Baltimore Opera shines like Verdi's odd gem

March 18, 1997|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

For 150 years, Verdi's "Il Trovatore" (The Troubadour) has been possibly the most famous example of the absurdity into which opera stories sometimes descend. And for just about as long, audiences and critics alike have insisted it doesn't matter one bit because the music is so wonderful.

The Baltimore Opera Company production of Verdi's beloved classic, which opened Saturday, once again confirmed the conventional wisdom -- that there is no dramaturgical flaw that an inexhaustible flow of beautiful melodies, great singing and brilliant costumes and sets cannot overcome.

The confused and confusing nature of the plot extends to the opera's title, for the center of the drama is not even the troubadour Manrico, sung Saturday by Baltimore-based tenor Chris Merritt, but the demented Gypsy Azucena, portrayed with incendiary passion by Moldavian-emigre mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura. Among an exceptionally fine cast, Mishura bid fair to steal the show.

Rounding out the principal roles were two stellar Eastern European voices, Bulgarian soprano Stefka Evstatieva as Leonora, and Ukrainian baritone Stephan Piatnychko as the evil Count Di Luna. Evstatieva is a true Verdi soprano, with a big, dark voice that she manages with splendid taste and technique whenever the score calls for coloratura fireworks.

In the smaller parts, bass Raymond Aceto made a convincing Ferrando, tenor Jeffrey Brenner did yeoman's service as Manrico's friend Ruiz, and soprano Carla DelVillaggio was fetching indeed as Leonora's confidant, Inez.

It has been said that opera is what happens when the baritone tells the soprano she can't make love to the tenor. In "Il Trovatore" the convention is taken to such ridiculous extremes that even if one were able to unravel its tortuous plot the effort would hardly be worth it.

In Act I, Di Luna's men stand watch while their master keeps a vigil beneath Leonora's window. Ferrando, a guards captain, relates how the count's younger brother had been kidnapped by a gypsy woman. The boy was never found, Ferrando says, but the bones of a small child were discovered later among the glowing embers where the gypsy's mother had been burned as a witch.

In the next scene, Di Luna ponders declaring his love as he gazes on Leonora's window. Suddenly, the troubador Manrico is heard singing. Leonora rushes out to greet him, but mistakes Di Luna for her lover. When Manrico appears, Di Luna recognizes him as a local rebel leader. The two men prepare to fight, as Leonora faints.

Act II opens in a Gypsy camp, where Manrico and his mother have been reunited. After the Gypsies have sung joys of wine and love, Azucena recounts how she avenged her mother's death by tracking Di Luna's younger brother. She planned to cast him into a fire, she says, but at the last moment a strange delirium overcame her, and instead she threw her own son to the flames. When Manrico askes if he isn't her son, she replies that her mind often wanders and that he shouldn't believe her wild tales.

Next, Di Luna tries to abduct Leonora, but captures Azucena instead. Learning that she is both the Gypsy who kidnapped his brother and the troubadour's mother, he uses her to lure Manrico into a trap. Leonora tries to free Manrico by promising to marry the count if he will spare her lover. Secretly she takes poison.

In the last scene, Leonora and Manrico share a tearful farewell in a dungeon where he is imprisoned. She confesses what she has done, but dies before Manrico can escape. Di Luna realizes he has been tricked and orders Manrico's immediate execution. As the ax falls, Azucena exclaims that Di Luna has killed his own brother. Finally, her mother's death has been avenged!

That Verdi was able to take such a stilted story and produce one of his most jewel-studded scores is indicative of his genius. The opera has been called a treasure house of musical delights, an unending succession of memorable tunes from first to last that has captivated audiences through the ages.

Conductor Christian Badea kept the action moving at a brisk clip. Director Frank Corsaro's staging was effective, if not always entirely convincing. Donald Edmund Thomas' lighting effects were dazzling in the big scenes, designer Charles Caine's were beautifully realized and the Baltimore Opera Chorus sounded truly inspired in all the great choruses for which "Il Trovatore" is so justly famous.

Pub Date: 3/18/97

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