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Trovatore in Need of Fire

Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
10/23/2004 -  and 27, 30 and 2, 5, 8, 11, 13 November 2004
Giuseppe Verdi: Il Trovatore
Denyce Graves (Azucena), Krassimira Stoyanova (Leonora), Carlos Archuleta (Count di Luna), Mikhail Davidoff (Manrico), Mikhail Kazakov (Ferrando), Leslie Mutchler (Inez)
Stephen Lawless (Director), Benoit Dugardyn (Set Design), Martin Pakledinaz (Costume Design), Joan Sullivan-Genthe (Lighting Design), Brad Waller (Fight Master),
Heinz Fricke (Conductor)
Washington Opera Orchestra and Chorus

The Washington National Opera's production of Il Trovatore marks the continuation of a season of fine opera. And, without doubt, Trovatore is deservedly one of the best-known, most appreciated operas in the books. But, its success at staying on the top ten lists of favorite operas depends on stellar singers and dramatically inspired direction.

Sadly, this production was short on some of the critical ingredients. Vocally, two of the primary four principals were on top of things, most notably Denyce Graves as Azucena. In a departure from her more sexy personifications, Graves took on the craggy aspects of the vengeful gypsy and found great success. On opening night, her dramatic acting abilities lent substantial credibility to her menacing character. Needless to say, her vocal delivery was every bit as dark, dreamy, and luxurious as we've been accustomed to hearing from this exceptional performer. While she has somewhat defined Carmen and Dalila, one suspects she might be setting a standard for Azucena.

Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova likewise pleased with a lyrical Leonora that at times found her upper register pianissimo singing amazingly controlled and focused. Wolfgang Brendel was indisposed in the role of Count di Luna, which allowed his cover, American baritone Carlos Archuleta, to step into the spot light. That in itself is a big deal, made even bigger when the role is as primary as the Count's. Archuleta acquitted himself admirably of the role and challenge. One suspects his periodic projection limitations were a function of opening night adjustments and that any future runs he may assume with this role will be stronger. Russian tenor Mikhail Davidoff delivered a Manrico with occasional surges of noticeable finesse. Mikhail Kazakov offered a credible Ferrando. The opera chorus sang well, although the off stage singing was barely audible.

So, vocally, it was sort of an even split. What was superb was truly superb and what wasn't really wasn't. For whatever reason, Heinz Fricke's conducting never seemed to catch fire, and there were far more than normal signs of disjointedness between the pit and the stage, all of which lent itself to a somewhat flat musical experience.

However, adding fuel to the fire or pyre, so to speak, was the staging direction by Stephen Lawless. It relied greatly on Benoit Dugardyn's temporarily interesting concept--floor to ceiling panels that were maneuvered into and out of position to indicate change in venue and scene. The novelty ran short, though, when ones attention became more concentrated on whether the panels were going to stick, which was a sure sign something was wrong when attention could be diverted by sliding panels. That aside, the director allowed the maneuvering panels to create obstructed sight lines that occasionally lopped off visual fields. Whatever the device, nothing should detract from the visual awareness of any stage presentation, be it theatre or opera or ballet. If a director is truly directing and watching, then all the sight lines are clear and clean. When they're not, it suggests lacking direction.

Direction was also a bit lacking in the choreographed fight scenes. Instead of being inspiring, they came off as awkward, amateurish, and ill rehearsed. Similarly did the general flow of characters on and off and in and out of scenes seem to lack imagination. In fact, it was sometimes downright cumbersome. Take, for example, the Act IV, execution scene. It should pulse with drama. Instead, it was lukewarm and without urgency or dramatic intent. The prison portion of Act IV, when Leonora joined Manrico in his cell, seemed ridiculously congested, especially when the Count seemingly had to step over the two lovers when he came upon them. Come on--the Kennedy Center stage is big. Really big. One presumes the sliding panels for the prison scene allowed no further depth. In fact, one wonders how much the set design of the panels had to do with some of the less than attractive staging.

This was an unfortunate case of good intentions gone awry. The only flames elicited by this Trovatore were those inspired by jets of fire that periodically shot up through the floor. The curtain calls were noticeably pegged toward Graves, whose performance was wildly celebrated by the audience. As the rest of the cast and even production crew came on stage, the applause was polite, which suggested a general disappointment. It's possible that opening night shakes simply joined forces during the performance. The Washington National Opera is a first class operation. This particular performance was not. Hopefully things will snap into place to permit this Trovatore to work the musical magic that has made this one of the most popular operas ever.

John C. Shulson



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