This fall season, besides programming only composers and operas that everyone has heard of, he seems to have targeted two other rather large groups — those who would not be caught dead in an opera house and those who are hard of hearing.
Verdi’s blockbuster Il trovatore opened the SFO fall season on September 11. The War Memorial’s familiar gold curtain flew out to reveal the production’s show curtain, a detail of one of Goya’s Disasters of War etchings, dampening the festive mood of the inauguration of the company’s eighty-seventh season. The Met and Chicago Lyric had conspired with San Francisco Opera to create this new production of Verdi’s first mega-opera. We can hope that it will not end up in SFO’s warehouse to be revived every five or six years, or ever again.
Verdi blockbusters are not fodder for little league opera. The great big San Francisco Opera had the goods. A big style, knock-em dead, real Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti, the company’s incoming music director; a real Italian tenor, Marco Berti (a recipient of the Giuseppe Verdi Gold Metal), Sondra Radvanovsky, an American soprano who brings real push to “spinto;” the mezzo Stephanie Blythe, Musical America’s (the major trade publication) current Singer of the Year; and Dimitri Hvorostovsky (who needs no introduction) as the Count di Luna. It was a lively contest as to who could sing louder, clearly at the urging of the maestro. It was loud, very loud.
The most beautiful singing of the evening came from Hvorostovsky in the second act reverie of his love for Leonora, though the effect was betrayed by the maestro who too aggressively drove Verdi’s delicate orchestration. Stephanie Blythe heaved the rantings of Azucena from her chest throughout the evening, leaving her vocally exhausted at the end, and arousing our concern for her on-going vocal health. Mme. Radvanovsky was busy with strange operatic acting accompanying her impressively goosed up, later in the evening bleating vocal production, evoking concerns for her eventual vocal health as well. Marco Berti squarely hit the high C (though not for very long) in Di quella pira, actually a high B as the whole aria had been transposed down to accommodate this show-off high note infamously interpolated by tenors.
At the September 25 performance many of the audience rose to their feet when Azucena appeared for her bow, then the balance stood when Hvorostovsky took the next bow (Azucena had just sung her guts out in the final trio while the Count di Luna merely looked on, one might have thought she would have taken the later bows in turn with Leonora and Manrico). Then la Radvanovsky got huge, the hugest applause, probably because she had the softer, prettier arias, followed by the title role, Manrico, who was well appreciated as the most genuine performance of the evening (no one expects sincerity from a tenor, so its lack was not a problem).
Scottish stage director David McVicar got the whole thing wrong. Il trovatore is not about infanticide or bloody revenge (or Napoleonic wars), it is about singing. Famously victimized as a bad libretto Il trovatore is a succession of set pieces that tell what has happened over a thirty year period. There is very little in Il trovatore of what is actually happening at the moment. Each of its eight scenes needs a specific mood to be set within which the story-telling takes place, and it was any attempt to create these moods that this production lacked. Unfortunately this led to a painful absence of poetry in this musically and theatrically over-blown production.
McVicar, as a good director thinks he should, attempted to make a dramatic whole, over-laying a larger mood or concept — the horrors of the Napoleonic wars. Il trovatore is far less than a national or social tragedy, and these larger horrors were quite pale, indeed unnoticeable beside the vicious personal dramas of Verdi’s characters. To the hopeless task of imposing a dramatic unity McVicars and his designer Charles Edwards developed a revolving set that could instantly move from one locale to another, one story to another, with no time for the Verdi’s moods to dissipate and then radically transform themselves. Put this together with the pushed-to-the-hilt conducting of Luisotti and it became opera that hit below the belt.
The performance on September 19 was beamed simultaneously to the digital scoreboard of AT&T ball park where a reported twenty-five thousand people converged to participate in this contest of who could sing loudest. More than opera, Opera at the Ball Park is a San Francisco happening that entices just about everyone to join in the sport of opera, if not the art of opera.