Beijing’s Il Trovatore Presents a Conundrum

Marianne Cornetti as Azucena in NCPA’s Il Trovatore.

ChinaChina Verdi: Il Trovatore, National Centre for the Performing Arts Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Daniel Oren (conductor), National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing, 26.07.2015 (RP)

Manrico: Dai Yuqiang
Leonora: Zhang Liping
Conte di Luna: Claudio Sgura
Azucena: Marianne Cornetti
Ferrando: Guan Zhijing
Ines: Li Xintong
Ruiz: Wang Chong

Director, Set Design, Costume Design: Hugo De Ana
Lighting Design: Vinicio Cheli
Projection Design: Sergio Metalli


There was a chasm that was hard to bridge in this revival by the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) of Hugo De Ana’s 2014 production of Il Trovatore. On one hand, there were some truly fine Verdi singers on stage, and the chorus and orchestra performed at a high level. On the other, there were conductor Daniel Oren’s erratic tempi and over-the-top antics in the pit, plus a key casting choice that just about sent the performance over the edge into the realm of parody. I can almost brush aside the decision to cast Dai Yuqiang as Manrico. He is an operatic superstar in China, although he has spent scant time on stage actually singing opera. It is Daniel Oren who poses the conundrum. He is indisputedly a fine conductor and has appeared at many of the world’s major opera houses. Why all the shenanigans?

Oren’s musical and dramatic skills were evident from the start. The opening chorus was full of dynamic nuances and dramatic tension. It was truly impressive how the chorus managed to set the mood so quickly and effectively. Oren could also be a sensitive collaborator for the singers, especially the women. But why the groans, grunts and other sounds throughout the performance? I have never heard (or seen) anything like it.  De Ana’s choice to reprise “Di quella pira” is questionable at best, but in Oren’s hands it became a joke, more suitable for the circus tent than the opera house. At its conclusion, he turned to the audience, punched his fists into the air and basked in the applause. Really?

Marianne Cornetti was the only returning member of the cast from the premiere last year, and her magnificent Azucena was the musical and dramatic soul of the production. Vocally, the role fits her like a glove. There was more judicious use of chest voice than in last year’s performances, but that did not diminish the dramatic thrust of her singing. In fact, her voice was in better alignment, with the top notes ringing more freely. Oren shares credit for Cornetti’s musical and dramatic triumphs. At times the sound that emerged from the pit was a mere shimmer, permitting Cornetti to sing some of Azucena’s most dramatic utterances in a haunting, intense sotto voce. “Stride la vampa” was a tour de force, but the following aria, “Condotta ell’era in ceppi,” where Azucena recounts the horrors of throwing her own child into the flames, was remarkable due to Cornetti’s attention to text and dynamics. The audience sat in rapt attention. At times, Cornetti even managed to pull the wayward Dai into her dramatic orbit. That was no mean feat.

Claudio Sgura’s “Il balen del suo sorriso” was terrific, Oren’s erratic tempi notwithstanding. The aria’s dauntingly high tessitura posed no challenges for Sgura, and he sang of di Luna’s passion for Leonora in warm, beautiful tones. He is very tall and cuts a dramatic figure on stage. At first, I feared that he would be a somewhat one-dimensional villain, but his di Luna evolved into a complex, tragic figure with the realization that Leonora had taken her own life rather than submit to his will.

Few Leonoras face the obstacles that Zhang Liping did in this performance. Up against a Manrico who was a musical and dramatic void, she also frequently had indifferent support from the pit. Zhang has sung at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, the Paris Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin and other major houses. Perhaps her voice is a bit small for Leonora and lacks the vocal velvet of the great sopranos who have been associated with the role, but she manages it on her own terms. Most effective were her soft, floating high notes, especially in “D’amor sull’ali rosee,” where she offers herself to di Luna in marriage in exchange for Manrico’s life. She is a beautiful woman with a lovely stage presence. Leonora and her ladies had a mesmerizing, ballet-like grace each time they appeared on stage.

Which brings us to the Manrico of Dai Yuqiang, He undoubtedly has a voice, one impressive enough to have caught the attention of Tibor Rudas, the impresario who masterminded the Three Tenors juggernaut. Dai also claims the distinction of having been Luciano Pavarotti’s only Chinese student. A great operatic career never materialized, but he is a superstar in China, where his lip-synced concerts are quite lucrative for him. Dai appeared lost musically and dramatically most of the time. It is a rare Il Trovatore when “Di quella pira” doesn’t bring down the house, but this was one of them. Why did he pull his cloak over his head in taking his solo bow during the curtain calls? Opera history is full of dubious casting choices, but they are always disheartening.

Di Ana’s monumental production places the action in 19th-century Italy during the Risorgimento. The set seemed to creak and shake precariously during scene changes; not only was the noise disconcerting, it was rather alarming. The production’s strengths are the rich atmosphere created by the huge architectural elements, the beautiful projections of the moon and planets, and the costumes. The soldiers are dashing with swords clashing in the choreographed battle scenes. Leonora and her ladies are costumed in beautiful shades of violet, blue and gray. And as huge as the set is, the action takes place center stage, so focus is never lost. Oren made a difference in this regard also. At his best, the musical and dramatic direction coming from the podium translated directly to intensify the drama unfurling on stage. This was missing last year.

NCPA’s Il Trovatore was grand opera at its best and at its most frustrating. Some of the artistic choices were the equivalent of throwing raw meat into the lions’ cage: they prompted a big roar. However, the audience responded differently when true artistry was on display. Silence can be as profound as any roar, and applause registers differently when it is genuine. There is really no conundrum as to which direction the needle should point. Perhaps a reset is in order to bridge the chasm.

Rick Perdian

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