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Marcelo Álvarez as Manrico [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
25 Mar 2009

Il Trovatore at the MET

For nearly a decade after its premiere, in 1853, Il Trovatore was the most popular opera, perhaps the most popular stage work on the planet — even more than Rigoletto or Ernani, and far more than Traviata, which had its premiere the following autumn.

G. Verdi: Il Trovatore

Leonora: Sondra Radvanovsky; Azucena: Dolora Zajick; Manrico: Marcelo Álvarez; Count di Luna: Dmitri Hvorostovsky; Ferrando: Kwangchul Youn.

Above: Marcelo Álvarez as Manrico

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera

 

Not until Gounod’s Faust appeared, did Trovatore grudgingly yield first place, but it didn’t go quietly. (Quietly? Trovatore?) At the old Met at the turn of the century, before unions, Trovatore sometimes appeared on double bills — the millionaires in the boxes might depart for other entertainment, but the fans in the cheap seats hung on screaming till the wee hours. The Marx Brothers didn’t have to search for an opera to make fun of — they, and all their audiences, knew Trovatore’s glorious absurdities from the cradle: anvils, gypsies, long-lost kin, the stake! the poisoned ring! the block! There were literally thousands of productions, despite a story that tends to lurch around the war-torn Spanish landscape.

The conclusion one must draw is that it can’t be that difficult to stage the thing. Caruso famously said all you needed was the four greatest singers in the world, and that was when there were contenders for such title. But you don’t really need top-flight Verdi giants (a good thing; we no longer have them); you just need good singers who will hurl themselves into the drama as if ready to die to reach that high note. Listen to Emma Eames, a famously cold soprano, in her 1909 recording of the Act IV duet, “Mira d’acerbe lagrime,” with baritone Emilio de Gogorza: they seem to be aiming for a new speed record, but each grace note, each twirl of a vocal figure, is perfectly produced, perfectly in place, perfectly focused, and means what it should mean about passion and melodrama. That’s how you sing Verdi.

The Met has staged Trovatore four times since the new house opened in 1966, and the first three were variously atrocious, even when (to begin with) they had the right singers. In 1969, there was the grotesque Attilio Colonello production; in 1989, the Fabrizio Melano production, as handsome as the Colonello was ugly, but with an absurd grandiosity: set among imperial-sized columns on rollers, the gypsies encamped on a glossy ballroom floor; in 2000, the notorious Graham Vick production where, in only the evening’s most egregious folly, the tenor bursting through a four-story-high crucifix in a convent wall had the audience laughing so hard it stopped the show for ten minutes. The best Trovatore I’ve seen under Met auspices in recent years was a 1998 concert in Prospect Park under Marco Armiliato’s baton, with June Anderson and Larissa Diadkova singing like goddesses.

Hvorostovsky_and_Radvanovsk.gifDmitri Hvorostovsky as Count di Luna and Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora

But we can’t have a grand opera house without a functional Trovatore — it has been truly called the most operatic of operas. So they had to try again, and fourth time is the charm — or have we all become less demanding?

Set designer Charles Edwards has given us a turntable with a wall on it and assorted dreary backdrops. The wall has a vertiginous staircase on one side, a mélange of Spanish architectural elements from various eras on the other, all cluttered together as, indeed, they often are in Spain. The costumes by Brigitte Reifenstuel seem more or less nineteenth century (the opera is set in 1412), but I wish she had picked just one year: Leonora wears an unfortunate Empire-waisted gown, Inez rather more Victorian garb, the Count di Luna a frilly eighteenth-century officer’s uniform and Manrico a Romanian Gypsy vest. There are various grilles for Manrico’s guerrillas to climb, most athletically, in the convent scene — which one expects of guerrillas — but how many Leonoras become crazed enough to climb them, too, on hearing Manrico’s song in the turret scene? That may be a feature of Sondra Radvanovsky’s view (expressed in an interview) of Leonora as a teenager.

David McVicar, a director famous for his “Bollywood” version of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, has made the old contraption work, and a full house on March 10 was very happy and reluctant to depart — and no one was giggling inappropriately, except perhaps Dolora Zajick as the crazed Azucena and Kwangchul Youn, a tipsy Ferrando — I’ve always thought of Ferrando as a grim retainer, telling ghost stories and nursing the family grudge. There were, it seemed to me, far too many far too noisy camp followers in Act III — they are nowadays inescapable in any soldiers’ camp scene, but when I listened to the broadcast, I could understand every syllable the soldiers were singing, and that’s very unusual (Met chorus master Donald Palumbo is my hero, as I’ve said before, at Peter Grimes and Satyagraha), but in the house one hardly noticed they were singing at all because the girls were carrying on so. The staging of the convent scene, the arrival of the guerrillas, the fight with the soldiers, the abduction of Leonora as she is about to take holy orders, was a bit choppy — it always is — but the opera’s end, confrontations, executions, revelations that follow each other with startling speed, I have never seen staged or acted more convincingly. This scene, if no other, should arouse shock and not laughter, and McVicar’s cast pulled it off. Also pulling it off were the bare-chested Gypsy blacksmiths, whose hammers mercifully hit the anvils on the beat. I cringe for lazier revivals.

Zajick.gifDolora Zajick as Azucena

Marcelo Álvarez sang the troubadour, a modern, lost, existential hero like Wagner’s Siegmund, who never learns the truth about his birth or anything else important, but whose passions drive the story. Álvarez has an impressive instrument, both graceful and sizable in mid-voice, but fading out in the upper range — like many a fine Manrico (Tucker, Domingo), he lacks the ringing top C that Verdi didn’t write anyway. He did not carry a harp or any other instrument, which was puzzling since his offstage airs are sung to a harp, and I found both these numbers a bit rushed and graceless, lacking romantic atmosphere. Manrico should have an air of mystery, the alluring voice in the darkness, the unknown knight who won that tournament, and fudging the serenade punctures this mystery. On the whole he made a stalwart, passionate, masculine figure, and it has been many years since any Met Manrico did such justice to “Ah si, ben mio,” with every little curlicue elegantly in place. This did not sound affected — it sounded seductive — a warrior in love. Naturally the girl fell all over him.

The girl was Sondra Radvanovsky, currently, by default, the Met’s leading Verdi soprano, a splendid Luisa Miller and an able Elena in Vespri Siciliani (the toughest of all Verdi soprano roles). She has all the technical devices necessary for Leonora, the floating pianissimo, acceptable trills, volume whenever called for, and she is, moreover, a passionate actress — but I would find her more convincing if she did less rolling about on the floor. Leonora may be in her teens, but she’s a Spanish noblewoman in her teens — she has dignity, she seriously considers becoming a nun; she shouldn’t remind us of Carol Burnett or Gilda Radner, and Radvanovsky’s jumping and climbing about often does. My real problem with her, though, is the quality of her voice, exciting but not beautiful — I miss the luster of Price, Arroyo, Caballé, Anderson, where the ethereal floating tone seemed to explain how this devout girl has allowed love to replace religious duty in her life. It is not a pretty or a sensuous voice; I do not love the sheer sound of it. (I’m told it sounds less acid upstairs.) But that she is a fine singing actress is beyond question.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky, for whom Verdi roles in a Met-sized house sometimes seem too much, sang “Il balen” with superb, flawless line, total control and long, flowing, high notes like chocolate ganache. If the Met permitted encores, we’d all still be there, applauding or listening. “Il balen” is one of Verdi’s great internal arias, a character exploring his soul, and Counts who can put it over make us love them despite the fact that they are contemplating rape and religious violation. It was a noble performance — and it took a lot out of him, for he was way off pitch during the agitated cabaletta that follows. The rest of the night he was stern and on his mettle.

Dolora Zajick held down Azucena powerfully, lacking nothing obvious of the mad Gypsy’s force of character, but she has never been a subtle actress and I found her manic giggles out of place, her trills mere tuneless buzzing. A little more active despair — especially in her great confrontation with the Count and his army — would be in order. Some viewers found her grotesque, but the character is grotesque, indeed half mad — the story makes no sense if she’s played any other way. Rational people don’t behave like characters in Il Trovatore. That’s why we love the opera.

Gianandrea Noseda, in the pit, erred a bit on the side of bel canto — Trovatore is not bel canto, it’s blood and thunder. He tempi lag now and then as if to give the singers a hand (Emma Eames a hundred years ago would not have needed it — but these are decadent times), but my only real objection to his Trovatore is the perfunctory rush-through he gave both of Manrico’s serenades. Manrico is the eponymous troubadour, and these are his calling cards — they require the stillness and romance of nights in the gardens of old Aragon.

But the Met has a solid Trovatore production — the first since they tore the old house down — and one that can be inhabited by any number of Verdi singers for years to come. I’m rather intrigued by the second cast, coming up in April, which will include Marco Berti (a fine Gabriele Adorno) as Manrico, Hasmik Papian (a noble Aida) as Leonora and Zeljko Lucic (a great Macbeth and Germont) as the Count.

John Yohalem

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