In recent years, Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” has slowly but surely established a potent foothold in the Metropolitan Opera’s standard repertory.
The main reason?
David McVicar’s striking and still awe-inspiring interpretation of Verdi’s middle-period masterwork.
A Master At Work
The inspiration of Francisco de Goya and his tableaus is obvious from the opening curtain and onwards. At the core of it all is the inherent violence in the piece. From the backstory with the murder of an old woman and a child, to the duel in the first act, the duels that take place offstage, and even the battle between Leonora and di Luna that is at the heart of the work’s climax.
But we see more than just the violence inherent in the libretto through the main characters. As the turntable rotates from the battle between Manrico and di Luna, we get the equivalent of a cinematic matchcut with two gypsies duking it out. Since they are part of the same tribe we could even consider them brothers, much in the same way Manrico and di Luna are, unknowingly. It’s a brilliant transition to be sure. The fact that the opera itself is set during the Spanish Civil War only broadens this concept of brothers murdering one another, elevating Manrico and di Luna’s rivalry into more than just a melodramatic convenience; it thus becomes the inevitable tragedy of familial rupture for an entire people.
The turntable device is a powerful tool that can turn into a mess in the wrong hands (as we see in another McVicar production), but could be extremely effective if the choreography is well-conceived. McVicar only turns the stage when he is pushing on into another scene or revealing another part of the action, such as the monastery scene. This gives each turn importance and meaning. Moreover, it helps to transition from one scene to the next fluidly.
The production is also laden with solid symbolic gestures by McVicar and company with the Count stripping Leonora of Manrico’s green jacket after she accepts his sexual predation. When Azucena threatens a young child with a knife, we are reminded of her history and the potential for history to repeat itself for the worst. In the libretto Manrico only gets one chance to kill the Count; in his interpretation, McVicar adds a second at the Concertato, emphasizing this character’s tragedy not only as a sign of destiny but also the result of indecisiveness and misplaced compassion.
But the tragedy is not only heightened for Manrico, but also di Luna, as the Count ultimately does what his brother could not, despite having two opportunities to reflect on his actions toward his rival.
But perhaps the most potent bit of stage wizardry is the burned corpse of Azucena’s mother looming large over the proceedings, an ever-present reminder of the past haunting the present. It is also an expression of Azucena’s vengeance continuing to weigh on her, thus providing insight into her fractured and torn psychology.
Obviously, as is the case with any production, the singers must carry the day and this was certainly the case for the second performance of this run on Jan. 26, 2018.
Hero and Lover
In the title role was Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee, who has become identified with the role at this company, and for good reason.
He has an incredible glorious instrument that perfectly resonates with the potent vocalization that Verdi often demands of the role of Manrico. The squilo is poised and always at the ready in the more violent of passages, particularly the “Di quella pira,” where Lee’s seemingly unlimited vocal resources gave the interpretation power, heroism, and violence. He hit every note with clarity of sound, growing and growing as the aria reached its climax.
But Lee wasn’t all about blunt and blistering sound. Far from it. The preceding “A si ben mio,” was delicate and gentle, especially in the initial phrases. You sensed that this was a different voice altogether, contrasting Manrico the brave warrior with Manrico the romantic troubadour-lover. As the aria progressed, Manrico’s passionate declaration of love grew in intensity, climaxing incredibly on a high B flat.
In his scenes with Azucena, Lee managed to showcase a tamer quality. His opening phrases for the duet “non so tuo figlio” were unique in that the end of each phrase tapered off after starting off with ample sound, almost suggesting a timidity of the character in front of his overbearing mother. And in the final scene, when they sang together “Ai nostri monti,” Lee’s voice was a delicate thread, in complete contrast to the incredible forcefulness of the preceding cabaletta we had heard only moments ago.
From Overwhelming Bliss to Deathly Pain And Back
As his lover Leonora, Jennifer Rowley had an incredible evening overall. She sounded tentative in the first few phrases of “Tacea la notte” and struggled with a measure of the cadenza from “D’amor sull’Ali rosee” but these minor quibbles really only served to remind us that she is in fact human, so incredible was the overall performance as a whole.
From start to finish her Leonora was a potent and confident woman, singing passionately in her opening aria to mirror the intense love she felt for Manrico. Verdi’s vocal line ascends throughout “Tacea la notte” to mirror Leonora’s sense of hope and aspiration, and Rowley was right on point with this sense of elation. She retained a tempo that helped build the lines slowly, floating ever higher toward the climaxes of each phrase effortlessly. She didn’t sing at full volume here, but the lightness in the voice gave a sense of emotional freedom. It was matched by the ensuing cabaletta, where Rowley’s vocal mastery was even clearer, the newfound brightness adding to this build of anticipation at seeing her lover.
This was heavily contrasted with the big scene where Leonora’s hope is dashed and all she can think of is the death of her beloved. “D’amor sull’ali rosee” contrasts heavily with “Tacea” in the sense that descending vocal lines dominate the aria. And here Rowley’s voice was edgier and darker, expressing the deep sense of powerlessness that Leonora felt in this moment.
The darkness grew in the ensuing “Miserere,” the soprano’s voice accenting every rhythm sharply and growing more and more fierce as the passage developed and Manrico’s singing joined in with her. Rowley jumped up on the gate, expressing Leonora’s sense of desperation and even interpolated a visceral high C toward the end as almost one last cry of pain.
The final cabaletta was the icing on the cake as far as how Rowley explored Leonora’s character arc. We see her go from a hopeful lover to a hopeless one and finally see her rediscover that strength that is slowly picked apart from scene to scene in the opera. In the final cabaletta, when she determines that she will die for love, she returns to her vow from “Di tale amor che dirsi” where she declares “If I can’t live for him, then I will die for him.” And as was the case in that opening aria, where the declaration was made with resolute joy, Rowley imbued her Leonora with that same sense of purpose. Her voice brightened and filled the Met in a way that she only matched in the concertato, “E deggio e posso crederlo?,” when she saw her lover “rise” from the dead before her.
Her scene with Quinn Kelsey that followed was a wondrous battle of wills. The two possess dynamite instruments from a volume standpoint and it was quite thrilling to see them throw around all that vocal weight at one another in this climax. But then to see Rowley’s voice wither away as she lay dying was just as glorious, showing the listener the range her instrument truly possesses.
Speaking of Kelsey, the baritone has a rich and beautiful instrument that resonates amply in one of the biggest theaters in the world. With the exception of the cabaletta, , where he seemed a bit overpowered by the orchestra, he could fill up the auditorium by just opening his mouth. Moreover, the color of his sound is gentle in its thickness giving the Count di Luna a sense of vulnerability that made it hard to hate him.
“Il balen del suo sorriso” is quite remarkable in its own right, but when pinned up next to the interpretation of “A si ben mio,” it allows for greater dramatic depth. The two brothers are so different in how they express their love and yet the arias follow similar melodic structure. Where Lee’s version of his declaration of love grew in its sense of passion and intensity, Kelsey’s grew more gentle and tender, each phrase stretched further and further, each line sung with more fluid legato without necessarily increasing the volume.
And yet the character wasn’t some nice tender man. In the first act trio, he throws Leonora aside as he says “M’ardisti” and had no qualms about moving in on his opponent as if to engage in battle. In fact, Kelsey was the dramatic motor of that trio, his predatory movements creating a sense of anticipation and danger. He was also rather forceful in the duet with Leonora at the end of the opera; no doubt in today’s climate the words sexual harassment or abuse would immediately spring to mind at a number of instances. It’s hard to really side with the Count in this scene, and yet the tenderness of what preceded lingered on, creating greater complexity and ambiguity.
Finally, let’s talk about Anita Rachvelishvili, the mezzo tasked with interpreting her first Azucena at the Met. There will undoubtedly be more, and there should be because she is an interpretational genius. There is simply no other way to put it. “Stride la vampa” was schizophrenic at best not only vocally but physically. She moved about as if being followed, her voice going from loud and potent in one phrase to quiet and hidden in the next. Even if you know the score really well, there is no doubt that the extreme vocal contrasts that the Georgian mezzo explored were arresting and shocking at every turn. Moreover, she never did them the same in repeated phrases (and this particular passage has a ton). She would alter the volume or the accents or legato, making each experience of a repeated phrase a new adventure. Her looks were intense and menacing, the most stunning moment coming when she pulls out a knife and stops herself.
The ensuing “Condotta ell’era in ceppi,” in which she recaps her past to Manrico was even more visceral, the mezzo beginning the narrative quietly, her voice blasting out violently at particular moments, slowly building the tension and pain of the story to its inevitably heart-breaking climax. The repeated utterances of “Il figlio mio” were stunning, the mezzo throwing caution to the winds and blasting her voice into the auditorium in a way few other artists can, each utterance laced with more pain than the last. The final phrase, which descends into the mezzo’s bottom register was vicious in its accents on the consonants.
In her interactions with Lee, she would also oscillate from gentle and caring to pulling out a knife and cutting his hand. Likewise, she went from smooth and silky vocal lines to frayed and jagged accents that made her feel like a danger to even her “son.” She was overbearing, menacing and desperate all at once in their final duet before he runs off to save Leonora from the convent.
These conflicting dimensions continued dominating the performance climaxing in one of the most glorious bits of singing in the night at the end of the opera. “Ai nostri monti” was gentle in its execution by both Lee and Rachvelishvili, and you could feel the love the two had for one another finally coalescing. What was especially fascinating here is that for most of the previous interactions, we really got a sense that Azucena had conflicting emotions toward her son. We know she tried to kill him and yet, as she notes, she raised and cared for him. But we got the sense of a hidden violence from the way she often treated him in the early scenes. Here we sensed a true love and compassion, giving the relationship a sense of progression and direction.
Of course, to see her declare that he had been murdered by her brother before proclaiming that her mother had been avenged was all the more horrifying, as we realized that Azucena could never truly love Manrico fully. Her delivery of these final lines added to that sense of tragedy, the mezzo accenting brutally every step of the way, the climactic high note exciting in its piercing manner.
Stefan Kocan sang with his rock-solid technique throughout the evening, his sound blooming and his phrasing growing quicker throughout the opening narrative. It added a sense of urgency as well as progression to the climax of this opening story. You could feel the sense of excitement he had at building up this story all the way through. If you weren’t paying attention to the text, his sense of build certainly made the emotion palpable and the dread and horror poignant.
In the pit, conductor Marco Armiliato really let his singers lead the way, restraining the sound of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra to its bare essentials. The score itself doesn’t call for much imposition from the orchestra, but some conductors tend to be heavy-handed with Verdi’s big gestures. Armiliato was the complete opposite, a choice that really let the singers dictate the dramatic and vocal terms. Of course, he wasn’t afraid to let the orchestra rip when it had to (the Anvil chorus being a perfect example) and I couldn’t be more excited than to hear the smoothness of transitions throughout the trio between Leonora, Manrico, and di Luna, what I deem one of the most dramatically effective moments in the opera. You could feel the bass sounds becoming more and more prominent until they completely take over from the piercing and agitated violins right before the baritone jumps in with “No! Di geloso amor sprezzate!” That transition can be rather sloppy in other hands, but in Armiliato the build was exciting, adding a sense of tension to the encounter.
So in sum, on seeing the second performance of this run, I would highly advise everyone to see it. “Il Trovatore” often gets slammed for its episodic libretto. Usually the blame lies at the hand of a director whose production simply doesn’t handle the material well.
No one has ever handled it better than McVicar. And the cast at hand only elevates it further.