Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Met Opera Review: "Splendid Cast Salvages Routine Staging"

(For October 12, 2012 performance)

For years, Il Trovatore was absent from the Met repertoire due to poor productions. But over the last few years, the opera has been one of the Met’s most popular repertory staples. The David McVicar production was inaugurated on February 16, 2009 to rave reviews. Critics clamored over how the production maintained the steady pace of this fast moving melodrama. But the greatest praise that McVicar received was for finally giving the Met an appropriate Trovatore Production.

Three years later, the appeal is still there, but it has certainly faded. Gone is the energy that had carried it through its first season. Back then, the sets were vibrant with mood and tone. Now their minimalism looks dull and bland. The one scene that still packs a punch is the gypsy encampment at the start of Act 2. The activity of the famous Anvil Chorus and the bright colors add stark contrast to the muted and gray colors of the other scenes. Obviously Trovatore is a dark drama and an appropriate palette is necessary, but many of the sets feel tacked on and unfinished. Act one’s castle is passable if only because the soldiers and narration of Ferrando help the cause. But the second scene which sets up the main conflict between Di Luna and Manrico for Leonora’s love is bare and lacking in any dynamism. The rotating set does help speed up the proceedings, but does not necessarily enlighten or refresh them.

It is completely unfair to blame McVicar’s sets for the routine vibe that the set gave off last Friday. Trovatore is undoubtedly a hard sing for all those involved, but stage director Paula Williams was either rushed to direct anything or ultimately had no ideas and was disinterested in the material. When there was some staged action it lacked authenticity and felt tacked on. It would immediately be easy to blame the actors, but I don’t honestly believe it was their fault. The direction seemed disinterested and lacked the energy of the drama unfolding onstage
“Parking and Barking: is a term that has come to define singers standing around and singing. While there were a few moments whether the actors injected their own activity (Carmen Giannattasio’s frolicking during her declaration of love for Manrico), parking and barking permeated the staging. I don’t believe that actors need to be jumping and running around the stage all the time at every moment. Obviously this is opera and the music suffices during many dramatic moments (Azucena’s narration of her son’s death for example) but other moments require some real action on stage. The Trio that ends the first act is extremely difficult for the singers, but the staging seemed uninspired with Manrico and Di Luna simply holding their swords as they prepared for the fight. Verdi’s music is energetic and filled with forward motion from the moment Manrico enters the room. The propulsion and build of Verdi’s music creates dynamic tension that could only be bettered when the staging matches its intensity. But when it doesn’t, the scene has an awkward feel. Williams’ staging and direction was exactly that. At the end of the opera, Leonora is dying at Manrico’s feet. Instead of holding her, Manrico seems disinterested in her. When he finally moves to her, she crawled away in another strange choice. In the scene prior Manrico and his mother Azucena seemingly had no interest in one another either. One could argue that they are alone in their thoughts, but the end result was not satisfactory.

Enrico Caruso once said that Il Trovatore was easy to stage; you just needed the four greatest singers in the world. The interesting thing is that this Met season has proven thus far that a superstar cast does not necessarily equal a successful production (see Elisir). In fact, they have proven the opposite with Carmen and now Il Trovatore.

Carmen Giannattasio was being billed as one of the great Verdi interpreters before her debut a few weeks ago and this performance clearly indicated that the hype was not exaggerating. The role is notorious for its dramatic range as Leonora starts the opera singing like a light soprano but threatens to turn into mezzo by the end of the opera as the heroine disintegrates emotionally. Often times one gets a soprano who struggles with one part of the opera and excels at the other extreme but Giannattasio proved in many ways to be the ideal Leonora. She had the flexibility and lightness in the earlier acts, but her voice was filled with the potent lows and dramatic weight that characterizes the lady-in waiting by the end of the work. She wove elegant phrases that really created a sense of Leonora’s standing as one of the Queen’s Ladies in waiting during her first aria "Tacea La Notte Placida". Her vocal highlight was the dramatic “Miserere” in the final Act where her delicate singing created the portrait of a woman at her most fragile moment. Her ensuing duet with the Count showed off a more intense vocalism that was matched by her partner Franco Vassallo. Giannattasio was also bold in repeating the Act 1 Cabaletta Di tale amor che dirsi. But proving her musical and dramatic intelligence, she held the high C at the top of coloratura run as she declares that she would die for Manrico. This precise text foreshadows what will happen later in the drama and while the choice here was likely a brilliant virtuosic turn, it brings attention to Verdi’s dramatic genius. I have never heard anyone else make such a bold move and it was certainly refreshing to have some new musical and dramatic insight from Giannattasio.

Manrico is an interesting vocal part. The famous Di Quella Pira Cabaletta that ends the third act is one of the heavier sections in the work and requires a tenor with the vocal heft to conquer the role’s high C that tenors often interpolate. The odd thing is that Verdi never actually included a high C in his score and despite the fact that he accepted it later on as a service to the public, it was never his dramatic intention. The interesting result is that the expectation of a heavy voiced tenor that could sing the high note over the chorus and bombastic orchestra became the norm throughout performance history. The orchestra is heavy in this opera, but that argument could be made for several other Verdi Operas where a heavy tenor is not always the norm (Simon Boccanegra and Un Ballo In Maschera come to mind).

But Manrico is not simply one cabaletta and other sections in the work emphasize that despite his heroic nature and his stature as a soldier, he is a troubadour first and foremost. He starts the opera with the very delicate serenade Deserto Sulla Terra and his Ah Si Ben Mio (his declaration of love) is in the same vein. And often times, the heroic tenors lack this vocal finesse and delicacy to make these moments effective. Like Giannattasio, tenor Gwyn Hughes-Jones is also the ideal Manrico in many ways as the role seemed tailor made for his voice. His voice has some heft, but his tone color is sweet and lyrical. It has a lightness that is rare among tenors singing this role.  His Deserto Sulla Terra had the gentle refinement that would truly characterize a Troubadour. His Ah Si Ben Mio had tenderness and pleasant would certainly woe any Leonora. But Hughes-Jones was not only sweetness and gentility throughout; his Manrico matched the potency and power that Manrico’s soldier requires. He matched Vassallo’s Di Luna blow for blow in the duel trio and the Act 2 concertato. He may have been lacked the heft to overpower the chorus in the Di Quella Pira, but he had a vibrant top C that rang through the theater without sounding strained or forced. The caressing manner with which he sang the final duet with his mother Azucena made the staging decision to have him distanced from her extremely frustrating to watch.

Franco Vassallo was also a terrific Conte di Luna. Di Luna is also an interesting role as it requires a versatile singer that can conquer the lighter, tender moments of the score with the more robust and energetic ones. Many light baritones attempt the role, and while they succeed with the gentle Il Suo Balen, their shortcomings are immediately exposed in the cabaletta right after. Vassallo sounded tentative and nervous on the famous aria Il Suo Balen, and rushed through the aria. He remained stiff at the edge of the stage and it sounded as if he was running out of breath throughout. His voice never really blossomed here and gave off the intense passion of the count. But it was the only moment of the night where he sounded insecure. The rest of the night was one highlight after another for Vassallo. As insecure as he sounded in the aria, the following cabaletta could not have been sung with more conviction and determination. The duel trio which is another bane for Baritones was equally confident in its execution. The final duet with Leonora showcased Vassallo at his most violent and potent as his sexual repression was released after hearing the pleas of Leonora. It seemed that the more Giannattasio’s Leonora pleaded with him, the more intoxicated with desire he became. It added for some interesting vocal sparks between the two singers.

Verdi had always felt that Azucena was the central character in the work and that he was the one who set the entire work in action. While the other three characters make up the majority of the action in the work, Azucena leaves her indelible mark throughout; even when she is not onstage. Prior to the start of the performance, Dolora Zajick was announced as being ill. But her performance would never have indicated that. Zajick’s Azucena has always been a wonder of dramatic insight and potency. As she sang the Stride La Vampa the voice was filled with such darkness and anger that at one point she took out a knife as if to strike down a young boy. Her dramatic highlight (often the case for great Azucenas) was the following monologue in which she told Manrico the story of her son’s death. Verdi wrote some of the most dramatic marriage of music and text here and the piercing cries “Il Figlio Mio” that end the section are among the most visceral moments of drama in all of opera. Dolora Zajick gave these phrases such a combination of anguish and rage that it was impossible not to feel the desperation and torment of the character. As she battled with Di Luna at the start of Act 3, she added a wicked laugh that gave her a conniving quality and made her Azucena almost a sly animal waiting to launch itself on its prey. She would eventually do that at the end of the opera in a haunting final exchange with Vassallo’s di Luna. But Zajick’s Azucena was more than a vengeance driven woman. She expressed a great deal of love for her son Manrico in their final duet where her gentle singing about returning home coupled with his caressing lines made for one of the most heartfelt moments of the evening.

Morris Robinson was solid as Ferrando. He brought a potent voice to the Act 1 narrative and was equally strong in the Act 3 trio with di Luna and Azucena.

Conductor Daniele Callegari balanced the heavy orchestra well to suit his singers. Sometimes, he tended toward overpowering them in the cabaletta sections of duets or arias, but he proved a good accompanist. He preferred relatively brisk tempos which helped certain moments of the work, but tended to hamper others. During Leonora’s D’amor sull’alli rosee Callegari seemed to be in a rush to the slight discomfort of Giannattasio. Otherwise it was a rather straightforward performance from the conductor.

It is great to see Trovatore more often at the Met and to see the General Manger Peter Gelb bringing in new talents to enjoy. Hopefully however, the Met can assign stage directors for revivals that have true convictions about the works being directed. As Carmen proved, a revival does not need to feel routine and can often better the original production. Trovatore bettered the original in terms of vocal quality, but hopefully next time all the elements will be present. 

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