“Il Trovatore” never fails. From one note to the next, we have glory, love, pain, revenge, daring. Verdi didn’t miss. Say what you want about the twisting melodrama of a gypsy, a curse, stolen babies, a woman caught between two lovers. When you come down to it, you have opera to shout over.
Last night at the Opéra National de Paris, the “shouting” was real: the audience didn’t want to leave. In fact, many stood outside in the warm June night in a festive mood – the performance fresh in their ears, the beloved melodies filling them to the brim.
More Than An Opera Heroine
Sondra Radvanovsky, sang Leonora with great intelligence, beauty and unremitting power. From giddy girl in the opening, almost skipping around the stage in pink and yellow, long hair floating down her back, to solemn would-be nun, in chaste white wimple, to daring lover who took poison to save her beloved and keep herself true to him, she ran the gamut of extraordinary operatic skills. Warm, full, rich, her voice never failed her. Arpeggios, trills, pianos at the top of her range, low notes that resonated seconds after they were sounded, we were in the hands of someone who knew her way around the character and the score. By the time she had mastered “Tacea la notte placida,” declaring the wonder of the troubador singing in the moonlight, she was declaring her eternal love for him, “Di tale amor che dirsi” and how she would die if she could not be his; each aria from then on, a further drawing on her abundant resources, her words marked with not only feeling and golden sound, but what felt like genuine compassion. This was no simple operatic heroine: this was a real, human being, showing her authentic concern for another. During the final act, when she lifted the dead man’s hand and caressed it, she was a real woman, no character. When she turned him over, she was gentle and caring; as she knelt beside the corpse, she seemed to be granting it holy grace. The audience didn’t stop applauding for more than a couple of minutes. Radvanovsky stayed still throughout, readying for her next gambit.
Another Fierce Performance
But she was not the only sublime singer on the stage: she made room for Paris Opera’s Azucena, Anita Rachvelishvili. A marvelous vocal range, sombre dark and deep notes and full and sometime raptuorous highs, Rachvelishvili sang with conviction, variety, depth, richness. We couldn’t take our eyes from her, moving around the stage with a serious but never clumsy lumbering, peering into the eyes of her listener, be it her “son” or her nemesis, Count de Luna, or the ghostly presence of her dead mother. She brought her desire for revenge to life from the start of “Stride la Vampa” and as she narrated the story of her mother’s murder in “Condotto all era in ceppi,” she didn’t let its weight push down her vigor and vocal intensity: she meant what she said. This was no story from once upon a time; this was a living presence, driving her actions and her determination. Rachvelishvili gave herself fully to the raggedy gypsy woman, justly famous in Verdi’s hall of heroines. From the looks of this performance alone, there is more of that dynamic and beautiful singing yet to come from this mezzo/contralto. The audience loved her and she received the adulation with respectful gratitude. Who can wait to hear what she will offer next?
The Men Are Strong
The object of both Azucena and Leonora’s attention and love – Manrico, played by tenor, Marcelo Alvarez, sang with ardor and intensity, often with great beauty and lyricism. He kept his attention on each of the women who held his heart in thrall and dramatized his warring feelings with thoughtfulness. The overall result seemed a little contrived, however; it was as if thinking it out interrupted the full flow of sound. Too much trying to make sense of his feelings, it seemed, although the effort was appreciated. Still, Manrico is a troubador and as such, the lyric fullness of his arias call for more uninterrupted sweep. Here’s where the old-fashioned opera conception was still needed: hero making love to his beloved unabatedly with no thought necessary.
As Count de Luna, Zeljko Lucic,’s solid baritone, while not transcendent or over-powering, remained touching. In his declaration of love for her, “Ah, amor, l’amor ardo,” he stood as if fixed in it, his left hand on his holstered gun. This was no troubador romance. By the end of the aria, he moved that hand, however, and the two hands almost joined, evoked more of his heartfelt emotional intensity; no monster here, not in the slightest. Rather there was genuine longing and near heart-break.
The Chorus, Ferrando, played by Mika Kares, Ines, interpreted by Elodie Hache, and Ruiz, as represented by Yu Shao, supported the main characters without distraction or special distinction.
But All That Is Too Good to Be True
The set design, however, did less of that than was needed. First, it was set during WW I, complete with gas masks and long coats and rifles; then, it was trenches with fires burning intermittently, and complemented with over-sized flashlights. Pourquoi? La guerre, of course, but why? It added nothing of the story anymore than a gypsy camp in the 16th century forest would. Even the crosses on the tombstone/trenches, serving as the anvils, didn’t heighten the effect. Again, an idea, without much necessary import.
The rising and falling of the tombstones -reminiscent of Berlin’s Holocaust memorial as one member of the audience commented – not only didn’t add anything to the core story, but seemed gratuitous. Technology can do wondrous things on stage, as everywhere else, but, in this case, it distracted. No doubt Director Alex Ollé aimed to bring the old story into our present with its violence, vengeance, and death.
One key moment that stood out came at the start of the second act. It is here that refugees walk on stage as if they are fleeing from the war, and gather in the cemetery. Ultimately, the opera’s landscape served as yet another warning for us now, apt and moving, of all we have not stopped doing to each other; that was more than worthwhile.
Maurizio Benini conducted the Orchestra de l’Opera national de Paris, with fullness and flair. More than supportive but never over-powering the stellar singing (although the first half was somewhat slow and less vigorous), he kept the textural richness of Verdi’s score, and never let it slide underground. In fact, some of the last bars of Azucena’s final aria brought to mind Violetta’s final aria – yet to be written by Verdi – strengthening the Verdi “echo chamber” Benini’s conducting brought to bear.
Verdi was a youngish man when he looked into Cammarano’s libretto and turned his musical genius into such an enduring masterpiece. And still, all these years later, it suffers not at all from time’s wear, and even a mise-en-scene that plays its own fashions out. Its humanness won the day.