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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.

19 comments

  • Porgy Amor says:

    This came up before when TROVATORE was discussed here, but I’m not wild about any of the DVD choices. At least Karajan’s has great singers and a great orchestra. Alas, he directed the production himself, the score is presented far from note complete, and I’ve heard some of that starry group be better, even in those roles (Domingo’s “Di quella pira” is tense and strained, although the aria preceding is gorgeous; Cossotto goes flat on high several times and her sound was getting harder, less attractive; Kabaivanska is subdued). I’d take it over the two Met releases, the Carsen/Bregenz, the risible-looking and dully conducted studio film with Gencer et al, and others I’m forgetting because they were forgettable. But this is a weaker endorsement than I’d like to give.

    It doesn’t sound as though I need to add this new one.

    • toitoitoi says:

      There’s that damn moon again. Did they borrow it for PARSIFAL? It seems to show up everywhere, looming portentously for no good reason (except as a substitute for real set decor.)

  • -Ed. says:

    It’s not clear to me who is being entertained by such productions. If I were a novice attending my first opera and saw this Trovatore, I would likely come away disappointed; as a more seasoned fan today, I’m bored by it.

    My first live opera was Il Trovatore at San Francisco, back in the 90s. I can still remember Zajick’s Azucena. I swear she made the seats in War Memorial vibrate..

    • Indiana Loiterer III says:

      Well, it is a provincial production; the abduction from the convent was staged just as ineptly in my first Trovatore, in Artpark in the late 1970s. (And I was, not exactly disappointed, but frustrated.) I think the assumption behind such productions is that we’re all there for the singing and we all know more or less how it goes, so we’ll all be entertained so much that nobody will care if anyone does anything on stage.

      • -Ed. says:

        I reckon so. It is about the singing, of course. But as a novice, the production mattered a great deal, at least to me. And silly me… I had forgotten all about the parade of martinis we enjoyed at the bar before the performance began. There could’ve been aardvarks on the stage, for all I knew.

  • Will says:

    OK, given the fact that the director is obviously given to big, bare, empty scenic gestures from his designer, could it be that he ran with the fact that the Conte di LUNA is the only one who remains standing at the end? (I’m assuming di Luna has Azucena disposed of pretty quickly after the final curtain — why would he ever want to keep her around?)

    • papopera says:

      Saw this opera at the old Met once, Milanov was very funny. Her partner Kurt Baum was a grotesque buffoon. We drank a lot of cocktails before the performance to keep us alive.

  • manou says:

    Parma ham?

  • MontyNostry says:

    “Lorenzo Mariani … just your basic Italian traffic cop.” Yeah, an Italian traffic cop born in NYC who graduated from Harvard.

    • marshiemarkII says:

      And with whom MMII worked as an assistant in a production of Capuleti e i Montecchi at the Loeb Drama Center back at the beginning of time :-) .
      My God Monty how do you know these things!!!! It seems you work for the NSA and/or Booz Allen :-)

      I haven’t seen Lorenzo in many a year, but his parents owned the famous Italian restaurant Asti in the Village back then (closed many years ago), and we would go there for dinner after the Met, when down from Boston, they had a cash register that would play the Trovatore Anvil Chorus, and of course many an aspiring opera singer would spend the evening serenading the patrons. Ah the memories again.
      Anyway glad to see Lorenzo is still working at what he loves. He was (is?) married to a daughter of Giussepe Patane the conductor of Gioconda fame we have discussed here before.

      • marshiemarkII says:

        Ah Monty and the family is originally from La Spezia, where he spent all his summers when he was at Harvard, which as you know is very near Parma, so in some ways he IS a local boy to Il Teatro Regio di Parma :-)

  • Ilka Saro says:

    “campaign through the Verdi canon not unlike the Allied Forces’ rout of the Germans at the beginning of 1945″.

    In this comparison, what would constitute the Battle of the Bulge? Have they crossed the Rhine yet? Who are the Russians and who are the Americans, and what will the ultimate carving up of Verdi’s oeuvre look like when the Germans surrender?

  • Camille says:

    You really should have that term “blastissimo” trademarked, Patrick Mack, before someone runs away with it and claims it as their own. I just love it!

  • phoenix says:

    - I saw this in the catalogues, but a mysterious voice told me not to get it -- thanks for telling me why. I’ll wait for the DVD of Morningside Opera’s ¡Figaro! (90210) -- can’t stand that coloratura twirp Susanna so this has to be the performance for me since they cut both of her dull arias.
    - Now, if the San Francisco Examiner can talk mug-face-voice Netrebko into “going on to something else” ….