23 October 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi — IL TROVATORE (B. Gulley, Y. Lysenko, T. Vaughn, M. Redding, B. Banion, C. Orr, T. Bradford, D. Arnold Paris, J. Ray; Piedmont Opera, 20 October 2023)

IN REVIEW: tenor BEN GULLEY as Manrico (left) and mezzo-soprano TICHINA VAUGHN as Azucena (right) in Piedmont Opera's October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi's IL TROVATORE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Il trovatoreBen Gulley (Manrico), Yulia Lysenko (Leonora), Tichina Vaughn (Azucena), Michael Redding (Il conte di Luna), Brian Banion (Ferrando), Carolyn Orr (Ines), Thomas Bradford (Ruiz), David Arnold Paris (Un vecchio zingaro), Jackson Ray (Un messo); Piedmont Opera Chorus, Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra; James Allbritten, conductor [Steven LaCosse, director; Michael Schweikardt, scenery designer; Howard Tsvi Kaplan, costume designer; Norman Coates, lighting designer; Brittany Rappise, wig and makeup and designer; Piedmont Opera, Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Friday, October 2023]

By the time of the world-première performance of Il trovatore in Rome’s Teatro Apollo on 19 January 1853, the thirty-nine-year-old Giuseppe Verdi was widely acclaimed as the principal steward of the Italian operatic tradition fostered by Gioachino Rossini and advanced by Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti. Having experienced personal tragedies and an extended period of relentless composition that yielded early successes including Nabucco and Macbeth, Verdi launched the 1850s with a progression of three new works that continue to be performed frequently 122 years after his death: Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore, and La traviata (1853). The second of these, a setting of librettists Salvadore Cammarano’s and Leone Enanuele Bardare’s adaptation of Spanish writer Antonio García Gutiérrez’s 1836 play El trovador, was in some ways the most musically conservative of the three, but Verdi’s adherence to the conventions of Donizettian bel canto was integrated with innovations that prefigured later works like Don Carlos and La forza del destino. Il trovatore proved to be a turning point not only in Verdi’s career but equally in the development of Nineteenth-Century Italian opera, its romantic—and Romantic—angst as compelling in 2023 as it was in the tumultuous years of the Risorgimento.

As noteworthy an exponent of Verdi repertoire as Enrico Caruso having observed after his 1908 rôle début as the titular troubadour that performing Il trovatore requires nothing short of engaging the world’s four best singers, staging the piece poses formidable challenges to opera companies of all sizes. Seldom absent for more than a few seasons from the repertories of large houses, Il trovatore is mounted less frequently by smaller companies with more limited resources. Lavishly occupying the stage of Winston-Salem’s Stevens Center, Piedmont Opera’s production of Il trovatore exhibited no suggestion of this company being intimidated by the work’s musical and theatrical demands. Rather, guided by the unassailable theatrical intuitiveness of director Steven LaCosse, the performance elucidated the dramatic subtleties of the opera’s contrasting intimacy and grandeur.

Frequently disparaged for plot elements considered absurd by some observers even at the time of its première, Il trovatore has often been parodied, not least by Sir William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan in their Pirates of Penzance. There was no satirical agenda in LaCosse’s concept for Piedmont Opera’s production, however. Particular care was devoted to deepening the production’s depiction of the duplicitous Conte di Luna, his inner conflict discernibly spurred by vengeful ferocity that only partly masked unnerving vulnerability. Like Barnaba in Ponchielli’s La gioconda, di Luna here wrought destruction when his quest for retribution and carnal gratification was thwarted by his quarry’s suicide. Learning as the axe fell on Manrico that the executed man was his brother, di Luna brutally slashed Azucena’s throat, ending the opera in stark isolation of his own making, yet LaCosse’s direction inspired empathy for the Count falling victim more to his own demons than to external forces. Throughout the performance, actions and gestures were faithful to both the libretto and the rhythms of the music, LaCosse’s respect for the score manifested in every detail of his staging.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano TICHINA VAUGHN as Azucena (center left), bass-baritone BRIAN BANION as Ferrando (center right), and the ensemble of Piedmont Opera's October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi's IL TROVATORE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]La zingara nel campo marziale: mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn as Azuena (center left), bass-baritone Brian Banion as Ferrando (center right), and the ensemble of Piedmont Opera’s October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

From first sight, Michael Schweikardt’s attractive, sensibly-proportioned scenic designs, created for Sarasota Opera, and Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s opulent costumes evoked the opera’s Spanish setting. Cleverly imparting the passage of time via interplay between brightness and shadow, Norman Coates’s lighting heightened the drama’s moroseness and unpredictability, qualities that Brittany Rappise’s wig and makeup designs accentuated by giving an unmistakable visual dimension to the class differences among characters. Vitally, characters could always be identified by appearance, enabling the audience to concentrate on their musical exchanges and the ways in which Verdi used them to advance the story.

In Piedmont Opera’s most recent productions of Il trovatore’s middle-period brethren Rigoletto (2015) and La traviata (2022), conductor James Allbritten proved to be the ideal collaborator for LaCosse’s innately musical productions, the fidelity to the composer’s score in the pit matching that on the stage. Allbritten’s pacing of Il trovatore balanced the dramatic momentum characteristic of Verdi’s post-1850 works with observance of the tenets of bel canto that permeate the opera. Tempi provided requisite excitement, building thrillingly to climaxes, but cadences were never rushed. Their playing consistent in intonation and precision of ensemble, with only an occasional wiriness from the violins adversely affecting their sound, the Winston-Salem Symphony musicians engrossingly brought Allbritten’s approach to fruition. Verdi was indisputably acquitted of the accusations of banality that are often made of his orchestral writing, conductor and orchestra disclosing the ingenuity in the seeming conventionality. Conducting of the caliber attained by Allbritten in this performance is never conventional but is now exceedingly rare in Verdi repertoire.

IN REVIEW: soprano CAROLYN ORR as Ines in Piedmont Opera's October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi's IL TROVATORE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]La confidente rispettosa: soprano Carolyn Orr as Ines in Piedmont Opera’s October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

Portraying Conte di Luna’s troops, Azucena’s gypsy community, and denizens of sacred cloisters as the opera progresses, the choristers are entrusted with conjuring the shifting moods in which Trovatore’s drama transpires. In the martial scenes in Acts One and Three, Piedmont Opera’s chorus sang boldly, the gentlemen’s voices blending artfully but maintaining an apt aura of rough-edged bravado. The widely-known Coro di zingari that launches Act Two, ‘Vedi! Le fosche notturne spoglie,’ harkens back to the grand choruses in Verdi’s earlier operas, namely Nabucco’s ‘Va, pensiero’ and Macbeth’s ‘Patria oppressa,’ and was delivered in this performance with gusto. Entreating his fellow Romany to continue their work as the chorus faded, David Arnold Paris declaimed the Vecchio zingaro’s ‘Compagni, avanza il giorno’ commandingly. Singing ‘Ah! se l’error t’ingombra’ in the convent scene at the end of Act Two and the inventive, haunting ‘Miserere d’un’alma già vicina’ in Act Four captivatingly, the choristers lent each of their appearances dramatic significance and musical excellence.

Proximity to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts often yields felicitous casting of supporting rôles in Piedmont Opera productions, providing opportunities for fellows of UNCSA’s Fletcher Opera Institute to gain invaluable on-stage experience in high-quality professional stagings. In this Trovatore, tenor Jackson Ray delivered the Messo’s fateful news of Leonora’s impending taking of the veil in Act Two portentously, enunciating ‘Risponda il foglio che reco a te’ with urgency. Manrico’s comrade Ruiz received a performance of similar immediacy from tenor Thomas Bradford, who brought tidings of Azucena’s capture in Act Three with alarm and voiced ‘Siam giunti’ in the brief exchange with Leonora at the beginning of Act Four incisively. Soprano Carolyn Orr sang alluringly as Ines, communicating a friend’s concern for Leonora in Act One, first with ‘Che più t’arresti?’ and then ‘Quanto narrasti di turbamento,’ and in the final scene of Act Two.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone BRIAN BANION as Ferrando in Piedmont Opera's October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi's IL TROVATORE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]Il capitano fedele: bass-baritone Brian Banion as Ferrando in Piedmont Opera’s October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

In the first published score of Il trovatore, Verdi and the publisher Ricordi designated the battle-hardened captain Ferrando as a rôle for basso profondo. Triumphantly resuming his career after endured life-threatening illness, bass-baritone Brian Banion was a riveting Ferrando whose storytelling and vocal presence were indeed profound. In Act One, his cries of ‘All’erta! all’erta!’ were eerily disquieting, and he recounted the harrowing tale of the fiery execution of Azucena’s mother spellbindingly, articulating each syllable of ‘Di due figli vivea padre beato’ with clarity and purpose. Ferrando’s words in the Act Two scene with di Luna were uttered with ominous shading, and each line of the terzetto in Act Three in which Ferrando recognizes Azucena as the daughter of the gypsy whose death he described in Act One was sung with vehemence and focused, flinty tone. Pretense is an integral component of opera, but this performance demonstrated that time away from the stage reinvigorated Banion’s passion for it.

IN REVIEW: baritone MICHAEL REDDING as Il conte di Luna in Piedmont Opera's October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi's IL TROVATORE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]L’agente della vendetta: baritone Michael Redding as Il conte di Luna in Piedmont Opera’s October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

With his hushed but heated voicing of the line ‘Tacea la notte!’ at his entrance in Act One, baritone Michael Redding created a sinister characterization of Conte di Luna that grew more chilling in each subsequent scene. The rejected lover’s rage upon hearing the offstage voice of his rival was palpable, and his demeanor was little impacted by the pleas of the object of his desire. Redding sang ‘Di geloso amor sprezzato’ in the terzetto with Leonora and Manrico forcefully, but his upper register was compromised by intermittent hoarseness and faltering breath control. These difficulties persisted in the baritone’s account of the Act Two aria ‘Il balen del suo sorriso,’ the filigree inexact and the top G steady but pushed. Redding was more comfortable in the cabaletta ‘Per me, ora fatale,’ singing lustily, and his vocalism in the Act Two finale exuded incendiary fury.

Preparing to besiege the rebel stronghold that sheltered Manrico in Act Three, Redding’s di Luna reacted with sadistic elation to Azucena’s apprehension and the discovery that she is the woman his dying father instructed him to pursue. Firing ‘Dunque gli estinti lasciano’ in the terzetto into the auditorium, this di Luna embarked upon the final phase of his trek to annihilation. The implacable Count dismissing Leonora’s requests for mercy for Manrico in Act Four until she offered herself as ransom, Redding voiced ‘Ah! dell’indegno rendere’ viciously, and his singing of ‘Fra te che parli?’ seethed with contempt.

In the opera’s final scene, di Luna’s initial shock at perceiving that Leonora had poisoned herself after making her bargain with him giving way to all-consuming ire, the knell of his wrath resounded in ‘Ah! volle me deludere, e per costui morir!’ Having destroyed the woman he claimed to love and the brother he knew only as an adversary, Redding’s di Luna knew no recourse other than further slaughter, turning his blade on Azucena. Despite the character’s unwavering depravity, Redding’s portrayal offered flashes of humanity amidst the repulsing villainy.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano TICHINA VAUGHN as Azucena in Piedmont Opera's October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi's IL TROVATORE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]La madre tormentata: mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn as Azucena in Piedmont Opera’s October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

Verdi’s correspondence reflects that, when considering El trovador as a possible operatic subject, it was the character who became the gypsy woman Azucena who convinced the composer to set the story to music. Mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn, a resident of Winston-Salem during her childhood and one of UNCSA’s most distinguished alumni, interpreted the rôle with boundless fervor and musical potency that fully realized Azucena’s dramatic potential. Dominating the stage in Act Two, her vocal acting mesmerizing the audience. The trills in the canzone ‘Stride la vampa’ were more suggested than truly sung, but the histrionic acumen that enlivened this scene and the racconto ‘Condotta ell’era in ceppi al suo destin tremendo’ was galvanizing. In the duetto with Manrico, Vaughn intoned ‘Ma nell’alma dell’ingrato’ vehemently but with tenderness. She avoided the top C in ‘Perigliarti ancor languente’ but left no other demand of the music unmet.

Dragged into Conte di Luna’s camp at the start of Act Three, Vaughn’s Azucena was bound physically but irrepressibly free of spirit. Her singing of ‘Giorni poveri vivea’ beguiled, her handling of the music’s evolution from lyricism to the frenetic energy of ‘Deh! rallentate, o barbari’—shortened by half—and the terzetto spotlighting the presages of Verdi’s writing for Amneris in Aida. In the Act Four prison scene with Manrico, Vaughn’s voicing of ‘Un giorno turba feroce l’ava tua condusse’ shuddered with fear, making the serenity of her dulcet ‘Ai nostri monti, ritorneremo!’ all the more stirring.

The transformation of Azucena’s grief into exultant vindication as she revealed in the final scene that the slain Manrico was di Luna’s brother was depicted with startling realism, Vaughn exclaiming ‘Sei vendicata, o madre!’ with abandon and an explosive top B♭. Di Luna’s impulsive murder of Azucena was jolting, but the mysticism of Vaughn’s stunningly-sung portrayal made the character’s demise seem inevitable, as though she, like di Luna, was an instrument of unalterable destiny.

IN REVIEW: soprano YULIA LYSENKO as Leonora in Piedmont Opera's October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi's IL TROVATORE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]La donna senza pace: soprano Yulia Lysenko as Leonora in Piedmont Opera’s October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

Returning to the stage on which she earned acclaim for her performances as Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Violetta in La traviata, soprano Yulia Lysenko traded Elizabethan Britain and consumption-ridden Paris for war-torn Spain with an exquisite, expressive portrayal of Leonora in Il trovatore. Phrasing the Act One cavatina ‘Tacea la notte placida’ with innate grasp of Verdi’s style, she seamlessly integrated the top B♭s and C into the line. Likewise, the trills and ascents above the stave in the cabaletta ‘Di tale amor che dirsi,’ denied its repeat, were executed with technical acumen that facilitated emotional engagement with the significance of each note and word. ‘Ah! dalle tenebre tratta in errore io fui!’ in the terzetto was rousingly sung, the soprano ending the act with a blazing interpolated top D♭.

Believing Manrico to have died in battle, Leonora resolves to seek refuge in a life of religious contemplation, committing herself to a convent in the final scene of Act Two. Her motions and her vocalism exhibiting poise befitting a noble lady, Lysenko sang the cantabile ‘Degg’io volgemi a quei’ delicately. Bliss blossomed in Lysenko’s voicing of ‘L’onda de’ suoni mistici’ in the Act Three duettino with Manrico, but the tranquility was short-lived, the lovers’ reunion interrupted by the news of Azucena’s detainment.

Leonora’s Act Four aria ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee’ is one of the most daunting pieces in the Verdi canon, its trills and arching lines necessitating unassailable bel canto technique. Lysenko’s traversal of the aria succeeded musically and dramatically. Like many celebrated Leonore, Lysenko omitted the aria’s treacherous written top D♭ but interpolated the note to tremendous effect in the cadenza. The traditional interpolation of a C in the ‘Miserere’ raised the scene’s emotional stakes. Cutting the cabaletta ‘Tu vedrai che amore in terra’ remains common practice but was regrettable in a performance with so capable a Leonora.

There were oddities in the soprano’s approaches to staccati and intervals in ‘Mira, di acerbe lagrime’ and ‘Vivrà! contende il giubilo,’ but the earnestness of her singing heightened the tension of the confrontation with di Luna. As the dying Leonora begged Manrico to flee from his captivity, Lysenko voiced ‘Oh, come l’ira ti rende cieco!’ with wrenching dejection. The eloquence of her singing was ideally suited to the deceptive simplicity of ‘Prima che d’altri vivere,’ Leonora’s death acted with restraint. The beauty of Lysenko’s timbre enchanted, but tonal luster was only one facet of her incandescent Leonora.

IN REVIEW: tenor BEN GULLEY as Manrico in Piedmont Opera's October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi's IL TROVATORE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]L’eroe della serenata: tenor Ben Gulley as Manrico in Piedmont Opera’s October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

115 years after the Metropolitan Opera audience welcomed Caruso’s inaugural portrayal of Manrico, tenor Ben Gulley unveiled a portrayal of Verdi’s heroic jongleur that disclosed the fruits of thorough preparation. Reminiscent of the work of one of Spain’s foremost exponents of the rôle, Pedro Lavirgén, Gulley’s performance allied vocal amplitude with stylistic finesse, reminding the Winston-Salem audience than Manrico shares as close a musical kinship with Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor as with Verdi’s Otello. Even from offstage, Gulley’s voice filled the theater in his opening scene, his voicing of the romanza ‘Deserto sulla terra’ seductive and his interpolated top B♭ gleaming. Protecting Leonora whilst sparring with di Luna in the terzetto, this Manrico battled as intrepidly with his voice as with his sword, defending his beloved with a brilliant top D♭.

Upset by the implication in Azucena’s Act Two narrative that he is not her son by birth, Manrico expressed his confusion and consternation in a statement of ‘Non son tuo figlio!’ suffused by Gulley with doubt. The sincerity with which devotion to Azucena and affection for Leonora were conveyed in ‘Mal reggendo alt’a sprossalto’ was uncanny, increasing the tenacity with which Manrico determined to reach Leonora before she took holy vows. ‘Né m’ebbe il ciel’ in the terzetto was sung with unflagging energy and unflappable security, traits that distinguished the tenor’s vocalism from start to finish.

Gulley phrased the Mozartian aria ‘Ah sì, ben mio, coll’essere’ in Act Three raptly, his deft control of the voice encompassing elegant tonal coloring and crisply-sung trills. Romantic attachment to Leonora corruscated in the brief duettino before being supplanted by iron-willed surrender to filial duty. Sung in Verdi’s original key and capped with effortless top Cs, the cabaletta ‘Di quella pira’ rightly provoked a frenzied ovation.

Manrico’s voice heard from his prison cell in the Act Four ‘Miserere,’ each word was sung with expressive weight. In the scene with Azucena, Gulley voiced ‘Riposa, o madre: io prono e muto’ lovingly, caressing the line. The disdain with which Manrico rebuked Leonora for securing his freedom by pledging herself to di Luna surged in Gulley’s singing, but the character’s scorn was soon redirected at himself as he understood the scope of Leonora’s sacrifice. Gulley sang ‘Insano! ed i quest’angelo osava maledir!’ assiduously, heartbreak flooding his tones. Capitulating to inexorable fate, Manrico went to the block with little resistance, only his despondent farewell to Azucena divulging ruefulness.

Too many productions of Il trovatore in recent years have been assembled around tenors who lack the technical skill and vocal resilience needed to bring Manrico to life as tenors like Aureliano Pertile and Giovanni Martinelli did in years past. Perhaps the most notable achievement of Piedmont Opera’s masterful Trovatore was the participation of a Manrico who, though singing the rôle for the first time, sang some of Verdi’s most corpuscular music as though the blood of Caruso, Björling, and del Monaco flowed in his veins.