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Verdi’s Tale of Love and War

New York
Metropolitan Opera
02/16/2009 -  & February 20*, 24, 28, March 4, 7, 10, 13, 16, 20, and April 21, 25, 29, May 2, 8, 2009
Guiseppe Verdi: Il Trovatore

Sondra Radvanovsky (Leonora), Dolora Zajick (Azucena), Marcelo Álvarez (Manrico), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (di Luna), Kwangchul Youn (Ferrando), Maria Zifchak (Inez), Eduardo Valdes (Ruiz)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (Conductor)
David McVicar (Production), Charles Edwards (Set Designer), Brigitte Reiffenstuel (Costume Designer), Jennifer Tipton (Lighting Designer), Leah Hausman (Choreographer)

(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera has done itself – and Verdi – proud. After two widely ridiculed productions of Il Trovatore, there were high hopes for David McVicar’s production, which first appeared in Chicago, in 2006. As staged by the Metropolitan Opera, it was as appealing to the eye as it was to the ear. And that is saying a great deal.

Yanking operas out of their original context can work well – or not. In this case, McVicar’s decision to update the setting from the 15th century to the 19th, and relate the story to Spain’s Peninsula war, was an inspired choice. His inspiration was Francisco Goya who, in his late years, became preoccupied with the horrors and pain that human beings in the grip of anger, hatred, and a thirst for revenge can inflict upon one another. It is precisely these emotions that grip two of the four main characters in Il Trovatore, Count di Luna, and the gypsy, Azucena, and propel them and those they love to their terrible fate.

Goya gave visual form to these horrors in a series of prints, The Disasters of War, chronicling events of the Peninsula War, and in a set of 14 works, called The Black Paintings, now in the Prado Museum in Madrid. Seeing those paintings together is a shattering experience. McVicar chose one of them, The Pilgrimage to San Isidro, and reproduced it on a huge scale as a theater curtain. Goya’s broad, free brushwork depicted expressions of horror, pain, and confusion, as figures with grotesque features, rolling eyes, and open mouths huddled together in a claustrophobic space.

The power of this image to set the mood for the opera was diluted a bit by the disruption of the usual cadre of stragglers taking their seats at the last minute. Nevertheless, it was very effective in one essential respect; it dispelled the pervasive sense, fostered in large part by two hilarious parodies of Gilbert and Sullivan, that the plot is simply too silly for us to be emotionally engaged. It’s not. And we were gripped, moved, and carried along by a dramatically powerful production, an intensity and pace that never flagged, and superb performances by the four principal singers and the reliably magnificent Met chorus.

The set was ingenious. A revolving turntable kept the action moving as we moved from scene to scene. The main set was transformed from battlefield to gypsy camp to palace to convent in the blink of an eye, often solely by evocative changes in the color of the light. Large ensembles moved on the stage with choreographed precision. And the visual effects were not only striking but they added so much to the mood. The “Anvil Chorus” was wonderful fun, with its muscular men pounding the anvils. As they did, giant shadows of the crowd on stage were projected against the backdrop and a turbulent baroque sky. The grouping of the chorus in the convent scene was reminiscent of the great religious paintings, and the effect was extraordinarily moving.

Enrico Caruso once remarked that staging Il Trovatore required nothing more than assembling the four greatest singers in the world. There is more than a little hyperbole here, of course, but the vocal challenges presented by the four principal roles are substantial. And the challenges were met by a uniformly excellent cast. Peter Gelb appeared before the opera began to tell us that our Manrico, Marcelo Álvarez, was recovering from a bout with bronchitis. There was no need for the announcement. Álvarez was in superb voice. He sang with ringing high notes, just the right touch of vibrato, and a fine legato line. He was a tender lover, a loving son, and a passionate soldier.

Sandra Radvanovsky as Leonora gave an extraordinary performance, as beautifully acted as it was exquisitely sung. Her voice had a dusky, mellow quality. She sang with unforced power and control. Her coloratura was beautifully done.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Luna was a passionate, tormented, and ultimately tragic figure. Hvorostovsky seems utterly comfortable with Verdi baritone roles. He sang with a beautiful legato line and was very effective in the ensemble work with Álvarez and Radvanovsky. He also cut quite a dashing figure.

Dolora Zajick as the gypsy Azucena was a force of nature. Despite the obvious break in her voice between her upper and lower range, she sang beautifully and with great passion and energy.

The Met chorus was excellent in all of its incarnations – rousing in the battle scenes and unbearably moving offstage, as they prayed for the soul of Manrico. The orchestra, under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda, gave full expression to the lushness and power of Verdi’s music, and propelled the action to its tragic conclusion. It was a night to remember and a production to be treasured.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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