Review: Golden Age Verdi Singing for Lyric Opera’s “Il Trovatore” – Chicago, October 27, 2014

For a revival of Sir David McVicar’s effective production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, the Lyric Opera of Chicago enlisted a stellar cast, led by South Korean tenor di forza Yonghoon Lee  in the lead role, Amber Wagner as his sweetheart Leonora, Stephanie Blythe as his mother Azucena, and Quinn Kelsey as his rival and unknown brother, the Count di Luna. Andrea Silvestrelli as Ferrando, the leader of the Count’s retinue, rounded out the five principals.

The five artists collectively gave a display of Verdi power singing that gives a lie to the often heard remark that one can’t properly cast Verdi’s operas in our current day.

Yonghoon Lee’s Manrico

One of the greatest and most demanding of Verdi’s dramatic tenor parts, the role of Manrico provides more evidence that Yonghoon Lee is an exciting force in the weightier tenor roles of the Italian repertory. In McVicar’s production, he even gets to show his acting skills.

Much of his recent work has been concentrated in Europe [see my reviews of two of his performances: True Verismo: Nello Santi Conducts Yonghoon Lee, Martina Serafin, Lucio Gallo in “Andrea Chénier” – Zurich Opera, May 4, 2014 and Yonghoon Lee’s Calaf Tames Theorin’s Time-Traveling Turandot – Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, November 28, 2012]

His delivery of Verdi’s strong melodic line may, at times, strike one as indulgent, but overall he is like a reborn Golden Age tenor having returned to the opera stage.

[Below: Yonghoon Lee as Manrico; edited image of a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


Andrea Silvestrelli’s Ferrando

In the opera’s first scene, Ferrando relates the first part of the backstory – the suspected bewitchment of the old count’s younger son, who is kidnapped by a gypsy who is apprehended and burned at the stake. The count’s men discover in the embers of the stake the charred remains of an infant, whom they assume is the old count’s kidnapped son.

Silvestrelli’s sonorous basso and the men of the Lyric Opera chorus masterfully presented this stirring beginning to “Trovatore”, which provides us with two key plot points going forward – that the deceased Old Count always believed his son was still alive and that Ferrando was certain he would be able to identify the gypsy’s daughter if he were ever to see her again.

[Below: Ferrando (Andrea Silvestrelli) briefs his men on what has gone on before; edited image based on a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


Amber Wagner’s Leonora

As Leonora, soprano Amber Wagner effortlessly assayed the heights of a dramatic soprano’s range, displaying the sustained melodic line characteristic of this classic Verdi role.

Demonstrating that she belongs in any list of the world’s great Verdian sopranos, she brilliantly performed both the first and last act cavatina-cabaletta double arias. As a bonus for the Chicago audience that received her performance enthusiastically, the usually omitted second verse of her first act cabaletta Di tale amor was restored for her.

[Below: Amber Wagner as Leonora; edited image, based on a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


Stephanie Blythe’s Azucena

The second part of the opera takes place in the gypsy encampment where the gypsy men perform the Anvil Chorus, the most universally familiar music from “Il Trovatore”.

Stephanie Blythe, one of two cast members (with Quinn Kelsey) that also appeared in San Francisco Opera’s 2009 mounting of the McVicar production, again made a strong impression as Azucena, who raised Manrico.

[Below: the men work their anvils in the gypsy encampment; edited image, based on a Robert Kusel photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


In Stride la vampa, the second great exposition area that relates another perspective of the events on the fatal evening that the old count’s son disappeared.

Blythe, acknowledged as one of the greatest and most powerful mezzo voices performing today, gave an impressive vocal performance.

She also projected a woman who murdered her own son in a psychotic moment (seeing one’s mother being burnt at the stake might well unhinge one). Yet, Azucena also raised the count’s son to manhood, instilling in him the musical and social skills to be a troubadour and to catch the eye of a lady of the royal court.

[Below: Stephanie Blythe as Azucena; edited image, based on a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


Quinn Kelsey’s Count di Luna

Five years ago, I reported on one of the early appearances by the young baritone when he succeeded Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the role in the final performances of the McVicar production of “Il Trovatore” in San Francisco (referenced later in this review).

My assessment that he held great promise as a major Verdi baritone has been confirmed by performances as Germont [Review: San Francisco Opera’s Pérez, Costello, Kelsey Lineup Leads to High Scoring “Traviata” – July 5, 2014]as Amonasro [An Admirable “Aida”: Hui He, Berti, Smirnova, Kelsey Are Impressive – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 15, 2012], and as Ezio [“Attila” in Italy with a Phenomenal Ferruccio Furlanetto – San Francisco Opera, June 12, 2012],

[Below: Count di Luna (Quinn Kelsey, center) is surrounded and retained by his enemy’s henchmen; edited image, based on a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. ]


Verdi baritone roles are noted for the vocal strength they require in the upper part of the baritone range, and Kelsey’s voice is perfectly positioned for these demanding assignments.

Kelsey proved his dominance in this part with a beautifully sung Il balen. In yet another welcome example of opening a traditional cut, Kelsey sang the second verse of the accompanying cabaletta (joined by the men of the chorus as his retinue).

For my interview with the Hawai’ian tenor, see: Rising Stars: An Interview With Quinn Kelsey.

[Below: the Count di Luna (Quinn Kelsey, left) is furious when he comprehends that Leonora (Amber Wagner, right, on floor) for his rival Manrico (Yonghoon Lee, right, above); edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


Sir David McVicar’s Production

I had described elements of the McVicar production in two reviews of performances at the San Francisco Opera that utilized the Lyric Opera’s sets [see Lyrical Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera September 11, 2009 and Verdi’s New Champion: Nicola Luisotti’s Transformative “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera, October 4, 2009.]

As with every McVicar production on which I have reported to date, every detail of his staging is interesting and relates to the text of the opera with which he works. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he integrates such showstoppers as the Anvil Chorus and Soldier’s Chorus into the storyline, whereas some other directors simply stop the action to create an irrelevant divertissement.

An imposing single set that is placed on a turntable moves from the castle grounds to the gypsies’ turf to the nunnery to the Castellor fortress seamlessly, providing a unity to all the parts of this work. The McVicar sets should be considered a “world treasure” among opera productions.

[Below: Manrico’s troops clash with those of the Count di Luna as both are determined that Leonora will not enter a nunnery; edited image, based on a Robert Kusel photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


Others in the cast were J’Nai Bridges as Leonora’s maidservant Inez, Jonathan Johnson as Ruiz, Kenneth Nichols as An Old Gypsy and Timothy Bradley as a Messenger.

Asher Fisch conducted the Lyric Opera Orchestra with authority.


I recommend this production and extraordinary cast enthusiastically both to the veteran operagoer and to a person new to opera. This  power cast for one of opera’s greatest works, that would be worth traveling a long distance to see.