Review: Seattle’s “Trovatore”, Standing Ovations for Antonello Palombi, Lisa Daltirus – January 16, 2010

Over the past year or so, I have on various occasions presented evidence that refutes the cliche that there no longer are opera singers capable of singing the principal roles in Giuseppe Verdi’s operas. However, one concedes that, like the music dramas of Wagner, Verdi operas can add levels of complexity to the already stressful tasks of producing opera.

Verdi wrote most of the major roles in his operas for big, mature voices with wide ranges. Some artists are born with the requisite voices, but for many artists one’s voice is not Verdi-ready (if it becomes so at all) until well into a career. While the argument cannot be advanced that Puccini operas are easier to sing, “Tosca” and “Butterfly” each have three principal roles, whereas “Trovatore” and “Aida” have four, and one could argue that a wider number of vocal types can sing Scarpia or Sharpless or the Puccini heroines than, say, “Trovatore’s” Count di Luna and Leonora.

Thus, Verdi operas are somewhat more difficult to produce than operas with fewer specialized requirements for their singers. One is the complexity of the “backup” plan if a major singer becomes ill or injured. When an impresario casts one of the dramatic Verdi roles, either a cover must also be engaged or there must be some plan to assure that another singer can be found somewhere to step in in an emergency. The singers in a company’s Young Artists program, for example, may plausibly cover the lead roles in, say, a Mozart  opera, but it is a rarity to find Leonoras, Manricos and di Lunas among a company’s singing apprentices.

We also have been in a period of massive experimentation by “concept directors” who, as part of a movement to counteract decades of supposedly mindless “stand and sing” performances by opera stars, feel compelled to shift time periods and reconstruct plots, supposedly to make the operas more interesting to audiences. Verdi’s operas have yielded few clear theatrical successes by those directors who wish to depart from the composer’s intent, and often have enraged the Verdi operas’ core audiences.

Yet one observes that the relative neglect of Verdi in recent years is in the process of reversal.  One reason is the calendar. During the year 2010 most opera company managements are busily fine-tuning details of their 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. They certainly know which operas they expect to present, and almost surely two composers (Verdi and Britten) will be represented in almost every company’s repertory, and a third (Wagner) in that of the major international companies. Opera-goers will celebrate the bicentennials of the births of the Italian and German composers and the centennial of that of Britain’s Britten.

In preparation for these events companies will be “brushing up their Verdi” over the next three years. For instance, Seattle Opera has devoted its 2009-2010 season to a Verdi celebration with three of his operas (“Traviata”, “Trovatore” and “Falstaff”) representing the familiar works in its four opera season (the fourth opera is a world premiere).

The Seattle Opera is one of those companies that engages “double casts” for operas – both being present throughout the opera’s run. There are obvious advantages to such an arrangement, that offset the travel expenses and housing costs of multiple artists. Each cast is guaranteed a specific number of performances, and one expects that management has worked out a “graciously stepping in for an indisposed colleague” contingency plan for ill singers that uses the talents of the other artist who knows the staging and is prepared for the role.

A major advantage of double casting for the world of opera is that it increases the performance opportunities for the large number of accomplished opera singers that currently is available in the United States. Usually it is the first cast that the opera reviewer sees, although I try when possible to review both casts, as I did last year with Florida Grand Opera’s production of Delibes’ “Lakme” and the Los Angeles Opera’s performances of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” and Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”.

Regrettably, I was only able to schedule Seattle’s first cast, but this provided the opportunity to see a soprano (Lisa Daltirus) and tenor (Antonello Palombi) who have had outstanding reviews at regional opera houses throughout the United States, and other artists either new to me or appearing in roles in which I had not seen them as yet.

[Below: Leonora (Lisa Daltirus) makes clear that she loves only Manrico (Antonello Palombi); edited image, based on a Rosarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

There was yet another reason for traveling to Seattle – to see the latest thoughts on “Trovatore” by stage director Jose Maria Condemi, who successively mounted “Ernani”, Verdi’s earlier opera most akin to “Trovatore” at the Lyric Opera. (For my review, see: Licitra, Radvanovsky Gleam in Lyric Opera’s Glorious New “Ernani”: Chicago, November 5, 2009.)

Condemi is one of the younger generation of operatic stage directors, whose work finds the opportunity for interesting innovations in familiar operas, even while presenting the story absolutely straight. (For reviews of previous Condemi productions, see: Forbis, Voigt Brilliant as Lyric’s Tristan and Isolde – Chicago, February 24, 2009 and House of Puccini: Striking San Francisco Opera “Tosca” with Pieczonka, Ataneli and Ventre – June 14, 2009.)

In conversations I have had with him (as interviews soon to be published on this website) it is clear that he shares my view that the story of “Il Trovatore” does not deserve its reputation for opaqueness. (See my thoughts on the opera’s dramatic cogency, for instance, in my reviews: Nicely Done “Il Trovatore” in Verdi-Friendly San Diego – April 4, 2007 and Lyrical Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera September 11, 2009.) Rather than dismissing the opera’s libretto as a string of absurdities to be ignored at will by stage directors, Condemi clearly has given thought to each line of the text.

Condemi also had another assignment – to direct a “Trovatore” that utilized the stage costumes that John Conklin had designed for a controversial Seattle Opera production earlier in the decade, while avoiding use of Conklin’s sets from that production. In searching the land for sets to match the costumes, it  ultimately was decided to rent sets designed by Allen Moyer for Minnesota Opera, thus creating a “hybrid” production in which Condemi’s ideas were organized around Conklin costumes and Moyer stage settings. In Condemi’s view, the current economic environment suggests that savvy use of components from previous productions is an artistic endeavor that must be mastered.

This reviewer applauds the strategy of reusing existing production resources, but has reservations about the particular result. The Seattle Opera has a spacious stage, and Moyer’s “Trovatore” sets use only the central part of it, constricting what is visible to an interior image bordered by what represents a broken gold picture frame. Black curtains hide the vast unused parts of the Seattle stage.

Nor have I been a particular fan of Moyer’s ideas in any of the half dozen or so of reviews of his work I have posted to date. That said, the sets do provide the spaces needed to implement Condemi’s quite original approach to “Trovatore”. It is Condemi’s stage direction and the fine singing and acting of the principals that make this “Trovatore” one worth traveling some distance to see.

[Below: Ferrando (Arthur Woodley) relates the story of the disappearance of the old count’s infant son; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

After the orchestral prelude, conducted by Yves Abel,  Ferrando (Arthur Woodley) provides the Count’s superstitious retainers with his tales of the past horrors inflicted on their side by the area’s gypsies and their allies among the Vizcayan rebels. As the retainers sing of witches a red glow encircles a giant moon.

Lisa Daltirus enters, with her story of an encounter at a tournament with a mysterious champion who has subsequently wooed her as a troubadour. Daltirus, displaying a spinto voice with a secure and pleasing vibrato, competently tackled her first double aria Tacea la notte placida and Di tale amor, from the start establishing that she has both the coloratura and dramatic vocal weight that a first rate Leonora must possess. The two arias are a test for a soprano’s vocal control, tonal purity and expressiveness, and Daltirus proved that she herself is a champion.

One of Daltirus’ recent successes was as Bess in the alternate cast of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” seen at Lyric Opera in late Fall, 2008. I had attended and reviewed the first night’s cast, whose Porgy (Gordon Hawkins) was this performance’s Count di Luna. Daltirus’ coloratura fireworks for Di tale amor having been vociferously approved by the Seattle audience, the action resumes as Daltirus’ Leonora mistakes Hawkins’ di Luna as her champion, Manrico.

The latter, played by Antonello Palombi, appears in time to be offended by Leonora’s unintended romantic gesture to his rival. Hawkins, Daltirus, and Palombi commence the searing trio that begins the unremittingly violent personal battle between Manrico and di Luna – brothers unknown to each other – that destroys Manrico, his intended bride Leonora and Azucena, the only mother he had known.

To a great extent, the music of the scene with Ferrando and the retainers and the first scene with Leonora’s arias, then her trio with the rival men predetermine how the stage will be blocked, but a stage director has more opportunity for creativity in the subsequent scene in the gypsy encampment. Condemi chooses to open the scene with Azucena (Malgorzata Walewska) alone, a single anvil standing to her right.

The first sung refrains of the anvil chorus then become the anthem for the chorus to assemble on stage. (When it is time for them to leave, Verdi leaves the director no choice. A gypsy announces they are all needed to search for food, and the stage empties except for the two principals in the scene.)

Condemi’s staging of the gypsy camp, reminds one of his staging of the bandit’s camp in Chicago’s “Ernani” production. He gives each of the choristers a personality and augments the scene with a boy and girl practicing fighting with a knife, with Manrico acting as a kind of coach and referee, clearly able to enforce order in the gypsy band wherever necessary. (This production’s theme of Manrico’s skill with the knife as a weapon sets up an opportunity for a humorous surprise –  a rarity in staging “Trovatore” – later in the opera’s first half.)

Walewska was a dramatically intense Azucena, particularly effective in the upper part of Azucena’s vocal range in her three big arias, as well as her several duets with Manrico and di Luna. One bit of stagecraft that sometimes is interesting, is the use of grills in the stage floor that can be lit for various purposes, most often (but not invariably) to represent Azucena’s terrifying memories of her mother being burned alive. (Her aria Condotta ell’era in ceppi is accompanied by a reddening of the sky) .

It was in her first extended duets with Manrico that we began fully to appreciate the strength and beauty of Palombi’s voice – a true tenore di forza.

[Below: Manrico (Antonello Palombi) left, enforces order in the gypsy’s camp while Azucena (Malgorzata Walewska) recalls the horror of her mother’s death by fire; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of  the Seattle Opera.]

Manrico’s aide de camp Ruiz (in a commendable performance by Leodigario del Rosario) alerts Manrico to Leonora’s decision to enter a convent. The scene changes to the convent’s front, where Hawkins creditably and with convincing stage presence performed di Luna’s great aria Il balen and his sonorous lines of the following cabaletta that he shares with his men.

The convent itself is represented by a one of this “hybrid” production’s more impressive visual ideas, with the nuns forming a line at the top of the ancient convent’s edifice while the principals sort out the confused state of affairs in front. Here Condemi works his theme of Manrico the gypsy accomplished at knife-fighting, but at the moment when di Luna believes he and his men have the numbers and strength to prevail, Manrico’s men arrive and provide Manrico with a pistol in place of his knife. As mentioned above, it is a rarity for a stage director to introduce even the briefest flash of  humor into “Trovatore”.

[Below: Manrico (Antonello Palombi, left) arrives to prevent Leonora (Lisa Daltirus) from either entering the convent or becoming the captive of the Count di Luna (Gordon Hawkins, right) as Inez (Vira Slywotzky, center back) looks on; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Manrico’s counterpart to the great double arias that Leonora sings in the first and final acts is the greatest of Italian tenor double arias, Ah si, ben mio! and Di quella pira. Palombi demonstrated he has the both the power and vocal expressiveness to navigate these two hallmarks of the tenor repertory – softly and sweetly relating to his bride his prescience that he may die in the upcoming battle, then ending the act with his ferocious determination to save his mother from her unexpected capture by his enemy. Between these two arias, he and Daltirus share an affecting duet, during which Palombi’s Manrico presents Daltirus’ Leonora with a wedding ring.

In the next scene, Ruiz leads Leonora to the building in which the captured Manrico is imprisoned. In the prison’s exterior, two corpses of Manrico’s executed comrades-in-arms hang, one eerily silhouetted by the full moon, reminding me of Amelia’s scene at the gibbet in Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera”. In this gruesome place, Daltirus sings Leonora’s final double aria, D‘amor sull’ali rosee and Tu vedrai.

If there had been any lingering doubts about Daltirus’ emergence as an important Leonora, they were swept away in her masterful presentation of these two taxing bravura arias. But Leonora is only warming up, with her duet with Vivra! Contende il giubilo offering still another opportunity to show her vocal prowess, having persuaded the Count to save Manrico.

In this act, Condemi’s deft stage touches are abundant. Even in the Count’s domain, he has paperwork to do to effect an execution. When Leonora offers her body in exchange for his granting Manrico clemency, the Count takes his leave to obtain the key that she must use for Manrico’s unschackling.

(I know few reviewers of “Trovatore” performances lapse into comments on George Gershwin. Even so I found it striking, having grown up in a period  that generally regarded Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” as not a “real opera”,  to see a recent Porgy and a recent Bess for Chicago’s Lyric Opera onstage as di Luna and Leonora, two of the notoriously difficult roles in the Verdi canon. It needs to  be recorded over and over again that “Porgy’s”  principal roles require opera singers of the first rank, like Hawkins and Daltirus.)

[Below: the Count di Luna (Gordon Hawkins) accepts the proposition of Leonora (Lisa Daltirus) that he free Manrico in exchange for her body; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

For the final scene, now decorated by five hanging corpses, Azucena rocks constantly before another light grill as if moving in and out of delirium. Further literal readings of the text by Condemi add to the storyline. When Manrico exclaims to Azucena, “What light is this?”, Leonora appears out of the darkness carrying a lantern. That she is able to  produce the keys to his shackles – something a bit more mysterious than making her way into his jail cell – Manrico’s suspicion at Leonora’s possible transgressions and his Spanish code of honor (which always must be observed, even if it means, as for Ernani, in his self-destruction) is aroused.

Condemi’s greatest insight is in how to play the strange ending in which so much action occurs in the last 37 bars of music. Instead of Manrico being led out of the jail to his execution, di Luna summons the executioners into the cell who kill Manrico before Azucena’s eyes, making more plausible di Luna’s sudden realization of the horror of his act at her cry that he has killed his brother.

The Seattle Opera audience regaled the principals with enthusiastic applause. When Daltirus stepped forward for her curtain call, she was greeted with a standing ovation (continued for Palombi) resulting in her very emotional reaction to the audience’s praise.

As one contemplates the efforts to assemble casts and stage directors for the inevitable increase in Verdi performances over the next several years, one can look to enlist Seattle Opera’s opening night cast and its stage director Jose Maria Condemi.