It’s difficult to be reasonable about Il Trovatore. Reason is the last quality we expect from any of its characters or situations. They are extreme people, yielding unreflectively to extreme passions. Verdi’s score expresses just that element (richly evident in its source, a blood-and-thunder Gutierrez drama somewhat watered down for the libretto in order to appease papal censors), and the singing should emerge with just this sort of unreasoning passion. We may not believe that X loves Y, but we ought to believe their minds are at fever pitch: “I’m going to hit that orgasmic high note if it kills me.” No, you never hear a Trovatore like that any more, but back when all theater was live theater and Il Trovatore was the most popular theater piece on Earth, that’s the sort of excitement you could hope for. If you want it now, you might want to check out the old RCA recording with Milanov, Barbieri, Bjoerling and Warren. And that was an everyday Metropolitan Opera cast!
The Met’s current David McVicar production in Charles Edwards’s unattractive but functional sets (time period: Spain during a civil war—any old civil war—there were plenty to choose from, but anyway it’s not the one in 1410 where Gutierrez set it) is not without its absurdities. (Why are all those floozies hanging around the soldiers’ camp, acting so very camp, when the general is formally reviewing his troops?) But the job gets done and sets up the singers to play their parts with minimal fuss.
One particular thing struck me about the leading singers on this occasion: None of them had their eyes glued to the conductor. Singers who sing to lovers, tormenters, wounded children or God while keeping an eye on the baton the whole time are often a necessary evil, a whimsy one grows used to, but it was a pleasure to have the stars of this revival, though they never lost the beat (and conductor Marco Armiliato never let Verdi’s powerful rhythms fade or grow less than propulsive), looking at each other the entire night. They were in it, they were on it. This is one of those professional touches you hardly notice if you’re not looking for it—and are accustomed to too many singers who can’t manage it.
You seldom get four top stars in top form in a Trovatore, but the opera calls for just that. On this occasion no one sang badly but the glitter was seldom gold. The men had it rather over the women; their voices seemed better designed for singing Verdi. One felt in especially good hands with the Count di Luna of Željko Lučić, who makes one think the great days of the Verdi baritone live again. His “Il balen” was flawless, the long, long line filling the house without effort, each note on the proper pitch as though his throat could not consider putting it anywhere else. I don’t remember there being quite so much bladework in this production, but Lučić certainly startled the house when he drew his sword through his hand, drenching it in blood, in his determination to possess Leonora. He held his own in the confrontational duets and trios, too.
Marcelo Álvarez sang his offstage serenades beautifully (to the accompaniment of a harp that never appeared—hey, guys, he’s a troubadour, y’know?) but his double aria in the besieged fortress seemed on the gruff side and he ran out of voice by the time of the dungeon scene. Hoarseness seemed to be the problem; perhaps, like Franco Corelli, he should conceal glasses of water around the set. His canteen in Act IV seemed not to have been filled, and he needed it. He looked a romantic enough figure whenever he did not stand in profile.
Patricia Racette’s Leonora is not the loopy teenager jumping around the set played by Sondra Radvanovsky in this production: Leonora may be a teenager, but she’s a lady of high Spanish birth, and she knows it; Racette knows it, too. Spanish grandezza used to mean something, and Verdi’s Leonora is that sort of dignified character.
Racette is such an intelligent singer, so persuasive in her understanding of predicament, that I wish I liked her voice better. Her instrument always seems too small for the Met. She manages very professionally, but the voluptuous floods of sound that other sopranos have brought to the role, the voice that seems to define Leonora’s desperate heart and new-awakened passions, are not at Racette’s disposal. Her “Tacea la notte” was fascinating as vocal storytelling, but the tidal rise at its conclusion did not overflow. “Di tale amor” was, as it usually is, a bit of a mess, drawing no applause—Sutherland is the only soprano I ever heard sing it flawlessly, and the rest of her performance was inert. (“Di tale amor” is one of the few cases where I’d like to take his Orsinitá the composer aside and say, sternly, “Maestro, this tune isn’t good enough; go write a new one.”) The convent scene was no celestial flight, and Racette seemed out of breath in much of Act IV; there were many thin notes and others not precisely where one wanted them. Racette coped with the part but she did not take joy in it, or exploit its opportunities.
Marianne Cornetti has the heft for Azucena, but it takes her an awfully long time to warm up. Her “Stride le vampe” was loud but pitchless. Only at the end of the “Condotta” did she give evidence of the ferocity of a maddened Gypsy—her final notes actually brought forth the first responsive “echo” I’ve ever heard at the Met! The dungeon serenade, however, gave Cornetti place for her most beautiful singing of the night.
Alexander Tsymbalyuk, as Ferrando, has a clear, persuasive young bass but he bleats a bit. Renée Tatum was not the first confidante in my experience to make us all wish Inez had more to sing. The monks’ offstage “Miserere” in Act IV was downright heavenly, evidence of what those guys can accomplish when they’re not swashbuckling around shirtless, fighting with knives and spitting in each other’s faces, as they were obliged to do at other times.
The acting from all hands gave evidence of a bent towards melodrama. This is not out of place in Trovatore, of all operas, but many were the moments (“Ah sì, ben mio,” for example) when I felt the singers would give Verdi his due and us a better time if they’d stand and deliver in the old-fashioned way, instead of emoting like antsy banshees, losing their breath and tripping over their own feet.
The omission of nearly all cabaletta repeats implied a desire not so much to energize the occasion as to get it over with. That’s no way to do Trovatore; Trovatore must breathe. Oxygen keeps the embers hotter.