an opera review by Murray Dahm » J-Wire

July 18, 2022 by Murray Dahm

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This new production of Verdi’s 1853 opera Il Trovatore directed by Davide Livermore had all the bells and whistles – the 14 LED digital panels complemented by large old-fashioned sets and a wonderful cast.

David Parkin as Ferrando, Elena Gabouri as Azucena and Maxim Aniskin as Count de Luna in Opera Australia’s 2022 production of Il Trovatore at the Sydney Opera House.
Photo credit: Keith SaundersDavid Parkin as Ferrando, Elena Gabouri as Azucena and Maxim Aniskin as Count di Luna in Opera Australia’s 2022 production of Il Trovatore at the Sydney Opera House. Photo credit: Keith Saunders

This production is updated to be set in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) although some scenes seemed timeless (the concrete ruins, graffiti and tires were newer than the 1930s). There was also a traveling circus to represent Manrico’s followers, and the Conte di Luna was turned into something of a mob boss. This production rejected the use of the term Gypsy as offensive (although the word “zingara” is still sung) and, instead, used Romani in the program and whenever the word gypsy generally appears. At times the lighting, designed by John Rayment, didn’t seem to be in the right place, but that added to a murky feel and was mostly where it needed to be.

The 14 LED panels were a mixed bag – at times their tarot card-like names of the characters and storylines (each of the four acts has a name) were a bit heavy. With digital content designed by D-Wok and sets by Giò Forma, at other times they were very effective, as in the monochrome scenes of Leonora’s love for Manrico in her second aria ‘D’amor sull’ ali rosee” and, in the final dungeon scene, they made the cell that allowed the voices to echo through the auditorium. For the most part they depicted locations, ruined landscapes and a ruined circus which was fine, although the end scenes had to be held in freeze frame while the panels moved around – this could have been coordinated better to avoid dead moments on stage. When the panels concealed the arrival of characters for the next scene, they were most effective, with the Conte di Luna appearing as if out of nowhere suitable for his stalking persona. The most effective of these revelations concerned the chorus and the actors (on stage) for the misery in Act IV. Likewise, the revolution (actually a double revolution) was mixed – I thought it caused the vocals to sound in the wrong place during the famous ‘Vedi le fosche’ chorus but at other times it allowed the singers to ‘travel while remaining in the middle of the stage. The Revolution was most effective in the Act II finale when the usually tricky transition from outside the convent to inside the convent was effectively handled. These two uses of revolution also highlighted the surprise for the production – that the followers of Romani and Manrico are circus performers. A remarkable group of actors played the role of acrobats, strongmen and clowns. Two of them open the show (in place on the apron before the audience enters and they “come to life” as the opening begins). In the Anvil chorus, I thought they were focusing unnecessarily – encouraging the audience to applaud their exploits as the famous chorus played (perhaps this was deliberate as the chorus is too well known and easily veers into territory cliché; it was not a cliché interpretation). In the Act II finale, however, Manrico’s army of circus performers looked fabulous as they invaded the stage, and the slow-motion combat full of acrobatic postures was very effective and, because they were circus performers, quite appropriate. The circus performers’ most effective moment, however, was saved for last – the end of the opera (“Church era tuo fratello! Sei vendicata, oh mother”) is unexpected, visceral and refreshing.

Sian Sharp’s Inez was a fleshed-out human being — her real crying and sincere concern for Leonora. It made what may be a minor role, simply Leonora’s servant, a real flesh-and-blood character. Likewise, Parkin’s Ferrando – a character who opens the show with a great diabolical aria for the bass, who was sung formidably, confidently and accurately, but then sinks into a supporting role for the Conte; you can forget what a strong opening impression he made when he doesn’t even sing in the final act. From the first notes of the opera, “Allerta! by Ferrando (and Parkin) opens the show confidently (I wish the superstitious choir had been startled by the sound of the bell at the end of their macabre tale (followed by their strong tutti “Oh! “)). Likewise, the Old Romani (Nathan Lay – stepping in at the last minute for Luke Gabbedy), Messenger (Thomas Strong) and Ruiz (Iain Henderson) made the most of their roles. The choirs, both male and female, were terrific in multiple roles – thugs, circus performers, nurses. Their singing was nuanced and powerful – soft when asked (and often noticed the markings (such as several sforzandos) ignored in some performances) and peppy when needed.

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Which brings us to the four main principles. Several of the early entries seemed to involve overly muscular singing, “ommphing” their voices in the right place rather than stroking – there was no sign of legato for a while. What first attracted Verdi to the story of Il Trovatore were the two female protagonists, Leonora and Azucena – he had wanted to name the opera after Azucena but gave in to the play’s name. The first we meet is Leonora interpreted by the American soprano Leah Crocetto. His first aria, “Tacea la note placida”, took a long time to take off. Crocetto’s voice is impressive in the treble (and remained so all night, assured on every note) but in certain passages of mezza-voce the foot seemed to come off the accelerator. As the night progressed it became more and more impressive and the last act in particular was a marvel, both vocally and dramatically. When she took poison rather than surrender to the Tale, her action as poison took effect too early was fabulous. And the song of the final tune, the misery, followed by the final duo and trio were magnificent; Act IV is a triumph.

No less magnificent was Elena Gabouri in the role of Azucena. From the first notes of “Stride the Vampa”, her voice penetrated the house, her high notes were always sure and chilling as the drama demanded. Only her costume, an unchanging circus fortune teller with gold pasties topped with tassels, really detracted from the character driven by visions and a desire for revenge. The costumes of the protagonists (by Gianluca Falaschi) unfortunately added little to the character or drama – those of the chorus and actors, on the other hand, added character and color. Azucena’s latest duet with Manrico, “Ai nostri monti ritorneremo”, was infinitely touching and projected itself marvelously in the public.

The voice of South Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee as Manrico is always a marvel. It became clear before the interval that he was in some physical distress following the spinal injuries he suffered earlier in the year. His movements were limited and certain particular postures and gestures seemed to be the product of it. Nonetheless, his voice was thrilling and, despite missing a single high note and the uneasiness it created, he never missed another and was impressive and reliable until the end. His “Ah! si, ben mio” was magnificent and its diminuendo on the high note of the final duet was exquisite. His artistry and ability to negotiate what was clearly a difficult performance should be respected. Perhaps the public’s reactions to his second half were bolstered by the expectation that something could still go wrong. Certainly, he received the most generous applause.

Russian baritone Maxim Aniskin as Conte de Luna sang reliably all night, I especially liked the top of his voice. His “Il balen del suo sorriso” was the first real sign of legato of the night and it was sung with a beautiful line. He was, however, hampered by having to carry a sword in his left hand for most of the night (there was no scabbard). This reduced his gestures to a single hand, often claw-like, which became a bit one-dimensional. He also wasn’t as fat and mean as he could have been despite all his mafia trappings and stalking his love, Leonora.

If the wonder of Act IV and other parts of this performance spill over to the rest of the show as the run continues, it should be a Il Trovatore not to be missed (the other performances are on July 19, 23, 25, 28 and 30).

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