Rogo for it

In an ever-changing world it’s comforting to know that the Parmigiani of the Teatro Regio continue their campaign through the Verdi canon not unlike the Allied Forces’  rout of the Germans at the beginning of 1945. Though the body count isn’t nearly as high, somehow the devastation feels worse to me personally.

We are now working our way into the Master’s middle period with the release by C-Major  of a performance of Il Trovatore from October 2010.  The nifty “introduction to” that precedes all these issues reminds us that although the great Wagnerian George Bernard Shaw highly praised Trovatore at his first viewing he warned that it was,”Absolutely void of intellectual interest. Its appeal is to the senses all through.” 

What that means is that, performed well, this opera is simply hella fun.  But alas, there’s the rub. Caruso was famously quoted that all you needed for a successful performance were the four greatest singers in the world. The report from Parma is on a much more modest scale, I’m afraid, so gather round the fire beloveds because I hardly know where to begin.

This is exactly the kind of mounting you’d expect from a provincial theater trying to put its best international foot forward:aA gifted cast brought in around one star singer and a production run up with an eye to the bottom line more than artistic success. Polyester reigns supreme.

The star singer is Argentinian yenor Marcelo Àlvarez and he surprisingly gives a much more relaxed and nuanced performance as Manrico here than he would for the Met the following season, also enshrined on video. Perhaps this not so surprising, considering he made his role debut as Manrico at the Regio in 2006. It is a perfect voice for the part and fostered by colleagues who are interpreting to an audience of 1,200 rather than 3,800 he scales back to do some lovely piano singing when the occasion, and the composer’s markings, warrant. From his great opening offstage romance you can already tell he’s in splendid form.

His very lovely rendition of “Ah, si ben mio” is marred only slightly by the melisma he manufactures using his jaw rather than deleting the apparently uncomfortable effect entirely as he does at the Met. He’s especially alert working with the subtle Azucena of Mzia Nioradze and both their duets turn out to be the highlights of the performance. Perhaps he’s even dialed back a bit too far. For all the explosive pops and bluster evidenced at the Met also give his performance there that beloved suicide edge we all adore. Here in less high-profile surroundings he’s more dedicated to a refinement and shading that fell as a surprising balm on this reviewer. He sets his golden halo aside however for the finale of Act 3 scene 2 when he sings only one verse of ‘Di quella pira’ and then drops out for the entire stretta so he can blastissimo his final (transposed) B natural.

Young Bulgarian Deyan Vatchkov opens the evening as Ferrando but got up as a wind-blown Don Quixote. I suppose that’s the bass’s curse to constantly play 30 years older than you really are. His youthful voice serves him well and he is vigilant not only in dynamics and markings but also in singing accurately all the many grace notes that Verdi wrote and so many lazy singers omit. Bravo!

He also serves as a welcome foil to the Count di Luna of Claudio Sgura who gives a well-schooled if not entirely romantic reading of his part. I could blame the director, and plan to later, but Mr. Sgura is far too passive in his ardor and/or villainy for my taste. His light baritone boasts a quick vibrato and a facility for generous phrasing but he seems far more interested in his technique than participating in the drama. He also wears his own hair, which is a mistake since his mop of Botticellian curls sags to sweaty straw by evening’s end. He gets the biggest hand of the night at the close of his “Il balen” from a discerning audience–so discerning, in fact, they also know when not to applaud as evidenced later.

With, I am certain, the Fire Brigade of Parma standing in the wings, our evening’s Azucena, Mzia Nioradze, hots things up with a very potent “Stride la vampa” sung, for once, in front of a truly roaring fire. She makes a very positive if old -ashioned contribution, dramatically and musically alert and also dedicated to putting across everything the composer put on the page. It’s a voice that, although not first rate, fills the big phrases when called for. She’s also canny enough to know when to sing softly in order to draw the audience in.

She gives us a skillful “Condotta ell’era in ceppi” mostly played to one of the gypsy children in a little bit of stage business that beautifully establishes how she is both revered and feared by her band. Refreshingly costumed in a conservative fashion she manages to avoid the batty old hag stereotype all together. It’s a shame that when Di Luna’s men shackle her, the plastic chains are so cheap they break before the final tableau. (She covers nicely.)

Which brings us finally to Teresa Romano as Leonora. In the first act she takes the stage a bit tentatively in the opening recitative but the voice is luscious in the cavatina, pure soprano cream. I was all but pinching myself until she started those ascending phrases leading to the climax and I noticed a hard edge on the top most note and a wild-eyed look. Then we get a cadenza that’s so desperate it almost qualifies as a psychotic episode.  Her single verse go at the cabaletta displayed no trill but a passable shake and an unfinished technique with a shout on top.

Researching Ms. Romano I discovered she was a last minute replacement for a colleague who didn’t meet with the audience’s favor at the premiere.  At a tender 25 years old Ms. Romano was ill-advised to accept this assignment. The bottom and middle of the instrument are absolutely gorgeous if small-scaled. She made her way bravely through “D’amor sull’ali rosee” in a curdled tone that garnered no applause. None. She’s a large-framed woman who moves well onstage but was completely defeated by her cloak not once, but twice, in the last act. Kindly assisted by Mr. Sgura in an odd turn since he should be more interested in getting her undressed than the opposite..

The production is directed by Lorenzo Mariani in completely traditional fashion. No surprises here at all, just your basic Italian traffic cop, especially since he’s working with a completely bare stage all night thanks to set and costume designer William Orlandi.  Once again everyone is garbed monochromatic and color coded: blue for the Count’s men, red for the gypsie, our leading lady always in white. Although simple all the costumes are flattering which is saying something.

Two giant tapestries make up the front curtain and are used to interesting effect throughout.The set is a salt flat with an occasional set piece stuck on. The abduction from the convent unintentionally hilarious as all of the Count’s men hide behind two tiny cypress trees and the nuptial scene the absolute worst with the wedding bed planted center stage flanked by towering electric votive candles. It looks like a honeymoon suite in a two-star Vegas hotel off the strip. I would have been grateful for the suggestions of a prison cell in the last act since it looks like Manrico and Azucena could just wander off anytime they want, especially with those plastic shackles. A giant moon looms over the proceedings pointlessly.

The chorus sings with gusto at every opportunity and sound richer than their actual number. They are especially good in both of their off-stage bits, the women in the convent, the men in the prison, and always on pitch which is a blessed relief. But, once again, it’s almost all plant and sing. It’s not like they’re being distracted by any staging requirements. The chorus master Martino Faggiani gets a very large hand at the calls.

Whatever small success this production enjoys is due, almost entirely, to the leadership of Yuri Temirkanov in the pit.  He knows exactly what he’s doing and his reading is taut and  propulsive. He knows the fire that Verdi stokes here is mostly in the strings and they play beautifully for him.  His tempo choices are always valid and he breathes with his singers. I also have a feeling that the vigilant accuracy of style that much of the cast exhibits falls on his shoulders.

Picture is sharp and the PCM Stereo and DTS 5.1 sound crisp, with subtitles in every language you can think of.