Chicago, Lyric Opera: “Il Trovatore”

Chicago, Lyric Opera – 2014/2015 Season
Opera in four acts in Italian. Libretto by Salvadore Cammarano
Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Count di Luna QUINN KELSEY
Orchestra & Chorus Lyric Opera
Conductor Asher Fisch
Original Director David McVicar
Revival Director and Choreographer Leah Hausman
Set Designer Charles Edwards
Costume Designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designer Jennifer Tipton
Chicago, November 29, 2014

In his poem “The Barrel-Organ” Alfred Noyes observes: “Once more La Traviata sighs another sadder song: once more Il Trovatore cries a tale of deeper wrong”. Deep wrongs are indeed the dramatic focal point of Verdi’s IL TROVATORE, the anarchic melodrama that forms one part of the triumvirate dominating the composer’s middle period, along with RIGOLETTO and LA TRAVIATA. The opera’s characters, who exist in a world where historical traumas cast long shadows, are left to work out the bad karma bequeathed to them by their ancestors. It is a dark world penetrated only by moonlight, campfires and lurid recollections of a mother burned at the stake. First seen at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2006, David McVicar’s production perfectly captured the nihilistic milieu inhabited by Verdi’s obsessive protagonists.
McVicar has updated the period of the opera from medieval times to Napoleon’s Spanish campaign without distorting the basic structural elements of the piece. The culture of machismo, “Marianismo,” strict codes of honor and superstitious dread transferred easily and without straining credulity to the early 19th century. Drawing heavily upon the visual aesthetic of Goya, McVicar and his design team have created tableaux that mirror the opera’s brooding character. Set designer Charles Edwards’ battle-scarred facades and scorched terrain comprised a fluid, rapidly moving landscape for the action, courtesy of a quiet and well-behaved turntable. Jennifer Tipton’s atmospheric lighting and Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s earth-toned costumes contributed to the attractive yet stark visual picture.
A notable strength of McVicar’s production was its vivid ensemble staging, showcasing intricate swordplay and convincing combat movement. Revival Director and Choreographer Leah Hausman recreated all of this faithfully and with polish. Rather than appearing to exist in separate spaces, soloists, chorus and supers formed an organic community of players.
This sense of ensemble was a primary distinction of Lyric’s production, featuring a cast whose sum proved greater than its parts. Enrico Caruso once said that all it takes for successful performance of IL TROVATORE is the four greatest singers in the world. While this may be simplistic and a tad hyperbolic, Caruso’s quip does suggest something of the musical and dramatic demands required of each major personage. The shining star on this occasion was Quinn Kelsey as the Count di Luna, who delivered the finest performance of the role in this writer’s 44 years of attending opera. His voice is reminiscent of the young Rolando Panerai: a timbre of bronze with an appealing sob in the tone, the same elegant sense of phrase and refined musicianship. He was unafraid to play Di Luna with an unrelenting sadism but still capable of singing the famous love song with a poetry and note of reverie that stirred the heart. Kelsey must surely be counted among the most important Verdi baritones of his generation.
In the title role, Younghoon Lee made a favorable impression. He possesses an attractive, Italianate spinto tenor and is versant in the traditions of his illustrious predecessors. Lee clearly has been listening to his Corelli recordings but the accents were his own, not appliquéd from the outside. Like Corelli, he uses a wide dynamic range, including mezza voce and diminuendo, but unlike Corelli, could become throaty and crooned. Lee tended to make a meal of Manrico’s every utterance and would benefit from some interpretative restraint. Still, he proved a suitably smoldering hero, paced himself vocally to survive a long evening and delivered a rousing “Di quella pira” (using the traditional downward transposition).
Amber Wagner, an alumna of Ryan Opera Center, the company’s young artist program, once again demonstrated she is a formidable talent with a wealth of potential but remains an unfinished artist. As Leonora, her large, easily produced voice was distinctive for its evenness, control and fullness—at least in the bottom and middle registers. She has an instinctive feeling for the style and occasionally phrased with a sense of spontaneous inspiration. However, her top proved inconsistent, the high notes sometimes focused and incisive but other times shrill and lunged at. In general, Wagner seems preoccupied with the technical elements of her singing and has not hit her stride as a poised performer.
Even more problematic was veteran mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe in the pivotal role of Azucena. Blythe still possesses a booming, house-filling instrument but the upper third of the voice is simply non-functional at this point. She omitted two high B-flats, once at the climax of “Condotta all’era in ceppi” and again at the final curtain, both of which are necessary to provide the requisite sense of catharsis. There were other liberties as well, suggesting that the tessitura of the part may now be beyond her. When the music lay within a comfortable range, Blythe could shape her powerhouse sound to impressive effect. But even here, one longed for a sense of variety, of textual nuance, a sense that each phrase has its own dramatic meaning rather than a roaring drone of albeit impressive force. Nevertheless, Blythe proved a favorite with the audience who delighted in the sheer massiveness of her vocal power.
In one of his best recent outings, bass Andrea Silvestrelli sounded vocally rejuvenated, delivering Ferrando’s often vexing triplets and trills cleanly and with panache. Conductor Asher Fisch clearly traced the origins of the piece to its bel canto roots and garnered playing of unusual finesse. However, it was often at the expense of dramatic urgency, the cabalettas turgid and lacking rhythmic snap. Some traditional cuts were opened up while others were retained. The Lyric Opera chorus covered itself in glory all night long: soaring, impassioned and harmonically well-blended.
To conclude, this production was a coherent, serious attempt to honor the chaotic fatalism of a work subject to academic condescension and all concerned can be credited with creating an evening of engaging music drama. Photo Credits Michael Brosilow