The Los Angeles Opera opened its 2021-22 season with Mexican director Francisco Negrin’s production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, returning to the Los Angeles Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion after a Covid-19 pandemic cancellation of its 2020-21 season. I reviewed a live Sunday matinee telecast of the fourth in the series of six performances.
Limmie Pulliam’s Manrico
Missouri tenor Limmie Pulliam performed the role of Manrico, the troubadour of the opera’s title, displaying a richly resonant spinto voice. Although it was fully evident that Pulliam possesses the vocal power that the role requires, the afternoon’s most memorable moments came during the great third act aria Ah si, ben mio. In it, Pulliam perfectly balanced the softly sung, vocally controlled beginning adagio with the lyrical beauty of the aria’s famous middle part Fra quegli estremi aneliti.
[Below: Manrico (Limmie Pulliam, right)is at the side of his mother, Azucena (Raehann Bryce-Davis, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Raehann Bryce-Davis’ Azucena
The performance of Texas mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis as the Romani woman Azucena, was extraordinary. Still early in her career, Bryce-Davis has amassed worldwide recognition through wins at prestigious European competitions and, in the United States, the receipt of the George London award.
Bryce-Davis’ wide vocal range includes sufficient power in the lower register to assay the roles traditionally associated with the contralto voice, with a brilliant top that Bryce-Davis used for Azucena’s arias and duets
[Below: Raehann Bryce-Davis as Azucena; edited mage, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Verdi was known to have been so fond of the Romani elder Azucena that he had considered naming the opera after her. In Negrin’s production, Azucena is not only a dominating presence in the three Verdi scenes in which she appears, but is assigned extra-textual duties throughout the opera.
Guanqun Yu’s Leonora
Chinese soprano Guanqun Yu proved to be an accomplished Verdian, impressively performing both sets of Leonora’s iconic arias. Both of her cavatinas – her dreamy first act Tacea la notte placida and fourth act D’amor sull’ali rosee displayed Yu’s vocal expressiveness and seemingly effortless breath control. She was the master of the coloratura fireworks of Di tale amor, che dirsi, her first act cabaletta.
[Below: Guanqun Yu as Leonora; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
This is the fourth important role I have seen Yu perform at the Los Angeles Opera, preceded by the Countess Almaviva in two separate operas [Review: Los Angeles Opera Launches Ambitious New Production of “Ghosts of Versailles” – February 7, 2015 and Review: New Faces for “Marriage of Figaro” – Los Angeles Opera, March 21, 2015] and Vitellia [Review: Ovations for L. A. Opera’s “Clemency of Titus”: Impressive Singing, Stylish New Production, March 2, 2019.]
Vladimir Stoyanov‘s Count di Luna
Bulgarian bass Vladimir Stoyanov, one of the eminent internationally-recognized present day “Verdi baritones”, was a sturdy presence as the opera’s principal villain. His major aria il balen del suo sorriso was performed elegantly. His ensembles with Yu’s Leonora and Pulliam’s Manrico were impressively sung.
[Below: Vladimir Stoyanov as the Count di Luna; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
This is the third Verdi role I’ve seen Stoyanov perform over the past dozen years [see Review: Power Verdi – Stoyanov, Valayre Mesmerizing in Berlin Staatsoper “Macbeth”, April 24, 2009 and Review: Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Traviata” Starring Cabell and Pirgu – San Francisco Opera, June 11, 2014.]
Morris Robinson’s Ferrando and other Cast Members
Georgia bass Morris Robinson was an imposing Ferrando. He set the opera’s somber mood with the first scene, narrating with his sonorous basso the horrors that occurred a generation earlier – a Romani woman burned at the stake for witchcraft at the time that the old Count’s younger son disappeared.
[Below: Morris Robinson as Ferrando; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtessy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Although I have admired Robinson’s performances at several American opera companies, he has become a major presence at the Los Angeles Opera, performing such major roles as Oroveso [Review: Meade, Barton, Thomas, Robinson Sing Beautifully in “Norma” – Los Angeles Opera, November 21, 2015], Zaccaria [Review: Los Angeles Opera’s Glorious “Nabucco” – Domingo, Monastyrska, Conlon Soar in Strassberger’s Imaginative Production – October 14, 2017] and the Grand Inquisitor [Review: An All-Star “Don Carlo” from Plácido Domingo and Friends – Los Angeles Opera, September 29, 2018].
See my interviews with this former football star at Rising Stars – An Interview with Morris Robinson and Return to L. A. – A Conversation with Basso Morris Robinson.
Two members of Los Angeles Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artists Program – Mississippi soprano Tiffany Townsend and Florida tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro – were respectively Leonora’s companion Inez and Manrico’s fellow soldier Ruiz. California tenor Orson Van Gay II was the Messenger.
Maestro James Conlon and the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra
The excellent Los Angeles Opera Orchestra was conducted in a rousing performance by the company’s music director, Maestro James Conlon. Preceding Conlon’s afternoon on the podium, a taped scholarly lecture on “Trovatore” by Conlon introduced his insightful ideas on the opera.
[Below: Maestro James Conlon; edited image of a publicity photograph.]
Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Opera Chorus
Maestro Grant Gershon not only conducts opera performances [World Premiere Review: Adams’ “Girls of the Golden West”, San Francisco Opera, November 21, 2017], but is the chorus master for the Los Angeles Opera Chorus.
[Below: Maestro Grant Gershon; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The chorus members (who were divided into male soldiers and female nuns in Negrin’s complex physical production), met the challenges of choral singing in non-traditional settings.
[Below: Men of the Los Angeles Opera Chorus perform as soldiers; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Francisco Negrin’s Production and Louis Désiré’s Sets
Mexican director Francisco Negrin begins with the concept that all of “Il Trovatore’s” characters (excepting Leonora) are psychological captives of past events centered around the old Count di Luna’s immolation of Azucena’s mother for witchcraft.
Below: Mexican director Francisco Negrin; edited image, based on a photograph from www.negrin.com.]
To demonstrate the past’s hold on everything that takes place in the opera, Negrin introduces extra-textual characters – the spirit of Azucena’s mother and the grim reaper. These characters also include Azucena’s true son whom she, in a hallucinatory moment mistakenly threw into the burning fire consuming her mother, but who exists now in Azucena’s mind as a young boy.
The motive of fire recurs throughout the opera, with Azucena often present in scenes in which she has no part in the opera’s libretto and musical score.
[Below: Azucena (Raehann Bryce-Davis) recalling her mother death; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Negrin further emphasizes the grip that the past horrors hold on the opera’s characters by transforming the men of the chorus into an otherworldly crew, with surreal costumes and makeup.
[Below: the Count di Luna’s soldier (men of the Los Angeles Opera Chorus) are joined by an image of their deaths in battle; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
I have long been an admirer of Negrin’s conceptualizations and found many of his ideas for this particular staging of “Trovatore” compelling [See my interview with Director Negrin at Insight and Spectacle: An Interview with Director Francisco Negrin].
Negrin’s long-time collaborator, French director Louis Désiré, whose work I have reported on at Santa Fe Opera, San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, created the sets and costumes that framed Negrin’s concepts.
[Below: French director Louis Désiré; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]
The opera’s events were contained in a unit set, with a square block at audience left (which from time to time would emit flames). The block is used for various bits of dramatic action – becoming the stake on which Azucena’s mother was burnt, the Romani camp’s anvil or a nunnery’s central furnishing.
Rectangular openings in the lower walls at the back and at stage right and left provided additional spaces for stagecraft, acting at times as a kind of a dugout for soldiers.
[Below: Louis Désiré‘s unit set; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Thoughts on the Production
I do not dispute the proposition that virtually all of the action in “Trovatore” is a consequence of the events that happened the night the di Luna family murdered Azucena’s mother. Negrin has created a reality based on his ideas on what exists in Azucena’s dreams and other manifestations of her subconscious. Azucena becomes the center of a world where all that currently exists is directly impacted by what happened in that time long ago.
Negrin’s ideas are both persuasive and provocative. For me, a particularly interesting image was of the dying Leonora tethered to a long rope held by at one end by one of di Luna’s henchmen, allowing Leonora to enter the cell in which Manrico and Azucena are held in accordance with the agreement between di Luna and Leonora, but preventing any strategem that would allow Leonora’s escape.
At first, Manrico moves into a position halfway down the rope between Leonora and the Count’s man. Then, as the last scene continues, Azucena moves to the far end of the rope taking that end from the hands of di Luna’s man. Manrico is midway on a long tether between the end held by his mother and the end restraining the woman to whom he was moments away from marrying.
That image has suggested to me an essay I want to write about Azucena, Manrico, the education that had to have taken place for Manrico to become (or at least seem to be) a knight and a troubadour, and his military service in the army of the Prince who is di Luna’s enemy. “Trovatore” gives us lots of information on Azucena’s backstory, and it would be fascinating to know more of Manrico’s.
Los Angeles Opera’s first offering of its 2021-22 season, Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” was finely sung and presented in an always thought-provoking, and often illuminating, production.