Monday, November 5, 2012

Lyric Opera "Il Trovatore" review by kellyluck

What turns the Gypsy's day from sun to darkest gloom? Rating: 4

Il Trovatore
Lyric Opera of Kansas City

Since it's premiere in 1853, Verdi's "Il Trovatore" ("The Troubadour") has firmly established itself as one of the major lights in the opera pantheon. Many of the elements we associate with operatic plots today (love triangles, long-lost brothers, tendency for principals to drop like flies) are to be found within its pages. When the Marx Brothers needed a recognizable opera to run rampant through, this is the one they chose. Last night at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the Lyric Opera premiered its new production of this venerable classic in a marvelous and darkly surreal presentation that at the end left this reviewer with that strange, exhausted-yet-refreshed feeling that comes after two hours of sustained musical catharsis.

The plot, it has been said, is a byzantine one but arguably no worse than most: Count Di Luna (Roman Burdenko, Bar.) loves the noble Leonora (Michele Capalbo, Sopr.) who, this being opera, wants nothing to do with him. When the Count comes to press his suit, he finds her enraptured by the music of Manrico (Rafael Davila, Ten.), the eponymous troubadour and the Count's romantic and military rival. They fight a duel and, when Manrico throws away an opportunity to strike home, the Count wounds him and departs. Later, Manrico's gypsy mother Azucena (Nancy Maultsby, Mez.) binds his wounds and tells him the terrible history of the Count's brother, who she abducted in revenge against the older Count, who had burned her mother as a witch. She meant to burn the boy, but could not until her lust for revenge drove her mad. She threw the child into the fire, only to realize she had burned not the Count's boy, but her own son. Manrico - this being opera - utterly fails to come to the obvious conclusion, and marches off to battle the Count.

After this, things go badly. The Count attempts to abduct Leonora, Manrico intervenes, he and his mother are captured and sentenced to death. Leonora offers herself to the Count in exchange for Manrico's life, then swallows poison. Seeing her dead, the Count realizes he's been fooled and kills Manrico anyway, only to be told by Azucena that her mother's revenge is now complete, as he has just killed his own brother. And here, I think, is the central tragedy of Trovatore: the principals - Manrico, Leonora, even the Count - are all unwitting pawns in an infernal fifteen-year gambit. Every move, every declaration of rebellion, each swearing of fealty or revenge has been leading up with horrifying certainty to that climatic moment. As Azucena tells the Count what he's done, the music reaches a climax, her face wild with bile and grief and ecstasy. And high above, the Evil Eye of the mother's curse shines blood red upon them all.

It goes without saying that a storyline like this needs some reliable talent to pull it off. Fortunately, the Lyric has brought in some admirable talent. Burdenko's Count is suitably villainous, striding the line between love and hate with remarkable aplomb. When he solemnly declares that "Not even a god can stop me", one is inclined to believe him. Davila's powerful tenor is just right for Manrico, and Capalbo handles the soaring arias of Leonora very well - her rendering of "Damor Sull'ali Rosee" deserved every bit of the ovation it got. Ms. Maultsby as Azucena's performance was very affecting: her mezzo is easily as expressive as her face as she pours herself into the role. Mention must also be made of Kirk Eichelberger as a more-charismatic-than-usual Ferrando and Tara Curtis as Inez. Conductor John Keenan guides the orchestra ably through its musical paces.

Staging and lighting were typically well done. Much of the action takes place at night, and the demands that brings were met ably by the lighting team. The sets consisted mainly of mobile stone steps and towers, which were trundled back and forth over the course of the evening during scene change. Overall scenery was back-projected behind the performers and sparsely animated as needed. John Boesche, who designed the backdrop images, deserves mention for matching the not-quite-real mood of the opera with his supersaturated, moodily lit imagery. As a photographer, this reviewer has used similar techniques herself to great effect, and was most pleased to see them employed so effectively here. And while there were a couple where it looks like they just grabbed an image, slammed it trough a couple of Photoshop filters and called it a day, the vast majority were obviously painstakingly crafted, and very well done.

Very little to complain about here. As with the scenery issues, the misses were minor and far between. In the Scene II duel, for example, the principals seemed not quite comfortable with Shad Ramsey's fight choreography toward the end, but I suspect this to be just a first night thing. During the rousing "Vedi Le Fosche Notturne" (aka the Anvil Chorus, aka the one that makes the lady behind you elbow her husband and whisper, "Oo, that one!") the anvils felt a little off-beat to me, though that might have been the echo effect. Also - and I'm being hopelessly pedantic here - there seemed to be some confusion as to what exactly they were meant to be doing with those anvils. One or two actually pretended to fool around with a sword or so, but when one sees a bare chested gypsy smith flailing away two-handed with a small mallet on an empty anvil, it does rather border on the silly.

"Il Trovatore" is a dark, brooding tale, steeped in black magic love, lust, hatred and revenge. It is, in short, everything you could hope for in an opera. The Lyric's presentation is a capable one, ably catching the mood of this dark fable. It seems the Lyric in their new home are determined to stretch their wings ever further with each new production, and from what we hear from certain corners, this is only the beginning.

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