Review: Verdi’s New Champion – Nicola Luisotti’s Transformative “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera, October 4, 2009

Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” was the San Francisco Opera’s choice for the opening night of its 2009-2010 season. It met all of the criteria that any operatic management would hope its season opener would have – a gala cast, each member at the top of his or her form, performing a popular work in a distinguished production.  (See my review of San Francisco Opera’s Opening Night at Lyrical Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera September 11, 2009.)

But there was even more riding on this particular opening night than simply putting on the ritz for an audience that contained a significant percentage of the opera company’s patrons and contributors. First, the performance was conducted by the San Francisco Opera’s new music director, Nicola Luisotti. Second, the 2009-2010 season is wholly the responsibility of General Director David Gockley, who took over a company at the beginning of 2006 that many regarded as artistically damaged by a predecessor who thought iconoclastic German production styles would find favor with Northern California audiences.

In the early years of his administration, Gockley, as chronicled by this website, was able to achieve some of his announced goals. One of these was the restoration of performance standards for the Italian repertory.  Unquestionably, Gockley  revitalized San Francisco Opera’s connection with the works of Giacomo Puccini with the presentation of a canon of successful Puccini performances, starring such luminaries as Karita Mattila, Mischa Didyk, Angela Gheorghiu, Piotr Beczala, Patricia Racette, Carlo Ventre and Lado Ataneli, to be enhanced a few days after opening night with Puccini’s “Trittico” with an invariably strong cast, led by Racette, Paolo Gavanelli and Ewa Podles, with other delights from the Tuscan maestro announced or in planning for the future.

With San Francisco Opera’s “House of Puccini” laurels firmly in place, the most obvious repair work needed in the Italian repertory are the operas of Verdi. (The bel canto and non-Puccini verismo operas need attention also, but Verdi must be put right before much else is attempted.)

Signficantly, Gockley has chosen Verdi operas to open three of the four seasons (“Ballo in Maschera” and “Simon Boccanegra” were the 2006 and 2008 selections) and the choice of “Trovatore” in David McVicar’s production conducted by Luisotti with a stellar cast seemed praiseworthy.

A reader of my review of the opening night will see that I, as I expected I would, greatly enjoyed the performance. However, I was quite aware that I was hearing a quite different “Trovatore” than what I regard as simply “world class” (by which I mean a group of artists recognized throughout the world as among the best in their roles, sung in an opera house with high standards with an excellent orchestra and chorus, with appropriate sets and costumes.)

Therefore, I looked forward to attending a second performance, with a new principal (Quinn Kelsey) singing the role of Count di Luna, replacing the much esteemed Dmitri Hvorostovsky, from an orchestra seat with sight lines that permitted a full view of Luisotti’s extraordinary conducting style.

Luisotti, the Revolutionary

The first thing that a person familiar with the traditional seating arrangements of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra would have noticed is that the orchestra has been rearranged radically for this “Trovatore”. The kettle drums, for example, are moved from their distant outpost to the conductor’s far right to a position much nearer the conductor, on the back wall of the orchestra’s center right. The French horns, that in the past are located in a brass section in front of the kettle drums and the remainder of the percussion section,  are now in the back row of center left.

Orchestra seats are repositioned, of course, when you move from a Wagner performance to one of Mozart’s, but such intermingling of sections in an opera requiring a “standard size” orchestra at once suggests a conductor who has thought through exactly how he wants “Trovatore” to sound and has grasped that the acoustics of this giant opera house favor someone who knows how to produce the right balance of orchestra, chorus and principal singers.

But Luisotti is approaching “Trovatore” with something much more revolutionary than creating new seat mates among the orchestra’s instrumentalists. He has developed an approach to opera that divides an operatic performance into hundreds of individual phrases, each with its own conducting style.

(I am well aware that this website has readers all over the world, many of whom will have re-read the immediately preceding paragraph to try to figure out what it could possibly mean. Perhaps a DVD can be developed that shows both the opera performance and what he is doing in the pit that might better illuminate my point. But I will try to explain how Luisotti conducts “Trovatore”, realizing that I am  bound by the limitations of the English language.)

Every conductor I had seen previously either uses a baton or uses his hands to signal the orchestra, chorus, and principals as to what each should be doing at that point in time. Luisotti will sometimes use his baton, sometimes will conduct with his hands, sometimes will make circles with his arms, sometimes (as during the “Anvil Chorus”) will keep his arms at his side and make rhythmic gestures with his head. When Sondra Radvanovsky’s Leonora was singing a rhythmic passage, Luisotti’s arms were outstretched with only his fingers moving in a pulsating motion.

For another passage he might hold his baton clutched to his side. Often, when the singer is uttering a phrase that Luisotti wants the audience to think about (e. g., when Manrico in the final act jumps to the conclusion that Leonora has bought Manrico’s release with sexual favors) Luisotti relinquishes control of the moment to the principal who decides at what pace to sing the phrase.

[Below: Conductor Nicola Luisotti; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

For those who saw John Treleaven play Siegfried in the forging scene in the Los Angeles Opera “Siegfried”, it will be recalled that the sword was forged symbolically through nothing more than a series of gestures with arms stretched up into the air. There was an equivalent moment in the “Trovatore” orchestra pit in which Luisotti’s arms were stretched in the air making arm gestures quite like those of Treleaven’s Siegfried.

Even if the description of Luisotti’s conducting seems lighthearted, it is important to stress that the outcome of the Luisotti conducting style is an extraordinary performance. The orchestra sound is wonderful, as is that of the chorus. (Members of the chorus have expressed their belief that they have never sounded so good as when Luisotti conducts, and Luisotti’s rapport with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra appears to be unlimited.) Furthermore, each of the principals is unbound from mechanistic styles of conducting to give attention and nuance to every individual phrase that they sing.

Verdi of the Golden West

Although San Francisco Opera has had successes in almost every corner of the operatic repertory, including French, Russian, Czech and contemporary opera, there are some operas it has historically done especially well. This website has referred to the company as a Center for Excellence for Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” as well as its being the “House of Puccini”.

However, what the world needs now is a Center for Excellence for Verdian opera. Such a Center should assemble talents capable of performing the taxing roles, and should approach the operas as masterworks rather than pitiable things to be trivialized in productions that seem determined that no one take most any of Verdi’s operas seriously. (There is a way to watch performances that poke fun at Verdian opera without feeling that one’s money has been wasted. Go to one of several Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.)

Four lead singers from the opening night performance sang again in the second “Trovatore” performance I attended. Sondra Radvanovsky (Leonora), Stephanie Blyhe (Azucena) and Marco Berti (Manrico), joined by the excellent Burak Bilgili as Ferrando, graced a stage previously trod by many of the most illustrious artists in those roles over the past nine decades, and can be said to have continued the high San Francisco Opera performance standards.

This is an opera that particularly favors a great Leonora, and Radvanovsky exhibits all of the technique, artistic sensitivity, and luminosity of voice that this complex role requires. She is “almost famous” and if there is a way to take an option on her services for every year of the next decade or so, before the world recognizes her as the superstar she is, then I hope the San Francisco Opera management pursues such an option.

[Below: Leonora (Sondra Radvanovsky) decides to sacrifice her life to save the troubador; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

(For previous reviews of Radanovsky performances, see: Friedkin’s Miraculous, Radvanovsky’s Revelatory L.A. “Suor Angelica” – September 6, 2008 and The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s WNO “Lucrezia Borgia” – November 17, 2008.)

Similarly, Stephanie Blythe’s powerful mezzo voice is one that would lend itself well to other Verdian roles in this category. Marco Berti, though warmly applauded, still does not get quite the rispetto that I think he will achieve, should San Francisco get the opportunity to hear him in several more of the group of roles in which, say, the great tenor Carlo Bergonzi achieved personal successes.

[Below: Manrico (Marco Berti) is puzzled by a comment of Azucena (Stephanie Blythe); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The one member of the opening night cast that left before the end of the performance run was the elegant baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who withdrew from his last two performances “for personal reasons”. I am aware that some of the subscribers traded their tickets in order to be sure of seeing Hvorostovsky’s di Luna.

However, those who attended the October 4th performance were treated to the first San Francisco Opera Verdi performance of Hawai’ian baritone Quinn Kelsey (who last Fall had his San Francisco Opera debut as Marcello in Puccini’s “La Boheme”.)  Clearly a power baritone, Kelsey mastered the high tessitura of this iconic Verdian baritone part, and received an ovation for his Il balen. San Franciscans necessarily must share Hvorostovsky with the rest of world that long ago discovered him. With Kelsey, there may be a chance to secure the services of this excellent young baritone for future seasons. One must nurture the Verdi voices of the future to assure that in the Luisotti era that Verdi’s great operas will again achieve and ultimately exceed the high standards previously enjoyed at this house.

[ Below: Quinn Kelsey in his 2008 San Francisco Opera debut role of Marcello in Puccini’s “La Boheme”; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Most of the repertory operas such as “Il Trovatore” have a few smaller roles that must be cast. In a company with the vocal resources of the San Francisco Opera, these roles are often performed by the apprentice artists (Adler fellows) and in other cases by members of the permanent San Francisco Opera chorus. Since a large number of the Adler fellows upon graduation from their fellowships establish international careers, an opera goer should pay attention to these voices that have only a few lines to sing, because some may be the next decade’s Deborah Voigts, Ruth Anne Swensons, or Dolora Zajicks.

For example, Andrew Bidlack was noteworthy as Manrico’s comrade-in-arms Ruiz, a role sung at San Francisco Opera in 1981 by the soon-to-be heldentenor Gary Lakes. Renee Tatum was a creditable Inez, Leonora’s companion, a role that Elizabeth Bishop sang at the company in 1994. Thirteen years later she was singing Fricka in Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” at the Kennedy Center for Washington National Opera.

Former Adler fellow Bojun Knezevic sang the role of the Old Gypsy who, following the anvil chorus, sings the single line that the assembled gypsies should go search for food (of course, permitting the stage to be emptied so that Manrico and Azucena can have some time alone). Incredibly, that tiny role was sung by Daniel Sumegi in 1994, who played both of the Fafner roles and Hagen in the 2009 Seattle Opera production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”. In this year’s production the messenger who alerts Manrico to Leonora’s imminent induction into a convent is Chorister Dale Tracy, but in 1994, it was Mexican tenor and Adler fellow Alfredo Portilla, who now enjoys an international career.

“Il Trovatore”, from its triumphant first run of performances in 1853 to the present time, has always been one of the most popular and durable of Italian operas. Its success suggests that new heights of Verdi performance will be achieved at San Francisco Opera, under the watchful eye of Nicola Luisotti.