25 October 2011

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - IL TROVATORE (A. Palombi, L. Daltirus, D. Graves, M. Corvino) – Opera Carolina, Charlotte, NC; 23 October 2011

Denyce Graves and Antonello Palombi in Verdi's IL TROVATORE at Opera Carolina [Photo from jonsilla.com]

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Il Trovatore – Antonello Palombi (Manrico), Lisa Daltirus (Leonora), Denyce Graves (Azucena), Michael Corvino (Conte di Luna), Kristopher Irmiter (Ferrando), Jessie Wright-Martin (Inez), Brian Arreola (Ruiz); Opera Carolina Chorus, Charlotte Symphony Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Belk Theatre, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Charlotte, North Carolina; 23 October 2011]

No one wants to be that guy who, after seeing the production that is the current rage, shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘I just didn’t get it.’  Even in America, where tradition retains a firmer grasp on operatic stages than elsewhere, there are numerous shrugs in the lobbies and stairways of opera houses.  One of the most endearing aspects of Opera Carolina’s production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore (designed by John Boeshe, directed by Jay Lesenger, and lit by Michael Baumgarten; seen at the Belk Theatre in Blumenthal Performing Arts Center) was that there were no conspicuous efforts at making the opera ‘relevant’ or ‘accessible’ as is now so often the case: this was merely an opera by Verdi, and a very good one whether or not one can embrace the much-criticized libretto, given a stirring performance.  There was a clear message to operatic America: if you have tired of attending performances that you do not understand, of operas that you thought you like, come to Charlotte and renew your devotion.

Opera Carolina’s production made effective use of projection technology, employing projected backdrops with minimal physical scenery to conjure the scenic settings of Verdi’s drama.  While this arguably went slightly too far on a few occasions, especially in the fiery projection that turned a beautiful canyon into what seemed a scene of horrific inferno during Azucena’s Act-Two description of her mother’s actions, there were evocatively beautiful scenes, not least the convent setting that occurred later in Act Two: the physical set, comprised of two large pillars flanking an enormous crucifix, framed projections of the cloister’s courtyard against a starry sky.  The opera’s Spanish setting was always apparent, and the prison setting for the opera’s final scene was also especially beautiful.  Costumes were stylish and appropriate, Azucena’s bohemian clothing suggesting both majesty and hardship and Leonora’s luxurious gowns evoking nobility and providing splashes of color in the fading world she inhabits.  The production was refreshingly simple in its obvious aim at presenting Verdi’s opera as the composer intended.

The principal singers were given a firm foundation upon which to build a powerful performance.  The Charlotte Symphony played with sensitivity and brio, with strong showings by the brass and woodwinds.  The Charlotte audience deserve a reprimand for their collective failure in etiquette, though: a passage as beautiful as the prelude to Leonora’s scene that opens Act Four, gorgeously played, was virtually inaudible until its final bars because of the audience’s chatter.  Maestro James Meena led a firm performance that mostly maintained order and produced good balance between stage and pit.  Especially in the first half of the opera, tempi in certain passages lacked momentum and seemed unnecessarily cautious, though the performance avoided any sense of dragging.  The Opera Carolina Chorus sang wonderfully throughout the performance, proving most effective in halves, as the nuns in the final scene of Act Two and the monks in the magnificent ‘Miserere.’  The celebrated ‘Anvil Chorus’ was suitably rousing, and from start to finish the choristers sang with security, control, and polish far superior to those typical of the house choruses of smaller companies.

The comprimario rôles of Inez and Ruiz were taken by singers active in Charlotte-area music education, soprano Jessie Wright-Martin and tenor Brian Arreola.  Both proved effective performers, with Mr. Arreola appropriately bringing his finest singing of the afternoon to his brief scene with Leonora at the beginning of Act Four.  Bass Kristopher Irmiter, announced as suffering from an indisposition, nevertheless sang firmly as Ferrando, capably launching the performance with his here’s-what-you-need-to-know aria.

Baritone Michael Corvino brought a convincingly frustrated and ultimately defeated stage presence to the Conte di Luna, his reaction to learning in the final bars that he has just sent his own brother to execution enacted with emotional legitimacy.  Throughout the performance, Mr. Corvino sang with pointed, secure tone, giving his all with a voice slightly small for his assignment.  Still, the Conte’s ‘Il balen del suo sorriso’—as demanding and rewarding an aria as Verdi (or any other composer) created for the baritone voice—was given a fine performance, the tricky ornaments and treacherous ascents into the highest register negotiated handily.

Arguably the production’s most provocative element was the presence of dynamic mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as Azucena.  It cannot be denied that Azucena is an atypical and, in vocal terms, unusually challenging assignment for Ms. Graves.  There were moments of obvious discomfort, notably in the extreme upper register (though a fine B-flat was summoned for the last bars of the opera), and some technical niceties of the role—the trills in ‘Stride la vampa,’ for instance—were unobserved.  What cannot be underestimated, though, is the extraordinary richness and depth of Ms. Graves’s voice.  Hearing her as Azucena was something like what it would be to hear Erda in Verdian guise: Ms. Graves’s voice, as awe-inspiring and mysterious as a glacial lake, seems almost like a primordial sound escaping from some chasm in the earth.  When not under pressure, she produced some notably lovely tone, as in ‘Ai nostri monti,’ which was also phrased with great feeling.  Azucena’s defiance of the Conte in Act Three was as monstrous as her unraveling in Act Four was dismaying, and the maniacal laughter with which she welcomed the realization of her vengeance was stirring if dramatically unnecessary.  In Ms. Graves’s performance, it was more obvious than in many performances of the rôle why Verdi originally intended Azucena to be his opera’s central character.

With such a mother—biological or adopted—as Ms. Graves’s Azucena, Manrico could hardly have avoided being a brooding but explosive personality, and these qualities were brilliantly conveyed in the performance of Italian tenor Antonello Palombi.  Opera Carolina are to be congratulated for bringing Mr. Palombi to Charlotte, for in doing so they introduced their audience to one of the finest Italian singers of his generation and a Manrico superior to almost any singing with the world’s major opera companies.  A veteran of La Scala and many first-rank European houses, Mr. Palombi brought to Manrico a timbre that unconditionally qualified him for the rôle and an energy that never flagged.  First heard from off-stage in the serenade ‘Deserto sulla terra’ (capped in the authentic Italian manner with an interpolated top B-flat, of course), Mr. Palombi’s voice filled the house with gleaming tone.  Once seen, he was the hot-blooded Spanish lover to his core, singing with passion that never threatened to become vulgarity.  Mr. Palombi sang Manrico’s difficult but entrancing ‘Ah sì, ben mio’ with considerable grace, a surprising and refreshing effort from a generally burly and high-spirited Manrico.  ‘Di quella pira’ was sung manfully, with the kind of chest-thumping virility—and pulse-quickening top notes—that the music demands but so seldom receives in this age of ‘thoughtful’ productions.  If there is anything that Verdi makes obvious about Manrico it is that he is a man of action rather than thought, and Mr. Palombi delivered on this premise in spades, giving a formidably accomplished and ringing performance of what seems, owing to its deceptive but unstinting melodiousness, an easy rôle; one that defeats many of the tenors who attempt it.  Mr. Palombi triumphed.

The universal veracity of the aphorism suggesting that behind every good man there is a good woman will be left to debate, but it was beyond doubt that Opera Carolina’s magnificent Manrico was supported by a world-class Leonora.  Soprano Lisa Daltirus, whose first Trovatore was sung only a few seasons ago for Connecticut Opera (the loss of which is one of the greatest blows of the current recession), sang with the poise, technique, and beauty of tone necessary for her rôle and for the Verdi soprano repertory in general.  Given music that never relaxes in its technical demands, Leonora is one of the most difficult rôles in the soprano repertory, and Ms. Daltirus’s accomplishment was remarkable in making the music sound not easy, but natural.  Few rôles offer entrance music as vocally perilous as Leonora’s ‘Tacea la notte,’ but Ms. Daltirus hit the musical ground running: shaping both her opening aria and cabaletta with elegance, she soared through the trio that closes Act One to a ringing interpolated top D-flat.  Her singing in the Act Two finale was similarly impressive, but Ms. Daltirus rose to greatest heights in Act Four, in which Leonora’s demands are most daunting.  In the exquisite ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee’ Ms. Daltirus phrased Verdi’s long lines and executed the trills with uncommon grace, and she drew the audience into her cadenza, which became an almost cathartic climax (and which quieted even the chattiest members of the audience).  Both here and later, in her final scene, Ms. Daltirus’s singing of pianissimo passages in her highest register elicited audible gasps of admiration from the audience, especially in the melting tones of her singing of ‘Prima che d’altri vivere.’  Most remarkable was her singing during the ‘Miserere,’ one of Verdi’s most innovative and dramatically perfect scenes.  Passionately interjecting into the solemn invocation of the off-stage monks, Ms. Daltirus sang with the kind of abandon and commitment to music and text that make issues of the relevance of opera unimportant and frankly idiotic: here was a woman, as real as any in Renaissance Spain or 21st-Century North Carolina, her betrothed imprisoned and facing certain death, and the sacrifice of her own life at hand.  Conveying this meaningfully through music is the achievement solely of a true artist, and Ms. Daltirus’s success was complete.

Il Trovatore is one of those operas that audiences know that they are supposed to hate, with its heart-on-the-sleeve melodrama, implausible situations, and unrelenting tunefulness; or else it is an opera in which some elusive ‘deeper meaning’ must be sought.  Opera Carolina did Verdi the favor of assembling an exceptionally top-drawer cast and offering Trovatore in a production that presented the story without exaggeration or psychological preening.  Azucena, Manrico, and Leonora are not figures who ponder human evolution, the intricacies of Existential relationships, or world peace: they are simple people, blessed by the genius of Verdi with music of unforgettable beauty, and Denyce Graves, Antonello Palombi, and Lisa Daltirus gave them burning life.

Soprano Lisa Daltirus, Opera Carolina's Leonora in Verdi's IL TROVATORE [Photo from Seattle Opera]