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The Troubadour and Leonora’s Alter Ego

Teatro Girolamo Magnani
09/24/2022 -  & October 2, 8, 13, 2022
Giuseppe Verdi: Il trovatore
Angelo Villari (Manrico), Anna Pirozzi*/Silvia della Benetta (Leonora), Simon Mechlinski (Il Conte di Luna), Enkelejda Shkoza*/Rossana Rinaldi (Azucena), Alessandro della Morte (Ferrando), Davide Tuscano (Ruiz, Un messo), Alida Ilaria Quilico (Ines), Chuanqi Xu (Un vecchio zingaro)
Coro del Teatro Regio di Parma, Martino Faggiani (chorus master), Filarmonia Arturo Toscanini, Sebastiano Rolli (conductor)
Elisabetta Courir (stage director), Marco Rossi (sets), Marta del Fabbro (costumes), Gianni Pollini (lights), Michele Merola (choreography)

(© Roberto Ricci)

It’s enchanting to experience an opera in a small historic opera house, but a venue with a capacity of four hundred is not normally a viable one, given the huge expense in mounting an opera. Nevertheless, the Verdi Festival organized one of its four major events for this year’s edition in precisely such a venue, the Teatro Girolamo Magnani in Fidenza, a town of thirty thousand inhabitants. This initiative was taken in order to extend the Festival beyond the city of Parma. The theatre was inaugurated in 1861, featuring Il trovatore, the work I attended. In 2014, it was restored to its original state, upgrading its already exquisite natural acoustics.

Beyond the excitement of seeing Il trovatore in such a setting, I had high expectations, as the formidable Anna Pirozzi was cast as Leonora. Ideally sung by a spinto soprano d’agilità, it is most often sung by lyric sopranos who cannot meet the demands of the role. Pirozzi’s voice didn’t fail to impress; it was almost overwhelming to hear such a huge voice in such a small theatre. A veteran of such iconic roles as Turandot, Tosca, Lady Macbeth, Aida and Abigaille, her voice would have filled the huge Teatro Colon or the Arena di Verona with ease.

Her Manrico was Angelo Villari, an unquestionable star and the revelation of the evening. Usually, Manrico is the hardest role to fill in this opera, and therefore often the weakest link. This tenor has a beautiful lyric voice, brilliant technique, brimming with musicality. He is possibly the best Manrico I have heard in the past two decades. He displayed immense artistry and delicate phrasing in his Act III duet with Leonora, “Di qual tetra luce...Amor sublime amor”. The aria that followed, “Di quella pira”, the highlight of the opera, proceeded perfectly almost until the very end when the orchestra’s tempo accelerated. Sadly, the final high note was botched, which was a real pity.

In contrast to this refined singing, we were subjected to Polish baritone Simon Mechlinski’s vulgar Conte di Luna, big on volume but lacking in style. His timbre is not unpleasant, though it could not be described as Verdian. He only sang forte and fortissimo, giving no room for reflection in his interpretation. Di Luna is supposedly a nobleman, but Mechlinski seemed unaware of this. In both his posture and acting, he may as well have been a butcher or a fishmonger. His Act II aria, “Il balen del suo sorriso”, possibly Verdi’s most beautiful aria for baritone, was bereft of emotion. The scene is of a proud nobleman desperately in love, but humiliated, as he is rejected. Unreciprocated love is arguably the most universally understood emotion, yet Mechlinski hadn’t a clue, in this or in any other aria, of how to summon this emotion. Due to this pedestrian baritone, the Act I trio, “Qual voce!...Ah, dalle tenebre tratta io fui!”, was completely unbalanced: a refined tenor, a magnificent Leonora (though a bit overwhelming due to her huge voice) and a very loud, cluelessly miscast baritone. Thankfully, in the Act IV di Luna‑Leonora duet, “Mira d’acerbe lagrime”, Pirozzi’s huge instrument matched his loud shouting. But what a pity to endure such a tremendous duet reduced to this extremely moving Leonora, replete with brilliant phrasing, opposite this dullard, monochrome shouter.

The choice of casting a contralto rather than a mezzo is a questionable one. A true Verdi mezzo is a more appropriate choice. Inevitably, contraltos would tend to use too much chest voice, which is unmusical. Albanian contralto Enkelejda Shkoza has a lovely timbre but she is sadly past her prime. At times, her singing was laboured, but mostly it was well‑managed and expressive. As is often the case when a stage director opts for the gypsy witch characterization, rather than the distraught mother who has accidentally burned her child alive, this was an Azucena who was big on histrionics. Sadly, overdoing rarely works.

Young bass Alessandro della Morte was more than adequate as Ferrando. His timbre is pleasant, but he could be a more subtle actor. However, being this particular Conte di Luna’s henchman, this would be quite a challenge. In the small roles of Ines and Ruiz, Alida Ilaria Quilico and Davide Tuscano had both fine voices and good stage presence.

Despite reservations about Conte di Luna, and to a lesser extent Azucena, the real disappointment was in the staging. Alas, it was not even worthy of a high school production. In Leonora’s opening scene, we’re surprised to see two Leonoras rather than one: the soprano who sings and an attractive young dancer/mime. Supposedly, the latter represents Leonora’s subconscious or inner soul.

Initially, it reminded me of the scene in Werner Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, where Klaus Kinski and Claudia Cardinale rush into Manaus’s opera house in Amazonia only to catch the final trio from Verdi’s Ernani with Enrico Caruso singing and legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt miming Elvira while a fat soprano sings the role. The idea was based on historical fact, where the much sought‑after Sarah Bernhardt would tour, performing such simulated opera scenes.

Though striking as a scene in a film, it is hardly a plausible premise for a stage production, if that were the inspiration. In the film and in historic fact, the public has come to see a great actress interpret–without a voice–an operatic role. In this production, the public is subjected to a pretty young woman gesticulating whenever Leonora is on stage, which is highly distracting. Alas, some stage directors who do not believe in or particularly love opera are asked to stage it. Opera is make believe and not cinema, despite the MET blurring the line in its cinematic projections. Had that not been the case, legendary singers such as Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Caballé, Anita Cerquetti and Maria Caniglia wouldn’t have enjoyed the careers they had.

In the finale of the second Act, Leonora, believing Manrico to have been killed in battle, is set to enter a convent. Her confidante Ines, and other ladies in waiting who are accompanying her, also carry white robes, as if they’re to become nuns!

The intense finale, “E deggio e posso crederlo”, falls flat due to the unwieldy, loud baritone and due to the overcrowding of the stage with ladies in waiting, soldiers and mimes. Likewise, the glorious Act IV aria “D’amore sull’ali rosee” lost its bite with a number of dancers (inexplicably carrying lanterns!) crowding the stage. Perhaps it was a celebration of the Chinese New Year. The evening was a hodgepodge but was saved in part by some (but not enough) superlative singing and equally inspired acting.

Ossama el Naggar



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