San Francisco Opera opened its 101st season with Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, importing Sir David McVicar’s spectacular production, previously seen in 2009 (the company’s 87th season). The production’s revival proved to be one of the company’s most impressive theatrical experiences of recent memory, as a result of world class singing and acting by the opera’s cast.
The high drama of the performance brought into focus how effectively Verdi had transformed a convention of early 19th century Italian opera – the “double aria”. These double arias were composed of two sections – the cavatina – a slower, simple tune whose verse is unrepeated, followed by a cabaletta, which contains a much faster rhythm.
Conventionally, double arias were meant to show two qualities of a singer’s voice, the ability to sing a sustained legato (cavatina) and to show off rapid fire singing with embellishments (cabaletta). By the time Verdi was involved in composing his ‘middle period” operas, “Il Trovatore” and “La Traviata”, the composer had fully exploited the dramatic effects of the convention. The “double arias” of Manrico, Leonora and the Count di Luna are theatrical masterpieces.
Arturo Chacón-Cruz’ Manrico
Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz was cast in the role of the troubadour, Manrico. Raised by a Romani mother, Manrico is unaware that he is the son of a Spanish nobleman and a brother to his rival, the Count di Luna. The role’s challenges include the copious amount of singing required of Manrico, as the character sorts through his relationships with his mother, the unknown brother, and the woman, Leonora, whose affections both brothers seek.
Chacón-Cruz proved a dramatically engaging and vocally satisfactory Manrico, his first act trio with Angel Blue’s Leonora and George Petean’s di Luna exhibiting the passionate approach to his character that Chacón-Cruz’ sustained throughout the performance. His two scenes with Azucena were affecting. Manrico’s introspective aria Mal reggendo all’aspro assalto, that mystifies the mother who raised him, was brilliantly performed.
The greatest vocal challenge in performing Manrico is his third act double aria – the mellow cavatina Ah si, ben mio and the furious cabaletta that follows it, Di quella pira. Chacón-Cruz performed Manrico’s vocally treacherous third act impressively and was impactful in the other three acts.
[Below: Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Manrico; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Although I had seen Chacón-Cruz previously in four very different lyric tenor roles, this was my first opportunity to hear him in the a role associated with the heavier spinto vocal weight.
Previously, San Francisco Opera had engaged Chacón-Cruz to sing roles associated with the lyric, rather than spinto, tenor repertory – the Duke of Mantua [Review: Vratogna, Shagimuratova, Chacon-Cruz, Luisotti – “Rigoletto” Magnifico – San Francisco Opera, September 8, 2012] and Rodolfo [Review: John Caird’s Magical “La Boheme” Production – San Francisco Opera, June 10, 2017].
They were also lyric, rather than spinto roles, that Chacón-Cruz sang in Spanish language works by Catan [Review: Los Angeles Opera’s Magically Staged and Sung “Florencia en el Amazonas” – November 22, 2014] and Penella [Review: Domingo, Martínez, Chacón-Cruz Excel in “El Gato Montés” – Los Angeles Opera, May 5, 2019].
Angel Blue’s Leonora
Returning to the San Francisco Opera after an absence of almost a decade and a half was California soprano Angel Joy Blue. She was impressive in her beautifully crafted first double aria of the performance, Leonora’s serene cavatina Tacea la notte placida and its lively cabaletta Di tale amor. Her performance drew a sustained ovation. Also well-received was her last act double aria, the enchanting D’amor sull’ali rosee and its cabaletta Tu vedrai.
[Below: Angel Joy Blue as Leonora; edited image, bsed on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Two other musical passages assure that Leonora is one of the roles that defines the “Verdi soprano”. In a scene where the opposing forces of Manrico and di Luna each intend to prevent Leonora from entering a nunnery, Angel Blue skillfully sings the broken melody E deggio e posso crederlo? and, expressively, ends the scene with Leonora’s soaring thanks to celestial forces that Manrico is alive and has saved her. Equally impressive was Blue’s performance of Leonora’s final duet with di Luna, in which she expresses her gratitude that the Count has agreed to save Manrico’s life.
For Leonora’s final moments, after which she has deliberately consumed poison, Blue’s dramatic instincts are evident, as her character lies prostrate, singing, Leonora’s body shaking from the poison’s fatal effect.
[Below: Leonora (Angel Blue, above) caresses Manrico (Arturo Chacón-Cruz, below); edited image based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
This is the third time I have reported on an Angel Blue performance. In 2009, at San Francisco Opera, she sang the role of Clara, the character who sings the lullaby “Summertime” to her baby in George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” [Review: Eric Owens, Laquita Mitchell Lead Powerful “Porgy and Bess” at San Francisco Opera, June 21, 2009].
I reviewed her performance of Elena in Boito’s “Mefistofele” at Germany’s Festspielhaus Baden-Baden [Review: “Mefistofele” Impressively Performed by Schrott, Castronovo, Penda and Blue in New Philipp Himmelmann Production – Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, May 16, 2016].
Ekaterina Semenchuk’s Azucena
Performing the role of Manrico’s mother Azucena, Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk exhibited an expressive voice and a portrayal of the Romani woman that suggested both strategic purpose and mental distress.
Semenchuk’s Azucena sang the chilling aria Stride la vampa kneeling, with a young girl beside her, to whom she sang the aria’s second verse.
[Below: Ekaterina Semenchuk as Azucena; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Azucena’s scenes with Manrico in the Romani camp (and later in prison) are among the many highlights of this opera. Semenchuk delivered the aria Condotte ell’era in coppi, describing in chilling detail the horror of Azucena’s mother’s execution and the infanticide that occurred during Azucena’s emotionally impaired state of confusion. To emphasize Azucena’s emotional state, on mentioning the baby, Semenchuk arranges her coat as if she is swaddling her baby, a masterful stroke of acting.
[Below: Manrico (Arturo Chacón-Cruz, left) is reunited with his mother, Azucena (Ekaterina Semenchuk, although they are in prison facing execution; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera]
My eariiest memories of a Semenchuk was as Fricka in the second of Achim Freyer’s iconoclastic productions of the operas of Wagner’s “Ring” [Review: An Incredible Domingo and Other Marvels of the Los Angeles Opera Ring – “Walküre”, May 30, 2010]. However, my most vivid memories of her performances are in Italian opera at the War Memorial Opera House, as Federica [Review: Michael Fabiano’s Star Ascends in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” – San Francisco Opera, September 11, 2015], Amneris [Review: Zambello’s Spectacular “Aida”, San Francisco Opera, November 5, 2016] and Santuzza [Review: San Francisco Opera Season Opening “Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci” Part I – Nicely Sung, Brilliantly Staged, September 7, 2018].
George Petean’s Count di Luna
Romanian baritone George Petean was a strong presence as Manrico’s rival (and, unknown to either man), brother, the Count di Luna. Petean sang di Luna’s great aria, Il balen, superbly. The second part of the Count’s double aria is in part chorus (Ardir, andiam sung by Ferrando and his troops) and di Luna’s short, but impactful, arioso Per me ora, fatale. Petean sang the arioso twice with gusto.
[Below: the Count di Luna (George Petean, left, is detained at sword point by Manrico’s henchman, Ruiz (Edward Graves, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
This was my second opportunity to attend a Petean performance, both of Verdi “middle period” operas. That very favorable first iimpression of Petean’s skills as a Verdi interpreter took place at Houston Grand Opera’s Resilience Theater (the temporary setting for operatic performances while the company’s opera home, devastated by Hurricane Harvey, was being repaired [Review: Houston Grand Opera’s “La Traviata” with Shagimuratova, Pittas, Petean – October 28, 2017]. Coincidentally, this was the performance in which Maestra Eun Sun Kim, “Trovatore’s” conductor, made her American debut.
Robert Pomakov’s Ferrando and Other Cast Members
Canadian bass Robert Pomakov was an imposing presence as di Luna’s officer, Ferrando. Pomakov exuded authority from Ferrando’s opening call, Alerta, Alerta. Ferrando evoked images of the horrible consequences of a Romani woman’s execution by fire. Such images arose from his expository narrative Di due figli vivea, padre beato and through his impassioned interjections to the superstitious soldiers’ Io corvo tal’altra.
[Below: Ferrando (Robert Pomakov, left, in blue overcoat) relates di Luna family history to the retainers who report to him; edeted image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Pomakov is a specialist in the major bass comprimario roles. I have reported on Pomakov’s roles, both comedic, like Haly [Review: Barcellona Triumphs in Font’s Whimsical Production of “L’Italiana in Algeri” – Houston Grand Opera, November 3, 2012] and dramatic, like Nourabad [Review: Santa Fe Opera’s Passionate “Pearl Fishers” – June 29, 2019].
Maryland tenor Edward Graves performed the role of Ruiz. Canadian soprano Mikayla Sager was Inez. California tenor Kevin GIno was a Messenger. Serbian bass-baritone Bojan Knezevic was an Old Roma.
Maestra Eun Sun Kim and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus
South Korean Maestra Eun Sun Kim, San Francisco Opera’s third music director of the past three decades, led the excellent San Francisco Opera Orchestra in a spirited performance of “Trovatore”. The San Francisco Opera Chorus, under the supervision of Pennsylvania chorus master John Keene, populated the various scenes of castle groundsmen, Romani, nuns and opposing armed troops.
Sir David McVicar’s Production and Roy Rallo’s Revival
Few opera lovers would disagree that Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” is filled with extraordinary music, exhibiting the composer’s compositional maturity and supreme melodic inspiration. Its mixed reputation comes from a story filled with violence against Romani, and its accusations of child abduction and infanticide. Some detractors find elements of the story not only implausible but worthy of satire by the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan.
A Verdi opera – one might say, any opera – whose story is not taken seriously, is a suboptimal experience. The central core of Verdi’s operas, and those of the operatic composers whose works comprise the standard repertory, is the emotion that fuels an opera’s dramatic impact.
The best “Trovatore” productions of our time do take the story seriously. An incomparable production is Sir David McVicar’s. I have reported on two of its previous performances 14 seasons ago in San Francisco [Review: Lyrical Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera, September 11, 2009 and Review: Verdi’s New Champion – Nicola Luisotti’s Transformative “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera, October 4, 2009] as well as in Chicago [Review: Golden Age Verdi Singing for Lyric Opera’s “Il Trovatore” – Chicago, October 27, 2014]
[The Romani camp in Sir David McVicar’s production; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
A well-respected production like McVicar’s is sought after by many opera companies, but its later mountings are not directed by McVicar, but a revival director. For San Francisco Opera’s revival, the services were retained of California director Roy Rallo, who in 2018 directed a revival of the McVicar “Trovatore” for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
As excellent as I characterized the three previous performances of the production I saw, I consider Rallo’s tightly-knit staging of the “Troatore” revival as worthy of special praise. It was Rallo who had earlier this year staged an elegant David Hockney production for the opera company [Review: A Colorful, Brilliantly Performed “Frau ohne Schatten” – San Francisco Opera, June 4, 2023].
[Below: Revival director Roy Rallo; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Rallo’s early career as an opera director was honed at the Long Beach Opera. More recently, he has become somethng of a “go to” specialist in reviving productions of imminent directors. These include Rallo’s close association with director Christopher Alden, whose production of Handel’s “Partenope” will be revived, under Rallo’s supervision, by San Francisco Opera in June 2024.
English designer Charles Edwards created the sets, German designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel the costumes, Ohio deisgner Jennifer Tipton the lighting. Irish choreographer Colm Seery was movement director. Californian Dave Maier was fight director.
I enthusiastically recommend the San Francisco Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, both to veteran opera-goers and to persons new to opera.