the rhythm of the chorus’ metallic strikes, with one sword against four gypsy swordsmen wielding their weapons from four separate directions.

[Below: Marianne Cornetti as Azucena; edited image, based on photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

As Azucena sings “Stride la vampa” she pulls a hand-cart onstage, on which lays Manrico, badly wounded and left for dead in his battle with di Luna. As Cornetti’s Azucena takes center stage, the other gypsies depart, back through the wall apertures, to the more distant reaches of center stage. There they continue their business with each other, until Azucena’s second aria, when the openings close leaving all but the two principals alone in center stage. When Azucena sings the Italian equivalent of “Avenge Me”, stage fires shoot up.

Villa’s Manrico, like Ernani from an earlier Verdi opera, communicates by means of the blowing of a horn, and through such a device (and some subsequent human intelligence reported to him), he learns of the decision of the disconsolate Leonora to enter a nunnery and of the Count di Luna to intervene, not only to prevent such an occurrence, but to win her by force.

This leads to sequential, unexpected acts and reactions alternating between di Luna and Manrico that consume all the remaining portion of the opera. First, di Luna and his henchmen dispatch the second of the foursome of great cavatina-cabaletta pairings. It begins with the di Luna’s sumptious aria, “Il balen” and continues through what I call as the “hide and seek” cabeletta, in which di Luna’s men discuss the places they plan to hide before the confrontation with the nuns who have begun the processes of inducting Leonora. Soon di Luna interrupts with the forceful and melodic phrase that ends the cabaletta.

In one of those touches that show that the Dugardyn-Lawless team takes interest in the story they have been commissioned to present, one of the walls at stage left opens to show Leonora at prayer with Inez and three nuns, one of whom is cutting Leonora’s hair. In the interior of the nunnery, a large cross is suspended. As di Luna approaches, he crosses himself and participates in a prayer.

But before di Luna can effect the abduction of Leonora, Manrico who all parties assumed was dead, appears. The nuns clutch the walls and di Luna’s retainers turn away. Then the doors open again, and Manrico’s warriors arrive, taking Leonora with them to Castellor, itself under siege, as di Luna rages.

Even in this fastest-paced of the great Verdi operas, there are two famous set pieces for the chorus. Since the Anvil Chorus was restaged as a sword-fight to the death, we were right to expect a non-traditional setting for the Soldier’s Chorus. We were treated to a choreographed presentation of swords and displays of various maneuvers by the chorus lined up in rows (and discreetly spaced for safety), the front row containing the experts at sword-play that also were the centerpiece of the Anvil Chorus.

Then the main action of the scene, the capture of Azucena, leads to, first, Cornetti’s memorable presentation of the last of Azucena’s three arias, and then a truly exciting trio between herself, Agache and Tian. The soldiers have seized her hand cart, so they force her onto it with di Luna himself restraining her as they are pulled off stage.

At Castellor, openings in the bare walls show preparations for the seige. Here, Villa’s Manrico beautifully sang the greatest of the 19th century tenor cavatinas, “Ah si, ben mio” and, as the walls closed in around him, the most famous of the tenor cabalettas “Di quella pira”.

[Below: Leonora (Paoletta Marrocu) appears to submit to the will of the Conte di Luna (Alexandru Agache); edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

We are now in the final act, beginning with the Leonora’s final great cavatina-cabaletta, followed by an effective scene, showing them that both sides in this violent war are capable of inhumanity. The scene opens on di Luna’s prisoners, in an impressive tableau, with a cross sideways on the ground with a broken arm. Marrocu and Agache face off again, each with sword in hand (that one idea a bit too surreal for my taste).

Then, in a somewhat controversial final idea, Manrico and Azucena are in separate cells, both lit when they sing duets together, but with only Manrico’s lit when the suicidal Leonora arrives to persuade Manrico to leave. After the final trio between Leonora, Manrico and di Luna, the latter sends Manrico to the block (who walks outs of the cell unescorted, leaving di Luna with his mother and Leonora’s body, as if, like Ernani in Verdi’s early opera, he is simply resigned to his fate). Then Azucena awakens to explain to the totally demoralized di Luna why he has made yet another fatal error.

The Dugardyn-Lawless staging of “Trovatore” contains enough non-traditional elements that a veteran Verdian will find some things to quibble with, but, as a general statement, it was a superb reading of the opera, of which the San Diego Opera should be proud.

For relevant reviews of Verdi opera performances, see:

Zurich and San Francisco: A Tale of Two “Forzas”

Hvorostovsky, Guryakova, Berti Excel in Houston “Simon Boccanegra” – November 4, 2006