The trouble with troubadours

Verdi toyed with calling his opera La zingara but based on Monday’s Met season premiere he might have named it La zingara ed il conte as Anita Rachvelishvili and Quinn Kelsey towered over an otherwise pedestrian if still exciting Il Trovatore. 

Although my last Trovatore was just two years ago I had for a moment forgotten how much I adore this opera. It was the first Verdi to capture my imagination and the highlights LP of the old Leontyne Price recording was the second opera record I owned—the Zubin Mehta version hadn’t yet been released! That mysteriously yearning introduction to both verses of Leonora’s “Tacea la notte” never fails to transport me back to the 11-year-old me just discovering opera’s wonders.

Monday’s performance was the Met’s 648th, far fewer than the much-loved works that directly precede and follow it–Rigoletto (885) and La Traviata (1011.) I could easily forego either for the next five or ten years but not Trovatore. While acknowledging that Rigoletto and Traviata may be more satisfying and coherent music-dramas, and that the Marx Brothers were perfectly correct to skewer the piece in A Night at the Opera, I’m always swept away by Trovatore—even if I sometimes have to put my brain on “standby.”

Seventeen of the Met’s performances this month feature productions by Sir David McVicar but it must be said that Trovatore, his first work for the house, holds up pretty well. Charles Edwards’s revolving monolithic set allows the opera to flaw in two swift acts with no pauses for scene-changes building an irresistible momentum; it’s now hard to imagine that the opera used to always be done with three intermissions.

The propulsive production however wasn’t helped much by the merely adequate, unilluminating conducting of Francesco Molinari- Pra… I mean, Marco Armiliato. True, he kept everyone together and the orchestra played well enough but the music rarely soared as it can when led with more care and insight.

The chorus had a particularly lusty night reveling in Verdi’s infectious writing and McVicar’s Anvil-boyz © ably added to the din at the beginning of the second act. Sarah Mesko’s plummy Ines and Eduardo Valdes’s aging Ruiz got the job done while Stefan Kocán’s gravelly Ferrando roughly began the opera lacking both the delicacy and menace to make his opening narration redolent of dark foreboding.

Yonghoon Lee’s Manrico got lost in the last revival, obscured by Anna Netrebko, Dolora Zajick and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Monday his strengths and weaknesses were more exposed. He does throw himself into it but his wild stock gestures and glazed look of constant anguish grew tiresome and he sang lustily in what only sometimes resembled Italian. While not everything was done fff his mannered attempts at soft singing verged on crooning.

“I don’t bray!” Well, yes, you do. It was disconcertingly obvious when Marcelo Álvarez did it when the staging was new but now I believe McVicar’s staging demands that the Manrico gulp water onstage both during the duet with Azucena and before the blasted high note at the end of “Di quella pira!”

I remain baffled as to so many Verdi productions at the Met are riddled with cuts. All too predictably Manrico did only just verse of “Di quella pira” while both of Leonora’s cabalettas were reduced to a single verse. But on this occasion I wasn’t so dismayed as I didn’t long for more of Jennifer Rowley’s rough and unwieldy heroine.

The young American soprano scored a significant success last season as Roxane in Cyrano de Bergerac opposite Roberto Alagna (which I missed) and was duly rewarded with a performance of Tosca this month and then two weeks ago was tapped to take over Leonora when Maria Agresta took ill.

For all her dramatic commitment and occasionally interesting musical ideas, Rowley’s performance was grievously marred by consistently wayward intonation and harsh tone. There were rare lovely moments or nicely turned phrases but one often felt she was in way over her head. High notes sometimes blazed, sometimes squalled. Dramatic moments like the “Miserere” and the duet with di Luna worked well enough but one hoped in vain for the repose and floating beauty needed in “Tacea” or “D’amor sull’alli rosee.”

Her bio revealed that she’s to sing Medea in Mayr’s opera this summer for the inaugural season of Will Crutchfield’s Teatro Nuovo; I admit that Monday’s Verdi cooled my interest in attending that revival.

On the other hand, Kelsey’s brutal yet dreamily beautiful di Luna made me want to hear him again and again in just about anything. Although he won the Met’s Beverly Sills Artist Award three years ago, the house until now has been oddly reticent about featuring him.

This season, finally, New York is getting a good number of chances to learn what the rest of the world has known for some years now: Kelsey is one of the best baritones on the opera stage today. Last month, his Peter in Hansel literally made me sit straight up in my seat—the pointed vividness of his voice combined with the effortless clarity of his English diction were arresting.

But Verdi is where he has been making his mark worldwide and a gorgeous Germont (substituting for an absent Ludovic Tézier) several years at last gave us a glimpse of why. His di Luna had an urgent immediacy; it wasn’t that he pushed out the volume but the warm burnished sound effortlessly enveloped your ear. “Il balen” has never been one of my favorite Verdi baritone arias but on Monday time stood still as the most magical minutes of the evening.

And it provided the arresting paradox of this di Luna: how can he pour out such intoxicated rapture after violently manhandling Leonora just hours before? Rowley deserved extra battle-pay for spending a good half of the night being thrown to the ground, crawling across the stage or climbing the cell door to Manrico’s prison!

If I was expecting Kelsey to be special, I was absolutely surprised at the consistent excellence of Rachvelishvili’s Azucena. At my first encounter with the Georgian mezzo I walked out at intermission dismayed by her wild, undisciplined Carmen. Her Principessa de Bouillon at Carnegie paled next to the high-wattage star power of Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann in Adriana Lecouvreur.

Although I enjoyed her Konchakova in Prince Igor well enough, I just couldn’t keep my mind off how much those damned poppies must have cost. But clearly in the four years since Igor she has transformed herself.

A friend heard her as Amneris last summer in Orange and raved that it was remarkable so I had some inkling that the Trovatore might be special. Indeed it was the most interesting, nuanced Azucena I’ve ever heard. Usually I just grit my teeth during “Stride la vampa” waiting for it to be over but Rachvelishvili’s rendition, done with quiet intensity, riveted me despite the lack of trills.

Her rapt and haunted “Condotta ell’era in ceppi,” which closed with the most harrowing despair, proved a revelation. Her consistent care for dynamics contrasted dramatically with the many other gypsies content to barnstorm their way through the gypsy’s music. If she as yet lacks the addled “crazy” that can make Azucena such a fascinating figure, this performance, hailed by a roaring, stamping ovation, alerted the world that she has become major Verdi mezzo..

Despite the bandmaster conducting and a brawny unsubtle hero and an erratic, miscast heroine, this Met Trovatore is a must as I can’t think of another mezzo or baritone today that I’d rather hear in it. But Kelsey only sings the next three performances (including the broadcast) before Luca Salsi takes over for the final four.