Anvils and gypsies steal the revival of David McVicar’s Il trovatore

The Anvil Chorus in Verdi’s Il trovatore at Lyric Opera of Chicago (Photo: Robert Kusel)

United StatesUnited States Verdi, Il trovatore: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra and Chorus, Asher Fisch (conductor), Michael Black (chorus master), Civic Opera House, Chicago 27.10.2014. (DP)

Ferrando: Andrea Silvestrelli
Inez: J’nai Bridges
Leonora: Amber Wagner
Count di Luna: Quinn Kelsey
Manrico: Younghoon Lee
Azucena: Stephanie Blythe
An Old Gypsy: Kenneth Nichols
A Messenger: Timothy Bradley
Ruiz: Jonathan Johnson

Co-production of Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Opera Association
Original Director: David McVicar
Revival Director and Choreographer: Leah Hausman
Set Designer: Charles Edwards
Costume Designer: Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting: Jennifer Tipton

The David McVicar production of Il trovatore made its Chicago Lyric Opera premiere eight years ago. It has since been seen at the Met, which co-produced it, where it was also seen in movie theaters. That performance is also on home video with two of the principals who premiered the production at Lyric, Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora and Dolora Zajick as Azucena. For Lyric’s 60th anniversary, the production has been revived but with a new cast and a new director, Leah Hausman, who was the original choreographer and here takes up double duty.

Traditional opera-goers will always hold Il trovatore close to their hearts no matter how silly and politically incorrect this contrived tale of mistaken identity and baby-burning, baby-switching gypsies told largely in “oom-pah-pah” triple meter may seem to modern sensibilities. The innovation of McVicar was to take all of this seriously by emphasizing bleakness; Charles Edwards’ enormous turntable set includes bodies hanging near the shadows of the town wall to remind us that danger is lurking everywhere. The visual reference is Goya: the action has been moved up to the early 19th century, the time preceding the work’s composition. Bringing characters who are stuck in the Middle Ages into modernity serves to underscore that there are some serious screws loose.

Lyric’s late longtime artistic director Bruno Bartoletti, who conducted the McVicar premiere, had the inspired idea to have Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli sing the role of Ferrando, who tells the story of what has already transpired to the bored guards under his command as soon as the curtain opens. Silvestrelli’s dulcet deep tones—the only original cast member back for the revival—added darkness and foreboding to the proceedings and Michael Black’s chorus acted dutifully shocked and surprised.

American soprano Amber Wagner, making her role debut as Leonora, clearly has the range and vocal heft for the role, but has yet to fully employ the needed lyricism and dynamic control. Her singing was often unsculpted, clearly an interpretation in progress. The notes were there, but the sound tended to be loud and unfocused, often covering over jagged vocal flexibility, as in a sluggish “Di tale amor che dirsi.”

Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey telegraphed the evil of Count di Luna both vocally and dramatically, often squandering lyricism in the process. Even his “Per me ora fatale” came off as brutish and hollow. Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee, aside from looking relatively anorexic surrounded by such a large cast, convincingly conveyed the naiveté and romanticism of Manrico. Vocally, he was no dynamic match for either Wagner or Kelsey, nor American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe (Azucena), who did scale back for their respective duets and ensemble numbers. Lee was being drowned out during his Act III finale, “Di quella pira,” which made it somewhat of a surprise when he went for the interpolated high C at the end of the act, only fully audible when Israeli conductor Asher Fisch managed to rein in the orchestra.

In many respects, this was Blythe’s show, as she not only has the rich, dark, contralto-like sound so ideal for Azucena, but her Act II storytelling was hair-raising if sometimes teetering over the top.

Michael Black’s chorus was extraordinary. This is one Anvil Chorus where thanks to beefy, anvil-pounding supers that mix in seamlessly with the chorus, the anvils are not used in a merely token manner.

Dennis Polkow

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