I first saw Il Trovatore at New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera many years ago, starring Fiorenza Cossotto as Azucena. It was a spectacle with fine music, great singing, crowds of choruses set on a grand stage, and an audience numbering in the thousands.
Times have changed. These days, opera companies left and right are closing their doors. The existence of opera as a big-moneyed interest in the U.S. is in peril. At November 10’s Sunday matinee in Santa Monica, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Opera performed its own version of Il Trovatore, illustrating this change. In place of conductor and orchestra was a digital piano. The set was a modest affair: two shoji screens with variable backlighting and a bench at center stage. The large ensembles were reduced to a few choristers.
It was an afternoon of the imagination.
Before the show, director Marcela Pan introduced the difficult circumstances under which Verdi labored. That story was an opera in itself, resulting in beautiful music and a convoluted plot, which largely depended on audience familiarity with the missing details. The opera involves feuding brothers who are unknown to one another, love, blood, fire, the Church, nunneries, madness, a baby thrown into the fire, revenge and death. I was thankful to hear Ms. Pan explain the circumstances of the opera, and enjoyed her direction of the unfolding story.
Since this is Verdi in his prime, the lead roles of Il Trovatore are notoriously difficult. In the minor roles, the Messenger (Ryan LeGrand), Ruiz (Shawn Taylor) and Ines (Lisa Marie Bolin) sang well, with clear and clean voices. I look forward to hearing them in future productions. It was also a pleasure to hear Franco Rios-Castro as Ferrando, and to hear/feel how his bass voice filled the room.
Baritone Carlos Oliva, as Count di Luna, portrayed a man driven mad by the burning desire to bend the world to his demands. In this, Oliva was strong, convincing and relentless.
Steve Moritsugu stepped into the role of Manrico as a last-minute replacement for an ailing Armando Castillo. Although the role was intended for a spinto tenor and Moritsugu is a lyric, he eventually found his footing in a very difficult role. He was especially effective in the duets with Leonora and Azucena, where he matched the women with some beautiful piano singing.
Azucena, performed by an indisposed Rochelle Firestone (suffering from a cold), held the feet of the audience to the fire and took us along as she delved into the dark recesses of a tormented spirit.
Leonora (that ideal of pure and virginal love), as sung by Linda Jackson, won the evening with her full-throated voice and large range. If there is anyone who can fulfill Verdi’s direction of esultante, that would be Ms. Jackson.
Finally, the ensemble was well directed, and sang with resounding clarity and verve.
It was an evening of contradictions. With a large this and a lavish that, I missed the spectacle that is opera. Even so, the level of storytelling coupled with the direct and immediate vitality of the singers — risking life and limb to essay the tightrope over the vast expanse that is Il Trovatore — is something the grand venues cannot offer. Dark clouds seem to hover over opera these days, but judging by the enthusiasm that the audience showed, it is community opera that will surely keep the fires lit.
The production was dedicated to the company’s co-founder, Ella Lee (1933-2013). I’d say Ella would have been proud.