Imaginative `Trovatore' from BOC

MusicReview

October 20, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

For Giuseppe Verdi, the idea of a cruel fate pushing terribly fallible humans into one emotional and physical abyss after another seemed perfectly sensible. No wonder this composer, who famously declared that "death is all there is to life," found incomparable inspiration for such gloomy tragedies as Rigoletto, La forza del destino and Il trovatore. The latter, with its tale of barbecued gypsies and babies, suicide and fratricide, is the quintessential - and certainly most tuneful - fatalistic opera of them all.

Trovatore's power as music and theater is being driven home, almost always persuasively, in the Baltimore Opera Company's new production, which opened Saturday night at the Lyric Opera House. The appropriately dark - very dark - staging consists of a unit set of black columns, gray steps and angled platforms, designed by Alessandro Ciammarughi and complemented (sparingly) by lighting designer Nancy Schertler. This provides an effective atmosphere for the plot to do its twisting under Stefano Vizioli's imaginative direction.

At his best, Vizioli gets so deep into the drama that the characters seem fresher, more compelling than usual. This is especially evident with Azucena, the gypsy woman seeking vengeance for the execution of her mother, and Manrico, the man she has raised as her son.

When we first see the two together, it's in the pose of a pieta, Azucena cradling the wounded Manrico. The physical affection they subsequently reveal plays up Vizioli's inspired decision, based on a sensible reading of the libretto, to make Azucena a youngish woman. She clearly has conflicting feelings about this brave man who isn't really her flesh and blood. His passionate decision to run off and rescue the opera's heroine, Leonora, doesn't just incite motherly concern. You can sense a rather chilling tinge of jealousy in Azucena's rage, too.

In the last act, Azucena gathers up some old rags lying in her prison cell and forms them into a bundle that she holds like a baby, a delusional moment of considerable poignancy.

Other directorial touches do not ring as true. When, for example, the music at the end of the first scene clearly tells us that soldiers are scurrying away in fear, Vizioli has them moving in slo-mo. It's possible to quibble as well with the idea of having the gypsies deliver the Anvil Chorus without anvils (a single supernumerary symbolically strikes an unseen object) and without any motion to reflect the energetic swagger of the music. Still, that scene has a certain punch, allowing us to sense the weariness of the ever-put-upon gypsies, their inability to make a show of contentedness.

At a few points, folks onstage are in need of something to do with themselves while they sing or while they watch others sing. But more often than not, the director achieves a fulfilling level of theatricality.

On Saturday night, conductor Andrea Licata did his part to match that theatricality. He fired up most of the score's propulsive passages potently (the Perigliarti ancor languente duet was an oddly draggy exception), and also lavished affection on the moments of lyrical expansion. Particularly enjoyable was his honoring the old tradition of lingering on certain high notes, as in the trio at the end of Act 1. Licata also gave us the score virtually complete, by the way, something that you can't always take for granted.

As for the cast, Enrico Caruso had it right when he said it was easy to perform Il trovatore: "All you need is the four greatest singers in the world." Baltimore Opera can't boast that lineup (which company can today?) but comes awfully close in one case. Marianne Cornetti is a sensational Azucena. On Saturday, she revealed an unwaveringly solid mezzo with brilliant color, artful nuance and theater-filling impact. Her passionate acting was no less impressive.

Dimitra Theodossiou's sympathetic Leonora proved musically arresting, if uneven. She had trouble keeping the top register on a steady keel (D'amor sull'ali rosee sounded especially disjointed technically); she could not produce a real trill. But the soprano tellingly conveyed the emotion behind Verdi's melodic lines, nowhere more sensitively than in her death scene.

Frank Porretta bellowed his way through Manrico's music, sometimes to exciting effect (Di quella pira had a certain organic power). As di Luna, Giovanni Meoni needed more vocal and theatrical nuance, but got the job done. Mikhail Svetlov, as Ferrando, was rather indiscriminate about pitch and short on vocal warmth. For the most part, the chorus performed cohesively and vividly. Likewise for the orchestra.

All things considered, this Trovatore made for quite a hot night at the opera.

Opera

What: Il trovatore

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

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8:15 p.m. Oct. 24, 3 p.m. Oct. 26

Admission: $37 to $132

Call: 410-727-6000

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