Il Trovatore Returns to Seattle Opera

By R.M. Campbell

Verdi’s “Il trovatore” has been regarded as a joke, with great tunes; a unsurpassed example of Romantic melodrama; one of the last breaths, in 1855, of an earlier era of Italian opera, a work nearly impossible to stage with any credibility today. Enrico Caruso once quipped that all one required for a good performance were the four greatest singers in the world.

As the second opera in its Verdi cycle this season, Seattle Opera this weekend at McCaw Hall took the leap for its first ‘Trovatore” in 13 years.

The company was not foolhardy in taking on the opera. It has a more than 40-year history of producing the piece and managed to find two fine sets of principals to sing the audacious and difficult main roles. Three in the cast came from its Young Artists Program, two in their mainstage debuts and one — Mary Elizabeth Williams — as Leonora

One will not remember the drama — it is hard to overcome the cliche-ridden text and situation — or modest decor from Minnesota Opera. Instead, it is the full-throated singing that scaled all sorts of heights that Verdi threw into the opera, the kind that seemed to have disappeared from the international opera stage.

Verdi wrote more remarkably tuneful music for “Trovatore” that most composers do in a lifetime of effort. One number follows the other, sometimes in rapid succession. They have been made familiar by famous singers in the past who made them part of our musical culture. Even those who don’t attend opera will know them. Perhaps it is better if their words are not so familiar for they are often trite, even more so in the context of the opera. If ever there was an opera in which supertitles might be abandoned, this is one. The obsessive, if not insane, characters who sing them are not only one-dimensional but rather silly, not very intelligent or particularly sympathetic. Seattle Opera’s production did not get past those limitations. To do so, if possible, a new production would have to be conceived and a lot of money spent. That was the not case here. The best thing about the set design from Minnesota was the huge gilt frame, broken at the bottom, that encompasses the action. It is really too small for the proscenium of McCaw, reducing it by a third, but nevertheless effective in suggesting an old master setting for the opera.

Jose Maria Condemi’s staging was pretty old-fashioned, sometimes almost emphasizing the opera’s melodrama. Perhaps it was intentional but not consistent enough to be a concept but enough to be distracting. The constant scene changes required by the set design and the musical style of many different numbers that come to an end instead of flowing readily into something else did not help in creating a unified music-drama There was a lot of stopping and starting, the sort one rarely sees in any house with modern aesthetic ideas. Perhaps he just gave in to the inevitable: all those terrible lines cobbled together in the libretto of Salvatore Cammarano and Leone Emanuele Bardare, after Antonio Garcia Gutierrez’s play “El trovador.”

The person who was well served was Verdi, and for that we should be grateful. The Saturday night cast was headed by Lisa Daltirus, Antonello Palombi, Malgorzata Walewska and Gordon Hawkins. We know Daltirus from her appearances in “Tosca” and “Aida.” “Trovatore” represents her finest singing in Seattle. The sound was bold and free and dramatic. She had all the requisite high notes, of which there are plenty, and a long line so that everything she did was organic. At times she was thrilling, in a visceral way, certainly resolute and vocally appealing. She was in tears at the end of her performance on Saturday. In the past few days not only had her father died but three relatives of her husband were killed by the earthquake in Haiti. However, I wish someone would suggest a movement coach for her. It would help her stage presence considerably.

Palombi is a real Italian tenor. He also has all the high notes Verdi so generously wrote into the score and a handsome sound, when he is not bellowing at the top of his lungs, which he does too often. He can sing softly, which he did on occasion, and the effect was startling. Walewska made her local debut as Judith in Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” last season. That was a performance of great dimensions. Her Azucena did not disappoint. She has that husky quality in her timbre that makes for a first-rate Azucena as well as a soaring passion that informs every phrase. Hawkins was a solid and convincing Count di Luna — not too much or too little — everything stripped to the essentials. Arthur Woodley continues to grow as an artist, as his Ferrando testified this weekend. In minor roles were Rosario and Slywotzky, both excellent.

Williams has enormous potential as her Leonora demonstrated on Sunday afternoon. Her voice has weight but is intensely lyrical. It is also warm and rounded. She has a beautiful line, finesse and an arsenal of colors which she uses with great discretion. Her phrases are seamlessly blended with an array of dynamics. For someone so young and inexperienced, Williams’ gifts are striking. Arnold Rawls can sing Manrico well enough but he too sings too often too loud, always favoring a big sound over finesse. Mary Phillips was persuasive as Azucena, giving it everything she had, and Todd Thomas as the Count was evil-sounding more by temperament than sheer sound.

The men from the Seattle Opera Chorus were in splendid shape, except for the occasional problem with ensemble. Thank you Beth Kirchoff, the chorusmaster. What good work she has done since she took over the chorus a decade ago.

Yves Abel is an excellent conductor. He conducted with panache, sympathy and even fire when called upon to do so.


7 thoughts on “Il Trovatore Returns to Seattle Opera

  1. Thank you, RMC, for another review that is “right on the button” re sets, staging, and both casts. It is a great shame hose confined to the print media are no longer able to benefit from your extensive expertise!!!!

  2. In reply to your review, let me first say Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” is not and never has been “regarded as a joke”. Perhaps this production is a joke, but that has little to do with what a good production could and should be. It is true that the plot is a bit convoluted and difficult to follow, but worrying about the “cliche-ridden text and situation” you are missing the essence of what opera is all about. Opera is about great melody and great singing. The plot is a vehicle which holds it together and creates dramatic situations that allow performers to reach us at the central core of our emotional being. Sounds cliche? Call it what you will, but when it is done well, it is one of the greatest theatrical experiences.

    My main concern with your review is your statement, “The person who was well-served was Verdi”. As you mentioned, “Enrico Caruso once quipped that all one required for a good performance (of Il Trovatore) were the four greatest singers in the world.” Well, perhaps that was a bit too much to expect from Seattle’s production, but clearly the opera and the audience deserved better.
    Of the Leonora, Lisa Daltirus, you wrote, “the sound was bold and free…”. Clearly, you must have been aware that she began the evening singing quite flat and by the last act was singing sharp. There are many reason why pitch problems happen to a singer, but none of them have to do with singing freely. It was also noticeable in her fourth act aria that when she tried to approach her high notes softly, her vocal chords did not immediately respond. Unfortunately, Miss Daltirus was not singing freely.

    Mr. Palombi, your “real Italian tenor”, (whatever that means) you credit with “a handsome sound, when he not bellowing at the top of his lungs, which he does too often”. Is bellowing at the top of one’s lungs really what Verdi had in mind?
    Mr. Hawkins, the “solid and convincing Count di Luna”, has an annoying and unfocused baritone voice coupled with a wobble at the top of his range.

    It is interesting that at this moment, a week after the performance I attended, I don’t have much recollection of Miss Walewska’s Azucena. In this production it might a plus for her.

    You state in your review “the constant scene changes required by the set design and the musical style of many different numbers that come to an end instead of flowing readily into something else did not help in creating a unified music-drama”. The scene changes had very little to do with Verdi’s musical style, if indeed, as I agree was the case, the music did not flow. This was not the fault of the sets, but the conductor. Although you state, “Yves Abel is an excellent conductor” you must know that he is best known for his French opera and is the co-founder of the Opera Francaise de New York. To me he seemed a strange choice to conduct this “unsurpassed example of romantic melodrama”. I found the music to be devoid of any pulse and drama. Also, if in fact, the many scene changes did interrupt the music and drama, then surely the conductor and Mr Jenkins must have been aware of this during the rehearsal period. I submit that the flow was probably exactly what Maestro Abel wanted. He may indeed be “an excellent conductor”, but not an excellent fit for “Il Trovatore”.

    No, Mr Campbell, neither Verdi nor the Seattle audience was well-served. On positive note, I think “The Gathering Note” is a wonderful addition to our Seattle musical scene giving us all an opportunity to share our thoughts and hopefully let Mr Jenkins and other musical administrators realize that there is a discerning musical public here that demand and deserve a higher quality of performances. No matter what the advertised intentions, the end result is what matters.

  3. Hi Mel, thank you for your comment. I am sure RMC will be interested in your comment. Email me sometime, you are obviously a person with strong opinions. One of the great things about classical music is that people can disagree on what they are hearing. In general, I am dubious of reviews and people who claim to be an authority on my listening experience. There are only a few concerts I have attended that are objectively bad, and even those which fall well below the exceptional still have value (imho).

    Classical music isn’t healthy when the reviews are all positive nor is it healthy when critics approach their subjects with a cudgel, mercilessly hammering a performance.

  4. I also felt that the conducting was not well-paced and that led to a less than exciting performance. Also, the silver cast that I saw were all good singers but they seemed a little miscast. Overall, the performance didn’t have much punch, which is pretty unusual for Trovatore.

  5. Zach, I was happy to see your prompt reaction to my comments about RMC’s review of “IL Trovatore”. I will say again how pleased I am that “The Gathering Note” exists and share your views that people do react to classical music in different ways and it is very healthy for the art-form to have open discussion.

    However, I respectfully, take exception to your “gentle” slap on the hand for what you view as my heavy-handed hammering of a performance. I have a Juris Doctorate and, perhaps, because of that try to only say things that I believe to be valid and that I can back up.

    You state you are, “dubious of reviews and people who claim to be an authority on my listening experience”. Obviously, the only authority on your “listening experience” is you. However there certainly are people who have expertise in certain areas, and the fact that you don’t agree with them doesn’t negate their expertise. Let’s examine what I said.

    RMC and I can have different opinions about whether we love Miss Daltrius’s voice , but the matter of pitch is not debatable. Incidentally, I have had several discussions with “knowledgeable” people who were at the performance who concur that Miss Dalltrius was, either sharp or flat a good part of the evening. I do, in fact, have a fair amount of knowledge of the voice and can, categorically state, healthy, free singing should not be off pitch. It is a fact, not my opinion.

    The comment about Mr. Palombi is a direct quote (with one “s” missing).
    I simply asked if RCM thought Verdi was well served by a tenor who was, “bellowing at the top of his lungs”. I obviously don’t think so, but RMC has the right to his opinion, and I would hope that I have the right to disagree.

    Perhaps, I would have been wiser to have said that “ I found” Mr. Hawkins’s “unfocused” baritone annoying instead of just saying he, “has an annoying and unfocused” voice. Interestingly enough, Sumi Hahn, in her review for the Seattle Times called his voice “fuzzy” I don’t know of any voice teacher who strives to get their students to develop a fuzzy quality.

    As for my comments about Yves Abel. I stated, I found it to be, “a strange choice, since he is known for his championing of French opera. It was RMC who stated that the music did not flow readily and that it was not a unified music-drama. I must ask, if we are to believe Mr. Campbell, that indeed, it was not a “unified music-drama, who should we blame. Clearly we have both been to performances of “Trovatore” where the music sent chills down our back. At least I know I have. So it can’t be the Verdi’s fault.

    I must commend you on your use of the English language. Although I was an English major in college, I still had to go to the dictionary to be sure about “cudgel” I can only say that I hope my cudgel is honesty.

    One last thought. You say, “ There are only a few concerts I have attended that are objectively bad, and even those which fall well below the exceptional still have value.” I’m not sure that a really bad performance by a supposedly good company dose not turn people off to the art form, but that is discussion for another time. I do, however, feel that when a performance is hyped as much as this one was, and is as costly as this one is, it must be held to a higher degree
    of scrutiny. A college performance , a volunteer, or begging ensemble is one thing. An opera company that claims to be one of the best in the country must be held accountable (imho).

  6. Hi Mel, I think that’s the problem with critics. We are all experts to come degree. I too have JD and I try to convey a true depiction of my experience. IMHO, classical music reviews shouldn’t be a recitation of black letter law. I prefer the subjective. It’s good to see so many lawyers/former lawyers writing about classical music. I have not seen the production yet or heard Lisa sing, but I too have spoken with people who have gone and they have a completely different opinion of Daltirus’ performance. From their perspective, this is her best showing in a Seattle Opera production. So who is right? Does there need to be a right answer?

    I don’t think your opinion is wrong and nor do I think RMC is completely right, I just think there needs to be room for a variety of opinions. And yes, I am dubious. But perhaps I should have said I am dubious of critics period. I would prefer people draw their own judgments of a performance not rely on a critic to determine whether they liked a performance. No matter how much any of us knows there is always someone who knows much more.

    I think RMC is entitled to his opinion and so are you. And frankly, I think audiences need to engage more than they do now.

    On your final thought, surely performers are entitled to an “off” night? It is a live performance after all. For me, what I love about live music is that anything can happen. The first Ring cycle was a good example of this. Stig Andersen was sick, there were curtain problems, and Janice Baird was a different sort of Brunhilde.

  7. Zach, I don’t want to keep going on and on with this, but I do feel strongly about what is art and what is mediocrity.
    I ask you, in all sincerity, why do we have or need critics? What is there to gain from them? I think this is at the core of my comments; not so much that I didn’t feel Seattle Opera’s “Trovatore” was good opera, but that I felt RMC was off- base on his assessment of the production. But again I ask, why do I need him to tell me about the performance, I was there?

    I do believe there are things in life that we can learn from others who have more experience or knowledge than we have. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a right to our own opinions. But I still hold that there are some black and whites in music. There is good ensemble playing and sloppy ensemble playing. You might enjoy an evening even if the playing is poor,(that’s up to you) but it doesn’t make the playing any better. You may like Bocelli, as millions do, but that doesn’t mean he sings well.
    I do believe we need critics to keep musical standards high and to help educate those experiencing the art-form for the fist time. But they must be knowledgeable, able to support what they say, and held accountable when we feel they have misled the public.

    I thank you for this opportunity for the community to share views. I must say, however, that I am surprised Mr. Campbell has not wanted to make any reply.

    May I also ask where on the blog we can read the credentials of the those writing the reviews. It would be very informative, and I think it is necessary. Thanks again for all your hard work keeping this blog going.

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