Steeped in the Classicals is Henry Stewart’s classical music column, philistines.
Verdi’s Il Trovatore (1853) was cursed. Not like Macbeth or the Red Sox, but neither critics nor aficionados fondly recall, to put it politely, the Metropolitan Opera’s last two productions, in 1987 and 2000. The Times’ Anthony Tommasini recently called them "laughably inept". But as of February 16, that curse has been lifted: David McVicar’s fine production, which opened that evening, has restored the magnificent opera to New York audiences’ good graces.
Its problem lies in Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto, his last before he died. (Cammarano was a frequent collaborator of Verdi and the opera composer Gaetano Donizetti, including on Lucia di Lammermoor, which played at the Met earlier this season.) Trovatore’s story is far-fetched, even by opera’s standards: it turns on a number of absurd contrivances and coincidences, boasting a slew of unlikely lovers, brothers and sons, all tangled together in a web of jealousy and revenge. The presumed dead turn out not to be dead. More than once.
But what seems silly on the page is dealt dignity by Verdi’s illustrious score, among the most consistent and hits-heavy in the repertoire; at a recent performance, there was far more applause between curtains than usually occurs in the opera house, where such ovations are generally taboo. (You wait until the act is over, kids — unless it’s a particularly famous aria, well performed, and even then…)
In a highlight, the Met’s choristers broke into brawls while belting the epically glorious melody of the opera’s most enduring piece, "The Anvil Chorus," to the rhythmic and clangorous accompaniment of hammers on steel. (Watch a performance from a far less clanging and scuffling past-production at the Met.) Functionally, "The Anvil Chorus" is a transitional scene of peasants at work, a moment a lesser composer (coughcoughPuccinicoughcough) might have regarded as disposable. Verdi, instead, uses the opportunity to write one of the finest pieces of music in his oeuvre.
Because Trovatore’s music is so strong, all a production need do is stay out of its way, which is what McVicar’s, transported from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, smartly does: Charles Edwards’ sets largely consist of mammoth gray walls and precipitous staircases (and a subtle, shadowy, ever-present crucifix); the blocking, except in a few act-ending spectacles, is simply efficient, unremarkable. The stark staging helps to draw attention away from the story’s histrionics and toward the luscious melodies.
Verdi overpowers the facile narrative with musical complexity. Though the music frequently matches the libretto’s emotional content—sad moments are set to sad music, happy moments to happy music — it just as often subverts it, too. In "Tacea la notte placida" (listen to Maria Callas), our heroine describes her love for the titular troubadour; melodically, it’s largely hopeful, blissful, but Verdi cleverly undercuts the cheer with occasional, well-placed dips into skeptical minor and diminished chords. In the subsequent "Di tale amor" (included in the above clip) she delivers the line "if I cannot live for him, I’ll die for him instead" over a particularly bouncy moment of music. Through orchestration, Verdi expresses his brow-cocked suspicion of such unqualified declarations. Similarly, the opera opens with "Abbieta zingara," in which a servant recounts a horrible tale of gypsies and infanticide: "a child’s skeleton, half burned, the bones still fuming." Verdi sets it to a jaunty, if eerie, waltz, a time signature traditionally used more light-heartedly. When the gypsy later tells her side of the story, it’s haunting — but in a similarly stepping 3/8, confounding the audience’s expectations.
Of course, a great score is worthless without great singers; fortunately, this production boasts a stellar cast. As the title character, Marcelo Ãlvarez, who took on the role after another tenor dropped out, delivered a particularly strong performance; on Tuesday evening, he sang a stirring and heartfelt rendition of the role’s signature aria, "Mal reggendo". (Listen to Enrico Caruso.) The true star, though, was his love interest, the sensational Sondra Radvanovsky. Like Kramer stumbling through Jerry’s door, she got an ovation just for appearing, and the audience did not come to regret their presumptuous applause. She sang forcefully, but with an exasperated, dramatic edge; she often delivered her arias on her knees. (Granted I’d had a few drinks, but she made me misty within 20 minutes.) She stopped the show with Act IV’s climactic "D’amor sull’ali rosee" (hear Radvanovsky from a different performance, or Rosa Ponselle) — her voice was confident yet delicate, wilting and lilting, bursting forth before dropping back to a whisper. She nailed each virtuosic passage as though it were merely what her emotional state at the time naturally demanded; she stopped singing the music and just started living it. Really — who goes to the opera for the story, anyway?
Il Trovatore plays tonight at 8 and on Friday night at 8. The production returns with a different cast for 5 performances throughout late April and early May. Visit the Met’s website for more information.