LA Opera 2021-22 Review: Il Trovatore
Francisco Négrin’s Production Spotlights Dramatic Power of Verdi’s Melodic MasterpieceBy Gordon Williams
(Photo: Cory Weaver/ LA Opera)
After an 18-month Covid-induced hiatus, Los Angeles Opera launched its 2021-22 season with Verdi’s “Il trovatore,” in a production by Francisco Negrín, new to Los Angeles, but co-produced with Opéra de Monte-Carlo, Teatro Real (Madrid) and Royal Danish Opera (Copenhagen).
While audiences were welcomed back into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the company offered patrons the option of watching certain performances via live stream. This is the option this reviewer took.
Live stream director Sara E. Widzer and Director of Photography Kelly Travis provided a very satisfactory video experience. The camera work was so seamless that it took until the end to wonder how many camera positions there actually were (seven), to make the production seem so fluent.
Bear in mind that watching online meant sitting at a screen for four hours (if you include Music Director James Conlon’s introductory lecture), so the fact that those hours flashed by is testament to the success of this method of delivery. A few months ago, LA Opera offered a purely online presentation of Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex”, another video production worth re-watching if the opportunity ever arises.
Making Il Trovatore’s Infamous Plot Work
In his introductory remarks, Conlon pushed back against the customary ridiculing of ‘Trovatore’s plot. Although “Il trovatore” is useful evidence in any argument that great music will encourage an audience to forgive absurdities in a plotline (note: Enrico Caruso’s crack that the only thing needed for a successful ‘Trovatore’ are the four greatest singers in the world), this production actually managed to make the plot plausible and worthy of consideration in itself.
In a director’s note, Francisco Négrin wrote that, “Il Trovatore” “tells us how the specters of our need for revenge (Azucena), of our regrets (Manrico) or our unquenched desires (Count di Luna) imprison us and kill us. ‘Il trovatore’ is the weight of the past. Only Leonora…understands that love and living in the present are the only paths to follow…” This idea of being imprisoned by the past provided a uniquely clarifying focus.
Louis Désiré’s sets (newly built in 10 days apparently, after transport ships from Monaco were delayed from docking – another Covid casualty) highlighted this idea of imprisonment. Bear in mind that Negrín also called the opera a “ghost story.” The male chorus looking like ghouls often sang through a slit in the side walls rather like denizens of a basement prison. They only emerged fully onstage as members of an army in Act three (a striking reminder that the story takes place against the background of civil war). By the way, in Act two there were no anvils in the famous “Anvil Chorus.” Instead, what we got visually was a kind of ceremony by a female chorus resembling non-Christian Priestesses. The production with its diverse cast deliberately avoided any racial stereotyping or minimizing.
In regard to Azucena and her people, Conlon wrote in his program essay, “I expressly eschew any use of the word ‘gypsy,’ in all its translations. It is now considered a pejorative term.” He (and the surtitles) used the term ‘Romani.’ But what came across was a story of conflict between denizens of two cultures – Azucena’s and the Count’s – and the civil war that embroils the Count and his tenor rival for Leonora, Manrico, relegated very clearly and helpfully to a subplot. How many productions manage anything like this clarifying hierarchy?
The whole story is set in motion by Azucena’s desire to avenge her mother burnt at the stake by the old Count di Luna many years before and Negrín’s production made much use of fire as a design element. Characters warmed their hands by a flame, Azucena – still something of a sorceress – conjured a blaze, and the end saw a conflagration fit to punish the old Count for having set in train these present-day griefs. Elements only mentioned in Ferrando and Azucena’s backstory monologues “All’erta” and “Stride la vampa” were fully-present on stage. We even saw the charred boy, Azucena’s son, whom she threw into her mother’s fire mistaking him for the old Count’s boy many years before.
Fire became a potent symbol of past trauma still gripping various characters.
And blocking and “business” also helped the “ridiculous” plot make sense. The continual presence onstage of the Ghost of Azucena’s Mother (Christian Scott) and Ghost of Azucena’s Son (Jimmy Harris) helped keep our minds on Azucena’s obsession, which Verdi at a late stage in the writing of “Il trovatore” boiled down to “revenge.”
The production was further served by convincing principals in the persons of Chinese soprano Guanqun Yu as Leonora; mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis as Azucena; tenor Limmie Pulliam making his LA Opera debut as Manrico; baritone Vladimir Stoyanov also making his LA Opera debut as the Count di Luna; Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program member Tiffany Townsend as Leonora’s maid Ines; and LA audience favorite, bass Morris Robinson as Ferrando.
Mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis’s performance fully justified arguments that have been made many times that perhaps the opera should be called “Azucena” rather than “The Troubador,” after Manrico’s social position. In Azucena’s great aria “Stride la vampa,” Bryce-Davis came across as deeply immersed in her bitter memories. Making the most of the text, there was appropriate lingering on words like “vendica” and almost elemental keening as she relived her mother’s death in Act four.
Chinese soprano Guanqun Yu’s Leonora conveyed pure goodness. We could sympathize with her day-dreaming about the mysterious visitor (Manrico) in her cavatina “Tacea la notte” and share her enthusing emphasis as she recounted how the troubador’s song repeated one name: “mine.” The beautifully sculpted phrases of her “D’amor sull’ ali rosee” at the end effectively portrayed a hope-against-hope optimism. This was a key moment.
LA Opera Young Artist Tiffany Townsend perfectly expressed the exasperation of Leonora’s maid, Ines, trying to rein in her wayward charge.
Another key moment was Guanqun Yu and Limmie Pulliam’s Act three scene two love duet. Pulliam charmed with his gradual enrichment of a flute-like purity and clarity as he sang of marriage giving courage.
Vladimir Stoyanov was a suitably dark Count di Luna but able to convey a redeeming sincerity in his number dedicated to Leonora’s smile: “Il balen del suo sorriso,” while the commanding presence of Morris Robinson ensured Ferrando’s pivotal role in the elaboration of the story.
Conductor James Conlon’s deep absorption in the story bore expression in his command of the score, driving the plot at times; other times slowing down to allow absorption of key lines (“You dared to admit you loved him”), or conveying the immutability of fate in the “step” accompanying Azucena’s account of her mother’s progression to the stake – “Condotta all’era in ceppi.”
All in all, this production was a fascinating reading of Verdi’s opera. The overt emphasis on “imprisonment” rendered Leonora’s lines to Manrico, “How could I forget you?” hugely ironic. She too now invites the past. In order to stay pure, must she die?