Festival Opera in Walnut Creek offered me tickets to last night's opening of Il Trovatore, an opera I love. For years I happily sailed along with one recording – the celebrated Price/Domingo/Milnes/Cossotto/Mehta version – and then one day out of the blue I was hit by Trovatore fever, and when I came to I had fifteen or twenty versions; my favorite, by the way, is still the justly celebrated Price/Domingo/Milnes/Cossotto/Mehta version. Any performance of an opera you love produces an odd mixture of gratitude for any live experience of it competing with impossibly high and probably unreachable standards. I’d love to prove my integrity and independence by trashing Festival Opera despite the lovely seats, but, alas for my reputation, I’m instead going to urge you strongly to head on over for one of the remaining performances (July 15, 18, or 20) at the Dean Lesher Center.
Even the Walnut Creek audience was not as egregiously bad as usual (I still wake up screaming at the thought of Rigoletto a few years ago, and the steady, incessant, three-hours-long fortissimo gum-chewing of a woman four rows behind me). Last night we did have the usual number of loud coughers, and an unusual number of ringing cell phones, as if the audience had never conceived of the possibility of turning them off during certain activities. (We even had a dramatic leap out from a seat and into the lobby with much door opening-and-shutting while Leonora is contemplating death.) There was also an annoyance fresh to me (it's so hard to keep up with the irritations of new technology) – little flashlights with which audience members can check I don’t know quite what, but something so important it couldn't wait until the house lights went up.
Maybe the folks with the little lights were checking plot summaries. Quite a few people seem to be oddly unfamiliar with Trovatore, because the absolutely brilliant libretto by Salvatore Cammarano and Leone Emanuele Bardare is frequently described as the ultimate in operatic absurdity. These people might be thinking of the tedious finale to the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, which is really more about social snobbery associated with opera than about the actual opera, and is almost spectacularly unfunny in either case (I say this as a Marx Brothers fan – but stick to their Paramount films; Harpo in particular suffers from being turned from an anarchist Nature god into a twee and benevolent little Cupid; their decline is usually dated after A Day at the Races, but I respectfully disagree and date it from the beginning of their alliance with MGM – Eric von Stroheim and I will both tell you that Irving Thalberg was in league with Satan).
What Cammarano and Bardare (no doubt under Verdi’s direction) came up with is a concise telling of a complicated story, whose every moment resonates thematically. Is it absurd? Perhaps, but I think that’s intentional. All plots, being more-or-less arbitrary impositions of meaning on life, are absurd. I don’t think this is even a case of one era’s conventions striking another era as ridiculous; even in the nineteenth century the baby-swapping mix-ups came in for their share of ribbing (Gilbert and Sullivan, or at least Gilbert, basically wouldn’t exist without Trovatore to play off of). Is Trovatore absurd and meaningless? Is life? Gloucester leaping off a non-existent cliff, Hamlet jumping into Ophelia’s grave, Oedipus marrying his mother, Vladimir and Estragon waiting day after day for a man who never shows up – these are also absurd, and their absurdity is part of their meaning. Every action in Trovatore is interrupted, every narrative is fragmented and obsessively repeated; personal tragedy becomes a haunting camp fire ballad becomes a story of supernatural frights; parents do not know their own children, lovers mistake each other, the usual duels and battles and kidnappings are all cut off abruptly and the action turns elsewhere with the arbitrary and terrifyingly inevitable logic of dreams. Trovatore is an example of high Romantic storytelling, kin to Hugo and Donizetti, but this is where the Romantic movement interest in the fragmentary, bizarre, and unreal aligns with the Modernist theater of Beckett , Ionesco, and Brecht.
San Francisco Opera’s last outing with Trovatore played up the link with a modern staging, which on the whole I liked (black, boxlike setting, bursts of fire, large fragmentary objects floating in space); Festival Opera goes for a more traditional approach (pretty much what you would get at San Francisco Opera these days; there was a lot of stand-and-deliver in the style of SFO’s recent Lucia, though often more subtly handled). Giulio Cesare Perrone’s direction was solid and efficient, with the occasional misstep (though I did particularly like the point when the Count di Luna makes Leonora swear she will be his: he stretches out his hand, and Leonora first raises her hand papal-blessing-style to Heaven as she swears, and then lowers it onto his hand so that only the tips of her fingers condescend to touch his flesh). The same was true for the sets, lighting, and costumes. Perrone had also designed the set, an efficient arrangement of columns raised on a few steps that was varied with the additions of branches, prison bars, or cathedral arches, an arrangement which not only made for suitably rapid scene changes but emphasized the underlying similarities among soldiers’ camp, gypsy camp, church, court, and prison. The costumes are basically handsome and traditional, but someone needs to get the Grace Jones headdress off of Manrico, and those shiny dangly things under the headdress need to go too. Other than that the differences between Manrico’s followers and di Luna’s were nicely emphasized by the use of vests and turbans for the former and traditional court or military gear for the latter. Matthew Antaky and Patrick Hajduk are both listed as the lighting designers, and again their design was efficient with some nice flickering touches, and a couple of strange moments (the lighting in the dungeon varied over the course of the scene from way too bright to bright to gloomy).
Michael Morgan conducted a nice performance and seemed very attuned to the singers. And the singers are where the Festival Opera production has it all over SFO’s last Trovatore (Dolora Zajick’s Azucena is the only singer I can recollect from that production, because she so overshadowed the rest). I knew the evening was promising when Kirk Eichelberger opened with a vivid, detailed and powerful account of Ferrando’s campfire story (but confidential to Kirk: get a different headshot; the one in the program does not do you justice). In a smaller role, I also really liked Jessica Mariko Deardorff as Leonora’s oddly unsettling attendant, Ines. I was not as happy with Scott Bearden’s Count Di Luna; “Il Balen” in particular seemed choppy and lacking in style and beauty. Perhaps he was having an off night. Patrice Houston’s Azucena didn’t push Zajick’s sound from my memory, but she was solid; perhaps a bit too much so to be necessarily sympathetic. Azucena is one of the great examples of Verdi’s compassionate understanding of the disenfranchised; she could so easily have been a stock character (evil Gypsy child-killer!) instead of one who sometimes steals the show. But she should seem more distracted and perhaps more fragile. Houston seemed too sensible. She also seemed to lose a bit of power at the end; her final cry was not as piercing as it should have been, and the supertitles didn’t help by stopping with “He was your brother!” and omitting “Mother, you are avenged!” and di Luna’s cry “And I still live!”
But on the whole I found the ensemble effective, and the two leads outstanding. Noah Stewart as Manrico was strong and ardent throughout, with (to my hearing) only a few occasional moments of strain or exhaustion. Hope Briggs as Leonora just seemed to go from strength to strength. She was committed, radiant and beautiful throughout, and her rich and lovely voice was possibly more powerful at the end than at the beginning. My guest for the evening was a singer who basically agreed with my reactions. But he, with his concern for long-term vocal health, was also worried that the singers were perhaps too young to be taking on such heavy roles, and that given the small size of the house they were singing louder than need be. Perhaps, but I found the sound viscerally, physically thrilling. Despite my reservations about Bearden and to a lesser extent Houston, here is an evenly matched, beautiful ensemble of youthful voices. Let’s see if San Francisco can do as well on its next outing.