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The Sublime and the Absurd

Teatro La Fenice
09/11/2022 -  & September 15, 17, 21, 23, 2022
Giuseppe Verdi: Il trovatore
Mattia Olivieri (Il Conte di Luna), Francesca Dotto (Leonora), Carmen Topciu (Azucena), Antonio Poli (Manrico), Simon Lim (Ferrando), Lucia Raicevich*/Elisa Savino (Ines), Diongi d’Ostuni*/Enrico Masiero (Ruiz), Antonio Casagrande*/Salvatore Guacalone (Un vecchio zingaro), Eugenio Masino*/Domenico Altobelli (Un messo)
Coro del Teatro La Fenice, Alfonso Caiani (chorus master), Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice, Francesco Ivan Ciampa (conductor)
Lorenzo Mariani (stage director), William Orlandi (sets & costumes), Fabio Barettin (light designer)

(© Michele Crosera)

Il trovatore is one of Verdi’s most enduring operas. Musically, it’s melodically rich, and built on the foundation of four great roles: Manrico, the Troubadour, a tenor; Leonora, a soprano; the gypsy Azucena, a mezzo; and il Conte di Luna, a baritone. The arias, duets and trios written for these voices eclipse much of Verdi’s heretofore operatic output.

Dramatically, it’s intense but highly implausible. It’s easy to ridicule an opera whose plot originates with a nobleman burning a gypsy woman at the stake, her daughter Azucena seeking revenge by attempting to burn alive the killer’s child and mistakenly burning her own child instead. She escapes with the nobleman’s baby and raises him as her own, calling him Manrico. All this happens before the opera even starts.

At its end, the work sees the nobleman’s other son, il Conte di Luna, killing Manrico, his love rival for the noblewoman Leonora, only to find out from Azucena that he’s killed his own brother.

The implausible plot makes Il trovatore the stereotype of a senseless opera with a convoluted plot, to the extent that it was used in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. It was also utilized as a backdrop for the opening scene of Luchino Visconti’s epic film, Senso.

Visconti evokes the Venetians’ struggle against the ruling Austrians in 1866, shortly before its liberation by the young Kingdom of Italy. Visconti saw a parallel between the doomed lovers in the opera and the protagonists of his film, a Venetian countess and an Austrian lieutenant. Incidentally, that riveting opening scene takes place at Venice’s stunning opera house La Fenice.

The costumes at the performance I attended were intriguing: Leonora and Azucena were bejeweled and dressed in glamorous evening dresses evocative of 1950’s haute couture à la Givenchy, designed for the likes of Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly. Likewise, the leading men were dressed in evocatively elegant evening wear from an indeterminate period. In contrast, the chorus, whether Manrico’s gypsy followers or di Luna’s soldiers, were dressed entirely in black, conjuring workers from the late 19th Century. An imaginative touch saw the chorus wearing “pandemic” masks throughout the performance. Whether this was a twisted way of signaling their subordination or a political clin d’œil about submission remains a mystery.

Rarely is Il trovatore a roaring success, due to the inherent difficulty of assembling four impeccable voices able to render justice to this work by Verdi. Amazingly, this production had a near perfect cast. Francesca Dotto, as Leonora, in Act I’s aria “Tacea la notte placida” augured well. This is obviously a lyric soprano with a solid vocal technique and intense expressiveness. Her phrasing in the final cadenza, “Obliarlo! Ah tu parlasti...Amor che non può dirsi” conveyed utter rapture. Though ideally sung by a spinto soprano with agility, Dotto was more than adequate for the role, thanks to her masterful technique and temperament. Her Act IV aria, “D’amor sull’ali rosee,” was a lesson in bel canto, a marriage between beautiful sound and musicality. The opening lines of the aria conveyed Leonora’s despair. The second part of the aria, “Tu vedrai ch’amore in terra”, conveyed her defiance and determination.

Mattia Olivieri, as di Luna, impressed with his beautiful Verdian velvet baritone and his noble onstage deportment. This was clearly a nobleman, aware of his high station. Moreover, at different moments in the opera, he conveyed his fragility and his despair at being spurned by Leonora. His “Il balen del suo sorriso,” possibly Verdi’s most beautiful aria for baritone, was delightfully interpreted, lovelorn in the opening passages and exuding virility in the second part “Non puote il mondo intero, donna, rapirti a me,” defying his rival and even God.

Romanian mezzo Carmen Topciu was vocally ideal as Azucena. Unlike many, she did not resort to excessive histrionics or to harsh chest notes. Hers was a bel canto Azucena, elegant, vocally brilliant and appropriately portrayed as a woman broken by an unforgivable blunder (burning her own child) rather than a demented witch. Even in the final scene, her scream: “Egli era tuo fratello” (he was your brother) was measured and yet effective. The public was effusive in their appreciation of her “Stride la vampa.”

Usually the weakest link in many stagings of Il trovatore is the demanding tenor role, Manrico. In this portrayal, Antonio Poli was very convincing. The difficult Act III aria, “Di quella pira,” was sung effortlessly and with delicious panache. Often tenors capable of such prowess milk the aria in a vulgar way (sadly, to the public’s delight). But mercifully on this night there were no such antics. Poli, a lyric tenor with a solid technique, was expressive and moving in the preceding duet “Di qual tetra luce...Amor sublime amor.” Whether coincidental or not, by dressing Manrico and di Luna in identical costumes, and with both men sporting similar haircuts and facial hair, their being brothers seemed appropriate, almost inevitable.

Ferrando, the bass role, is often mentioned as the fifth pillar of opulent voices needed to mount Il trovatore, but the character has just one aria at the beginning of the opera and only a few lines throughout. South Korean singer Simon Lim, a frequent singer on Italian and European stages, acquitted himself honourably in the short but essential role, to the point where one wishes that Verdi had given him more to sing.

La Fenice’s orchestral forces were led by Francesco Ivan Ciampa, who adopted an appropriately brisk tempo. This is, after all, an opera replete with action. In lyrical passages, he deftly adapted his tempi to the singer’s needs with great sensitivity.

Unfortunately, the sets and stage direction did not compare with this production’s excellent vocalists and orchestra. Three large tables and several chairs were placed in various positions throughout the opera: one might be able to conceive of the famous anvil chorus being sung by merry blacksmiths at a tavern who merely evoke their job. However, the use of the tables as barricades by di Luna’s soldiers in front of the convent at the end of Act II, and as prison walls in Act IV, verges on the absurd. Videography was used to depict smoke and flames from the pyre on which the gypsy and the child were burned. Were the production helmed by a more imaginative stage director, infinitely more could have been done with this medium, especially to compensate for the nearly absent sets. The program notes mentioned that the staging is based on a metaphysical interpretation of the opera. This may explain the sparse sets as well as Manrico’s execution at the opera’s end, which, in this baffling production, saw him merely staring at the moon.

Despite its odd libretto, Il trovatore’s setting is historically correct: the civil war following the death of King Martin of Aragon in 1410. Il Conte di Luna and Manrico champion opposite sides vying for the succession. Di Luna’s camp has the support of the Queen and the aristocracy, while Manrico’s side bets on the underdog James of Urgell, who has no choice but to recruit bandits and gypsies. This very divide, the classic struggle between official power and the oppressed, offers myriad possibilities for stage direction. Sadly, few directors employ this historical fact to energize their stagecraft. Thankfully, despite these lost opportunities, there was much to enjoy in this Trovatore.

Ossama el Naggar



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