Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Comfort Food

Sam Shirakawa was present for the premiere of the Met's new production of Il Trovatore on Monday night:

16 February

Premiere New Production

Once upon a time, when opera was an affordable passion, I regarded Il Trovatore as Verdi's Smorgasbord, a cucina toscana laden with comfort food. Who cared if a mezzo was day-old, a baritone bland, or a soprano overcooked? Trovatore has so much melody to munch on! In those halcyon days, Trovatores were also as plentiful as pizza parlors. Easy to cast.

Now that the Metropolitan Opera is about to bang its neediest patrons with a 33 percent price increase, though, Trovatore is turning into white truffle. And casting a competent quartet of leads has long since turned tougher than lining up a Marfa in Mauritius.

Then too, the Met has had little luck with mounting Trovatore in the past 20 years. Remember that awful production by Fabrizio Melano for Joan Sutherland in 1987? Graham Vick's attempt at producing an opera in 2000 lasted two seasons.

If third time lucky and multiples of three exert a positive influence, David McVicar's elaborate production was unveiled Monday night on the occasion of the Met's 600th performance of the opera. Except for the final scene, the Met now has a palatable if not delectable mounting of the opera. Thanks to a revolving stage (whose gears need a grease job -- it squeaks and creaks alarmingly), scene changes take less than 30 seconds. Thick high walls -- separating Charles Edwards' innocuously realistic sets -- also serve as massive sounding boards. They bounce the voices out into the house to create marvelous reverb enhancement. (The wide stairs dominating the unit set of the Met's I Vespri Siciliani and the oval wall in the second act of Tannhäuser create a similar effect.) But the final scene fails to make sense. It's supposed to be a prison dungeon, but it's unmistakably the gypsies' camp of Act II. A lot of press was given to the influence of Goya on the current production, but the only vestige of the Spanish master I could discern was the scrim, covered with cartoons of horrified facial expressions, that's used as the house curtain.

Of course, attractive resonant sets serve no purpose unless they're amplifying world-class voices. It's hard to imagine a more tantalizing cast than the one the Met has convened. I first heard Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora at the Met almost ten years ago to the day. She was good but green. She is now at the threshold of a huge career that sadly keeps receding before her for some reason. She should be up there with Anna, Karita and Renee, but she's still Sondra Who? Hers is one of the few voices before the public today that has a distinctive instantly recognizable timbre. It may not appeal to all tastes. A quick poll among acquaintances during intermission wrinkled some noses. But I can't get enough of it. There's room for some work on the lower register, but the middle and top are firmly in hand. The interpolated high notes are thrilling. "D'amor sull' ali rosee" has a way to go before it smacks down memories of Leontyne, but the anticipation it aroused at the premiere was compelling indeed. Radvanovsky, as I've commented before, is about as close to a real Verdi soprano as we're likely to get.

Reporting on a recent Adriana, I wished that Borodina would cut loose a bit more. Delora Zajick's Azucena, however, bolted with her usual high-gear elan. She's capable of endless nuance, but fortunately for those who like their Azucenas wild, she left her fennel at home.

Marcelo Alvarez' Manrico tends to swing toward the lighter side, but his way with "Ah si, ben mio" and the stentorian declamations that followed elicited an ovation that only a happily surprised audience can confer. He merits more work at the Met.

Dimitri Hvorostovsky as Luna is also capable of deliriously nuanced vocalism, but he might do well to remember that Luna is, and always will be, a meatball role. Put in some more Parmesan, Dimitri! and take the cue from the character's name: Be looney, a la the late and still lamented Lenny Warren!

Perhaps the little-noticed surprise of the premiere was the admirably lyrical conducting of Gianandrea Noseda. But his work, too, could use a fistful of peperoncino. You're Italian, Gianni, so don't fuggetaboutit!

"The characters are always on their feet, singing their hearts out," proclaims the program note. Actually, in McVicar's production, Leonora and Azucena spend a lot of time on the floor. Radvanovsky even hits a high note just before she collapses on her back. Which only goes to suggest that among the celebrities in attendance at the premiere was the spirit of Magda Olivero, who will be 100 years young next year. Were you there in 1975, when she sang the first part of "Vissi d'arte" flat on her back, after Ingvar Wixell as Scarpia threw her to the floor? Scrumptious!

© Sam H. Shirakawa 2009

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