Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Seattle Opera's Il Trovatore - the primal emotions within all our hearts

It has often been said that it is easy to mount a production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, all you need are four great singers. There is some truth in that rather facetious statement, because the vocal demands, as well as the range of emotions conveyed, are considerable. Verdi endowed each of the opera’s four acts with titles – “The Duel”, “The Gypsy Woman”, “The Gypsy Woman’s son”, and “The Punishment”. Indeed, these four acts (four movements?) of Il Trovatoreis almost like a gigantic string quartet, with the different voices of the main characters weaving in and out of the musical fabric. 

Seattle Opera’s production of Il Trovatorecertainly met the above criterion, for indeed all four of the principal singers were a match for each other in terms of vocal beauty and technique, as well as dramatic abilities. 

I was captivated by the effective set design – one basic set “dressed” differently for each act – but even more by the lighting, which I thought was magical throughout the afternoon. The tableau of opening scene, when Ferrando was narrating the tale of the killing of the old Count’s young son, reminded me so much of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. The stage action of the soldiers, so full of vehemence, certainly set stage for the opera, and reminded us that this was really an age of violence – have we “evolved” since that time? 

The men and women of the Seattle Opera chorus did themselves proud in the many, justly famous, choruses, singing with strength and beauty, with dramatic conviction, and also a real sense of ensemble. In Act II, when Leonora was preparing to take her vows to enter the convent, the women of the chorus sang with a great sense of reverence.

The outstanding singing of even the “minor” roles of Ferrando (Adam Lau) and Inez (Nerys Jones) give an idea of the very high bar the company had set, and achieved, in this production. Lau’s lively and dramatic singing of the opening narration really brought the story alive.

Michael Mayes, singing the role of Count di Luna, initially had a veiled quality of his voice, but that soon disappeared, and he sang the rest of the opera with great dramatic intensity. His singing of “Il balen del suo sorriso” and “Per me ora fatale” was, respectively, passionate and full of violent emotions. According to opera writer, Father M. Owen Lee, the aria and cabaletta, “show him to be a sensitive but unduly sensual man, raised in chivalry yet – unlike his young brother, who was not given his advantages – utterly lacking in it. He knows his own weakness and admits it…” In this way, he is unlike the truly evil Scarpia who lusts after the beautiful Tosca. Mayes successfully portrayed di Luna as not a bad man, but one driven by his obsessive and possessive love.

It is truly amazing how beautifully Verdi writes for the Mezzo. Nora Sourouziant fits this role perfectly; in her voice and in her acting, she really embodies the many conflicting emotions driving this tortured woman. Her outstanding and dark-hued rendition of “Stride la vampa” was just one example of her considerable vocal and dramatic qualities in portraying this pivotal character, essentially the keeper of all of the story’s secrets, and maybe the only person who really understands the plot of the opera!

From the first notes we hear of Manrico’s, (“Deserto sulla terra” – he is alone on this earth) we knew that we were in the presence of a great singing actor. Martin Muehle’s voice is not a big one, but it is one endowed with a brightness, nuance, projection, and beauty. His rendition of “Di quella pira” was filled with a real sense of urgency and incredible tension. This outstanding artist was matched in every way by Angela Meade’s portrayal of Leonora. This is a truly bel cantovoice capable of an infinite degree of nuances. Her singing of “D’amor sull’ ali rosee” certainly elicited the greatest ovation from the audience last Sunday. 

Maestro Carlo Montanaro conducted with a real understanding of the Verdi idiom, a sense of atmosphere and forward motion, and supported the singers with sensitivity. If I could wish for one thing, it would be a greater sense of drive, intensity, even aggression in the orchestral playing – I believe these qualities are essential to a truly great performance of especially this opera. The playing on Sunday was, for me, almost too “nice”, thereby robbing the music of a certain degree of tension.

The stagecraft for this production is often very effective. When Azucena was telling the story of how she had mistakenly killed her own baby when her mother was being burned at the stake, the actions were enacted in the background in silhouette, against a flaming red background. The stage director employed this same piece of stagecraft at the end of the opera, when Manrico was being executed. In the final confrontation between Leonora, Azucena, and di Luna, the director had the characters in the background “frozen” in action, thereby really focusing our attention on the confrontation before us. 

As a whole, I personally find Il Trovatoreto be a more satisfying opera than, say, La Traviata. This is an opera where we find every facet of human emotions, and each of the four characters becomes archetypes embodying these emotions. In the words of Father Owen Lee, “Caught in their fixed attitudes, these characters are not, nor are they meant to be, true to life. They are emotionally charged symbols of life’s ironies.” Futhermore, the bitterness inherent in the entire opera is really a mirror of the composer’s own growing sense of pessimism and bitterness over the tragedies in his own life as well as the politics of the day.  

Perhaps this is why it is so satisfying to witness a production of this great opera, for could we not inevitably find in one or more of the characters some of the emotional turmoil within our own hearts?

Patrick May
Vancouver, British Columbia