Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Il Trovatore at the Lyric Opera

Il Trovatore sign, in flames
The other day we took in a grand performance of Verdi's Il Trovatore at the Lyric in Chicago's Loop.  It’s a familiar story in opera: tenor good boy meets girl, baritone bad boy meets girl.  Boys are rivals, boys are enemies.  The bad boy is powerful, the good boy is oppressed.  Both love to sing and sing often about their love for the lady (the soprano of course) and about their hatred for one another (and about some other things).  The twist here is that the boys are brothers but don’t know it, and Verdi throws in for good measure a gypsy foster mother out for revenge, thundering hammers, a deep family secret, and the disturbing visage of a woman and a baby consumed by flames.

 Il Trovatore’s appeal is emotional and visual and aural, not intellectual.  Yes, it’s an Italian melodrama filled with themes of vengeance and superstition, and loaded with passionate characters spending lots of time passionate about their passion.  But it’s also filled with beautiful music, some of the finest Verdi ever wrote.  It has one of the most rousing and memorable choruses in all opera – the Anvil Chorus; in the performance I saw, no one wielding one of those giant hammers missed a pounding beat.  In the Lyric Opera Companion’s essay on Il Trovatore, Stephanie von Buchau writes that, however intellectually pedestrian the libretto may be, in all of opera Il Trovatore is “the 19th century’s most impressive and beloved example of romantic melodrama.”  In The New Criterion, music critic Jay Nordlinger said “Il Trovatore is a combination of bel canto and blood-and-guts grand opera.”

The Main Hall at the Civic Opera House of Chicago
The program guide tells us that this production premiered at the Lyric Opera of Chicago before going on to the Metropolitan and San Francisco Opera, and is now back home.  The setting is Spain, and on the Lyric’s curtain was a reproduction of Goya’s jarring “Pilgrimage to the Hermitage of St. Isadore”, which hangs in the Prado.  One year in college a roommate and I had a Goya drawing, almost as disturbing, in our dorm room on loan through an art program, but that’s another story.

The Goya Main Screen at Il Trovatore
The Lyric’s first Leonora was Maria Callas (in 1955) – how about that?  This time around, two principals, soprano Amber Wagner as Leonora and baritone Quinn Kelsey as the bad Count di Luna, are alumni of the Lyric’s own renowned training program – the Ryan Opera Center.  Also in the cast are tenor Yonghoon Lee as the hero Manrico and mezzo Stephanie Blythe as Azucena the gypsy.  The Lyric’s program guide asserts that “of all the Verdi operas, there is none more formidable vocally than Il Trovatore”, containing, among other highlights, “the most harrowing five minutes ever composed for operatic mezzo-soprano” and “the most exhilarating of Verdi’s soprano/baritone duets”; I would add the rousing tenor aria “Di Quella Pira” and, in the final moments, the beautiful and touching tenor/mezzo duet “Ai Nostri Monti”.  Caruso is said to have said that all that is needed to make Il Trovatore work is “the four greatest singers in the world.”  It certainly worked for me the other night.

R Balsamo

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