Opera in the Heights 2021 Review: Il Trovatore

Danue Suarez & Natalie Polito Shine in Vibrant Futuristic Reading of Verdi Masterwork

By Gordon Williams
(Photo credit: Lerner Productions, LLC)

Whether or not it’s been spurred by COVID, more and more companies seem to be making post-streams or online streams of their productions available. This one, of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” comes from Houston’s Opera in the Heights, a regional company that seeks to provide a platform for emerging artists and affordable and accessible productions for the Houston area. The company is named after its mainstage, Lambert Hall, on Houston’s Heights Blvd.

One advantage of all these presentations of course is the ability to see shows you would not normally have seen and performers you would not so easily have come across. We have all been starved for live performance in the past (nearly) two years but these days you can sit in Sydney or Glasgow and sample a range of productions (and casts) from Los Angeles to Texas as readily as you may once have watched performances live from the Met. It’s something of a plus.

And it was no doubt a major plus in the context of this particular production of Verdi’s seminal middle-period masterwork.

Up Close & Personal

An oft-repeated quote regarding “Il trovatore” is Enrico Caruso’s adage: All it takes for successful performance of ‘Il trovatore’ is the four greatest singers in the world.” He was referring to the vital importance of the four main characters – tenor Manrico and baritone Count di Luna, rivals in war while vying for the love of soprano Leonora, but tragically unaware that they are brothers, whose relationship got mangled by the ‘sorceress’, mezzo Azucena, charged with exacting revenge against the Count’s family before the opera began.

The story can sound ridiculous summed up briefly, yet the close focus of this production which originated in a small venue, sharpened by close-up video work, served Verdi’s prescription for drama: “stupendous confrontation.” And the four principals Dane Suarez as Manrico, Natalie Polito as Leonora, Nathan Matticks as the Count, and Anne Maguire as Azucena served as strong pillars on which the drama could rest, ably assisted by the other members of the cast and a small but effective – in the ‘space’ – chorus – particularly effective in the famous ‘Miserere’ (when Manrico is facing death), which was here delivered from the side of the stage.

It was good to get up close, close to the text, and appreciate, for example, the intensity Natalie Polito invested in her recollection of the way Manrico (the “troubador” of the title) serenaded her (“Tacea la notte placida”), the urgency with which she remembered how he called her name. You could almost “see” her run to the balcony to listen to him. You could not only hear but see Matticks’ suppressed rage “Io fremo” when, as Count, thinking of his rival.

But it was good to have the feeling of being up close to the music too, as when Manrico (Dane Suarez) segued so logically into a mad sort of declamation for his cabaletta “Di quella pira” on learning that his supposed mother, Azucena had been apprehended by the Count’s men. All three of these principals would have been impressive performers live in the theater – their Act 1 trio (“Di geloso amor sprezzato”) was especially stirring.

Anne Maguire sang Azucena, on whose vengefulness the drama pivots. There was much riveting detail in the story-telling of her great numbers where she recounts the tragedies (the injustices) that have led to her bitter resolve: “Stride la vampa” and “Condotta ell’era in ceppi” – hushed illustration, mordant observation, a large vocal palette constantly beguiling the ear.

A Look Into the Future

A video production governs the eye and it was a shame not to be able to glance away occasionally and watch conductor Eiki Isomura as he ably controlled the pacing of this drama, but the orchestra surreptitiously fed the events. In some ways the video presentation exposed the limits of the venue which was on the small, or more critically, narrow, side. Long-shots revealed EXIT signs or one orchestral player singled out among the many who deserved recognition. But the close-ups of principals were well chosen and effective and suggested that this opera can succeed without the panoramic historical background that a person might assume is necessary.

Director Cara Consilvio’s conception of the opera’s events as taking place somewhat in the future where the Count is a billionaire, one of the 1 percent, helped overcome the difficulties that lie in the piece these days in relation to representation of the Romani, a band of which Azucena leads. It was a smart idea to make this wandering band a bunch of homeless people (a growing subset of the 99 percent in this future dystopia?), carting their belongings around in shopping trolleys. Crushing drink cans for recycling was a particularly smart way to compensate therefore for the lack of anvils on which to hammer in Act two’s famous “Anvil Chorus.”

Overall shot-selection was seamless, harmonizing well with the shape of the musical moments. And being able to watch online and not break for an interval revealed that Verdi’s opera gains from an unbroken momentum.

In fact, there were a number of revelations in this production. The story works if elucidated with surtitles (on video: subtitles) of the elegance and standard Eiki Isomura and Cara Consilvio provided and “Il trovatore” works as a chamber opera. In fact, that mode of presentation serves to tighten the focus on those four key roles, those lead singers, and their pursuance of those stupendous relationships.


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