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Spanish Knights and Moorish Gypsies

Teatro São Carlos
06/03/2023 -  & June 5, 7, 11, 2023
Giuseppe Verdi: Il trovatore
Alessandro Luongo (Conte di Luna), Ivan Gyngazov (Manrico), Cátia Moreso (Azucena), Cristiana Oliveira (Leonora), Dario Russo (Ferrando), Joana Seara (Ines), Sérgio Martins (Ruiz)
Coro do Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Giampaolo Vessella (chorus master), Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa (Antonio Pirolli)
Stefano Vizioli (stage director), Alessandro Ciammarughi (sets & costumes), Fabio Rossi (lighting)

(© Antonio Pedro Ferreira)

This very fine Lisbon production of Verdi’s Il trovatore is the fourth and finest one I’ve experienced in the past six months, thanks to its excellent ensemble of singers, its strong orchestral accompaniment, and most of all, thanks to Stefano Vizioli’s sober yet effective stage production.

The costumes for the Conte di Luna and Leonora were conceived in the usual style of Spain, circa the Middle Ages, but the original idea of having the Gypsies–Azucena, Manrico and his warriors–in Andalusian Arab attire was ingenious. However, it’s most probably historically inaccurate, as much of Aragon, where the opera takes place, had been captured from the Arab Almoravids in the 12th century. It is unlikely that the rather intolerant Spaniards would have allowed the Muslims to flourish, even as nomadic gypsies, three centuries later. Nonetheless, portraying the gypsies as rebellious Arabs invigorated the action. Sartorially, gypsies in marvelously colourful Arab garb brightened up the stage in an operatic work which often suffers from dark, drab sets and duller decor.

Il trovatore (written in 1853) is often thought of as the last bel canto opera, for Verdi’s style changed substantially with his next opera, La traviata, written in the same year. The noblewoman Leonora is a bel canto role, full of ornamentations, requiring a masterful technique. The problem lies in the ideal voice for this role. Many think of a spinto or even a dramatic soprano as the voice most suited for Leonora. However, this role requires more agility than Verdi’s spinto roles. Often coloraturas have portrayed this tragic heroine with mixed results, as most are too lightweight for such a tragic role. The ideal Leonora must be a first‑rate lyric soprano capable of fulfilling the role’s demands.

Portuguese soprano Cristiana Oliveira’s revelatory take on Leonora wanted nothing, thanks to her gorgeous lyric soprano and her impeccable technique, and her dark, distinct timbre added gravitas to the tragic role. Gifted with a compelling stage presence, Oliveira is the ideal Leonora. Her rendition of Act IV’s “D’amor sull’ali rosee” was the evening’s highlight, so movingly nuanced was her interpretation. Thunderous applause followed.

Act II was animated thanks to the colourful gypsies and Alessandro Ciammarughi’s luxuriant orientalist costumes. The fact that they were of all ages made for a credible gypsy encampment. The anvil chorus didn’t seem contrived as it sometimes does, thanks to the other bustling activities in the encampment. Most entertaining were the mock fights and duels. It was amusing that a mock duel between two gypsy girls was more convincing than the duel between Manrico and Conte di Luna in Act I.

Cátia Moreso was a first rate Azucena, both vocally and dramatically. Thankfully she avoided the histrionics resorted to by too many Azucenas. Yet, she was able to portray a traumatized woman who had burnt her own child and raised her nemesis’s offspring instead. One can imagine the state of mind of such a woman. Her “Stride la vampa” was impassioned with impressive low notes yet without any uncouth chest notes. Her interrogation by Conte di Luna in Act III was effective, as it was both imploring and defiant. The Count’s men were impervious to her prayers and showed disdain to the middle‑aged gypsy woman during the interrogation. The scene ended with these same men improperly touching her and finally jumping on top of her in what looked like gang rape.

Act III opened to reveal a sensual setting in which Leonora was luxuriating amid cushions and oriental rugs with Manrico. Happiness and eroticism were discreetly portrayed, without recourse to vulgarity. The contrast between Manrico’s dwelling and Leonora’s previous austere abode partially explained Leonora’s preference of the troubadour to the Count. Russian tenor Ivan Gyngazov was an exuberant Manrico who exuded youth and vigour. He impressed with his high notes in “Di quella pira” but was also elegantly suave in “Ah! sì ben mio.” My only reservation was that his voice wasn’t Italianate enough, but this native of Novossibirsk is a young singer who until recently has mostly performed in Russia; an international career will do the trick!

Alessandro Luongo’s Count di Luna was less convincing, despite his beautiful delivery. His “Il balen del suo sorriso” was well sung and full of passion. One had sympathy for this forlorn lover’s rejection. As a Count in a structured society, he didn’t convey sufficient authority, and his deportment was far from aristocratic. Despite being an anti‑hero, he was able to solicit sympathy in his Act IV duet with Leonora: a despised lover promised the object of his desire under reprehensible circumstances.

Dario Russo’s Ferrando stood out in this relatively minor role. He excelled in the opera’s opening aria “All’erta! All’erta!” where he impressed with his virile lower notes. Thanks to his authoritative tone in the narration of the gypsy woman’s revenge and theft of the old Count’s child, he set the tone to a tragic story.

Antonio Pirolli, a masterful conductor of Verdi and bel canto, led the Teatro São Carlos’s orchestra with panache, giving special attention to the needs of the singers in this vocally demanding work.

The well‑behaved public, which didn’t overreact to the opera’s many lollipops (“Stride la vampa”, “Di quella pira”, “Tacea la notte placida”, etc), were effusively thankful at the end of the opera, rightfully reserving their huge appreciation of this delightful performance for the much‑deserved curtain calls.

Ossama el Naggar



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