It’s exciting when you get a chance to test an offbeat theory, and even more exciting when you prove it.
Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore was at one time –perhaps at the end of the 19th century—the most popular opera in the world, the sine qua non of beautiful singing & dramma per musica. Now? According to operabase.com’s 2012-13 stats Trovatore is merely the fifth most popular of Verdi’s operas –after Nabucco for crying out loud—and merely 20th most popular. And their earlier survey for 2005-6 through 2009-2010 puts Trovatore at 23rd.
And so as I’ve pondered why it fell in popularity, i had my theories. Maybe the problem is that the work is never allowed to work the way it’s written, which is to say, as a conservative and mechanical melodrama heavy on religion and old-fashioned values. When you tell the synopsis to people they often speak of it as embarrassing, as though opera were somehow supposed to be realistic; what, Das Rheingold or Rusalka are realistic or believable? We’re okay with the witch in Hansel and Gretel and the nasty lady with the high notes in the Magic Flute but NOT the one in Il trovatore??
Directors who modernize only heighten the disconnect, as if you’d taken a medieval mystery drama telling the biblical myth of Noah and decided to stage it as though there is no God, and no boat. In my review of the COC’s recent Trovatore for example, i acknowledged how nice it sounded, but I felt it made little or no sense (but i didn’t address that in much detail). OR as Richard Ouzounian of the Star put it:
And while it’s generally acknowledged that the strength of Il Trovatore is in its passionate characters and sublime music, it needs a strong hand on the design and directorial elements to make its overwrought saga of gypsy vengeance ultimately not seem risible or dull. It doesn’t get that assistance here.
And so no wonder that it’s always believed that if only the director were to fix it the thing would work, when the whole problem is directors fighting the work’s naturally melodramatic tendencies, fixing something that isn’t actually broken.
Tonight I saw Opera York stage a conservative reading of trovatore, largely driven by melodramatic acting and staging. We were in the intimate space of Richmond Hill’s Centre for the Performing Arts, a comparatively small space with exquisite acoustics. Where the Four Seasons Centre seats around 1900, I believe this space is somewhere around 600. Opera York’s Artistic Director Sabatino Vacca conducted a small orchestra (22 players) ensuring that no singer was ever covered. Opera York’s chorus is likely a group of 20 amateurs, a bit daunted by the complexities of Verdi, bravely singing some of the most glorious numbers ever written even as they’re often unable to muster a collective sound as loud as a single genuine operatic voice. The costumes suggest the middle ages as if we were watching a B-picture from the 1950s.
And yet for me it was far more satisfying than what I saw from the COC, precisely because the opera was allowed to work the way it was written. Director Gabe Graziano doesn’t fight the inevitable, allowing his cast to mostly stand and deliver in those situations that Ouzounian had spoken of as “risible or dull”. And my theory is confirmed, that directors have been fighting Verdi, whereas Graziano more or less let Verdi work as written.
This is especially so with Kristine Dandavino who was an over-the-top Azucena, or in other words, giving us the gypsy woman the way the role is written. We watched an interpretation so blatant as to resemble a throwback to Verdi’s time, an authentic piece of melodrama always in character. The voice is startlingly powerful with a few soprano high notes interpolated, and an amazing chest voice. Her work in Act II was so chilling the audience was too stunned to applaud at the end of her big –and brilliantly sung—aria “stride la vampa”.
Paul Williamson’s Manrico was much more about the voice than the dramatic characterization, which –again—is consistent with how I believe the work should be done. We watch someone whose emotions turn on a dime, someone who—like Siegfried or Rhadames—believes what he’s told, a hero whose reactions are instant and genuine, without intellectual depth. This too is exactly what the melodrama requires, particularly the luscious line and the high notes.
Nicolae Raiciu was the most enjoyable Count di Luna I think I’ve ever seen. I should mention that I believe this role is largely un-singable. With a full orchestra (rather than the 22 players in a tiny house) much of the role tends to get drowned out. Di Luna is a jerk, a jealous obstacle in the plot whose actions are unsympathetic in any presentation attempting to give the characters depths. While I loved Russell Braun’s singing & sophisticated portrayal with the COC, it ultimately made little sense because the opera doesn’t reward three-dimensional characterization. Raiciu was savage, as jealously romantic as a French apache dancer. Yes, the smaller orchestra changes everything, but in fact Raiciu had lots of voice with a spectacularly full top. Di Luna often sounds like a bizarre hybrid, a transitional creation from Verdi that’s partly bel canto, and at times has to honk out impossible lines during ensembles. This is the first time I’ve ever heard those notes. In fact I could hear everyone clearly.
Rachel Edwards had some great moments, especially in the last act, and was very good dramatically. Henry Irwin was a very dynamic Ferrando, especially in his big scene at the beginning. Also rounding out the solid ensemble were Sarah Hicks, making a lot of the small part of Inez and Richard Iannello, a very sweet-voiced Ruiz.
On balance I believe Opera York should be very proud, a company gradually building a foundation for the future. Vacca kept things moving at a brisk pace, getting a lovely sound from this small orchestra, easily filling the intimate theatre with more than enough power, and delicacy when necessary. This is an opera company with a great future.