A bit more drama for `Trovatore'

Director Vizioli seeks to bring color, youth to Verdi classic

OperaPreview

October 18, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

In the classic film comedy A Night at the Opera - when, as one wag put it, the Marx Brothers do to Il Trovatore what should be done to Il Trovatore - hardly a note of Verdi's tragic tune-fest is left undisturbed. Why pick on this poor opera? It's just ripe for ridicule and parody, thanks to an ever-so-slightly convoluted plot that registers rather high on the implausibility chart and concludes with a high body count. And yet, Trovatore always survives. In any decent performance, it is still remarkably easy to be swept along, both by the swift undercurrent of the music and the heated emotions behind this story of love and vengeance.

The Baltimore Opera Company's new production of the work, which opens tonight, marks the first time Italian director Stefano Vizioli has approached Trovatore. "I love this opera," he says. "And I trust it. The [plot] may not follow a natural path, and the words can sometimes be a little bit banal.

"But in the music there is a clear dramatic reason for everything. Some people want everything to make sense. Italians don't worry about that; we just enjoy it as it is, and then go off to the pizzeria. With all its contradictions, Trovatore is impossible to forget."

Vizioli, who provided the memorably zany direction for the company's Barber of Seville in 2001 and will be back to direct the comic Don Pasquale next month, collaborated with scenic designer Alessandro Ciammarughi to create this Trovatore. Its very lean sets will be enhanced by projections and lighting effects aimed at emphasizing the opera's elements of "earth, fire, night and ashes," the director says. The costumes, too, play a strong role - "They explode with color to contrast with the hard, gray and black set. They remind me a little bit of what you see in the paintings of Caravaggio and Rembrandt."

Vintage art also came to the director's mind when Vizioli was considering his approach to the opera's pivotal character - Azucena, the gypsy woman. Here, she smokes a pipe. "You see women doing that in 17th-century Flemish paintings," Vizioli says.

But that's not the most unusual aspect of how the director sees Azucena, whose mother was burned at the stake and who inadvertently threw her own baby into the same fire in a botched attempt at revenge.

In most Trovatore productions, Azucena is portrayed as a hag. "Why?" Vizioli says. "I live in Rome where there are many gypsies. I have seen 14- and 15-year-old gypsy mothers with children, breast-feeding them on the street. I was so touched to see these mothers who are still children themselves. On one hand, they don't know life, but, on the other, they also know everything of life."

Having imagined a teen-aged Azucena doing that dreadful baby-burning, Vizioli was able to make the adult Azucena a younger woman "who even has a little sex appeal," he says. Marianne Cornetti, the mezzo-soprano who will sing the role here, found this approach decidedly congenial. "I just did a production in Florence where I wore white hair," she says. "Playing her in her 30s is probably the way she should be portrayed. And being this age, Azucena can uses her womanliness in Act 3 after she has been captured; she excites the soldiers so much they almost rape her."

Definitely not an everyday Azucena. Having Cornetti to work with has only intensified the director's concept of the role. "She is a gift from God to me," he says. "American singers are so extremely talented for theater. A director should be very rational at all times. But I was so touched by her interpretation during one of the rehearsals that I had to ask her to stop so I wouldn't lose control."

Cornetti is no less impressed with Vizioli. "I love what he's doing," she says. "A lot of times, a director just uses a broad paintbrush. Stefano is bringing out all sorts of intimate details. He gives the production a sense of real theater. I've done Azucena over 40 times. People ask me if I get bored with it. No, because every director and conductor you work with finds something new. This production is a perfect example."

Vizioli applies a different touch to Azucena's fellow gypsies in the opera, too. They make their first appearance entering slowly, somberly, like refugees, rather than in the more boisterous fashion usually seen onstage. "I don't like the idea of touristy gypsies," the director says. "Theirs is not a happy world. They are always being despised and kicked out of places."

Vizioli has been guided by one overriding thought in creating this production. "Verdi wanted so much to have his operas be theatrically alive," the director says. "He demanded acting, not standing around barking."

And like the composer, who wrote that "the public will stand for anything except boredom," Vizioli is aiming to create an involving experience. "If you are bored, that would be the worst," he says. "I prefer that you get upset with me."

Opera

What: Il Trovatore

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8:15 tonight,[tsm:10/18] 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, [tsm:10/22] 8:15 p.m. Oct. 24, 3 p.m. Oct. 26

Admission: $37 to $132

Call: 410-727-6000

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