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.