By ( | First Posted: Oct 18, 2012 09:25 PM EDT

Guanqun Yu as Leonora and Gywn Hugh-Jones as Manrico in Verdi's "Il Trovatore."
Taken at the Metropolitan Opera on September 27, 2012.
(Photo : Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

Legendary Tenor Enrico Caruso once stated that putting together a production of Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore was easy; all one needed was "the four greatest singers in the world." While Caruso's proposition is a nice idea to consider, the Metropolitan Opera proved on Wednesday October 18 that it may not be necessary. Whether or not the company compiled the four greatest singers in the world on this night is open to debate, but the revelatory cast surely includes some singing actors to keep an eye on.

The title role is known for the heroic "Di Quella Pira" that Manrico sings as he runs out to save his mother Azucenza. Ironically, this iconic moment is highly anticipated for a High C that Verdi never actually wrote in the score. As the cabaletta reaches its frenetic conclusion with the orchestra at its most aggressive and the chorus chanting battle cries, the tenor is expected to rise above them all with a brilliant high C. Many tenors tend to take the aria down in order to accommodate their range on the high note. More importantly, the difficulty in weight of this aria tends to attract heavy tenors to a role that includes a plethora of lyrical and lighter fare such as Manrico's "Ah Si Ben Mio" or "Deserto Sulla Terra," in which fluidity of line (Manrico is after all a gypsy troubadour before a soldier), not heft or power, are of vital importance. The result is that many of these heavier/heroic tenors are capable of providing the show stopping moment in "Di Quella Pira" but hardly satisfactory ones in the rest of the work. Wednesday's tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones was able to fulfill both without ever sounding taxed or burdened by the difficulties that Manrico poses. His voice initially comes off as light thanks to the sweetness of his timbre, but it has some weight. His "Ah Si Ben Mio" was the vocal highlight as he sang the aria with purity of line and really latched on to the psychological insight Verdi provides in the aria. As the aria starts Manrico assures his beloved Leonora that their love makes him strong and that if death separates them it is but a brief interruption. However, as the aria develops, the music suggests Manrico's strength dissolving and a more impassioned theme takes over. As he started the aria, Jones had caressing assurance in his voice, but the lines grew more intense as the pain of separation took over and he punctuated it with a heart-breaking accent on the phrase "E solo in ciel precederti (Alone in heaven I wait for you)." The ensuing "Di Quella Pira" was truly heroic as he climaxed with a fortuitous C that rang through the orchestra for an impressive length.

One interesting facet of Jones' interpretation of the troubadour is that it hints at a sense of instability. Throughout the opera, Manrico is unable to kill Di Luna (unknowingly his brother), he runs from his mother to save his lover and then does the reverse. But one aspect that is usually not tapped into is the tension between mother and son. Jones' performance really tapped into this aspect of the drama as he seemed a bit disconcerted and even frustrated by her throughout. During the Act 2 duet, he viciously rips his jacket away from her as she attempts to stop his running after Leonora. In the final prison scene, his face bloodied, he delivered the "Cesa (Stop!)" with anger as if he couldn't take her madness any longer. He sat with his back to her as she rambled about her own mother's death in a moment that emphasized the distance between these two characters. As he pleaded that she go to sleep, the pleas were for some peace of mind rather than to comfort her. But he eventually seemed to identify with her pain and went over to her and caressed her as she fell asleep. The direction and Jones development throughout the scene added complexity to Manrico's character and to the dynamics of the relationship. More interestingly is the fact that Manrico's character goes through a similar arc in the ensuing scene with Leonora, emphasizing the character's emotional instability.

Guanqun Yu gave a successfully committed performance as the opera's true hero Leonora. As she came on stage to sing her opening aria "Tacea la Notte Placida" the energy she commanded as she looked about for the arrival of Manrico suggested that of a care-free woman. She threw off the coloratura flourishes in the ensuing cabaletta with relative ease and even held the C at the top of the run on the repetition of the piece. As the tragedy ensued and Leonora's every attempt to save her lover from death failed, the smiles and hopefulness on her visage turned to those of remorse and pain. As she sang the three pieces in her famous Act 4 scene, her Leonora struggled to maintain herself standing. The pain overwhelmed her to the point of debility and as she sang the broken triplets and stated that her senses were fading during the "Miserere," her voice had a breathiness that made it seem as if she was about to faint. But when Manrico came in with his song, she regained some energy. She ran about the stage, an inner struggle to find something that she could do to save him, and her energy eventually started to come back in time for Leonora's defining moment. When she took on the cabaletta "Tu vedrai che amore in terra," she matched and possibly even superseded the heroics of her colleagues in their respective cabalettas. Her potent voice beamed over the orchestra and she sang with the confidence of a woman ready to complete her Act one promise to die for the man she loved. In the final scene, she sang mostly piano and the beauty of the sound made her Leonora angelic in her dying moments. Deservedly so, she received thunderous applause during her curtain calls and was so overwhelmed with emotion that tears were visible. She had every right as her performance was one of true vocal and dramatic power.

Baritone Angel Odena has had a long and successful career overseas, but never sang at the Met Opera until last night. His voice has a rough edge, but its potency created the portrait of a vigorous and commanding count. Di Luna's "Il Balen Del Mio Sorriso" will always be any successful baritone's highlight. It was Odena's as his rough voice found a gentle quality in the opening phrases of this most tender of arias. Like "Ah si ben mio" this aria showcases Verdi's genius in weaving psychological insight in the simplest of manners. As the aria reached its culmination, Odena's intensity increased and the frustration of losing Leonora overwhelmed the initial tender thoughts of his love for her. The ensuing cabaletta was sung with vigor and passion that gave Di Luna's sacrilegious verses nobility. He brought the same drive to the duet with Leonora and was barely able to resist tearing away her jacket. Odena's debut was a successful one and it was nice to see Bass Morris Robinson nod to him in congratulations after Odena took his curtain call.

Before the curtain went up on the opera, it was announced that Dolora Zajick was suffering from an illness, but would still agree to sing. One would never have noticed considering the intensity that she brought onstage. Zajick's Azucena has long been a staple of the Met stage and despite singing it countless times, the mezzo proved that she still has a lot to say about the role. As she came on stage, she viciously disrupted a fight between two young gypsies with a menacing glare. She sang with jagged phrasing during the rhythmic "Stride la Vampa" emphasizing Azucena's broken mind and soul. She punctuated the aria with a terrifying extended trill. The power of her low notes was breathtaking in it's chilling color. At one point, she pulled out a knife as if to strike down a young boy that not only elicited shock form the actors on stage, but a number of unsuspecting audience members around me. The monologue in which she describes the crime of killing her son was tormented and heart wrenching. The final words "Il Figlio Mio"were tragic in their delivery and really expressed not only the pain of Azucena for losing her son, but the rage that has consumed her over the years. The fury was on exhibit again during the Act 3 trio in which she defies the Count and Ferrando and condemns them. As she was taken off stage she spit at the count and gave him a menacing laugh. Zajick's performance was not all ferocity and her duets with Manrico showcased a loving mother. As she cleaned his wounds and chided him for running off to war, she came off as an overbearing mother, but one full of love and warmth. In the final duet with Manrico, her gentle singing seemed directed at calming the anguish and frustrations of her son. After delivery the opera's final revelation, she laughed at the count's pain with devilish mockery. But then Zajick's Azucena seemed to come out of her trance and turned back to the spot of Manrico's death and a longing expression took over as she prepared to run for him. As the curtain came down it seemed that Azucena had come to the realization that the vengeance was empty and that she had just lost the one thing that had kept her alive all these years. This poignant detail only colored the already deep performance of Verdi's intense melodrama.

Morris Robinson brought a massive voice and assurance to the role of Ferrando. He did seem to be fond of pushing people around often, which sometimes came off as a bit clumsy.

For years Il Trovatore was unable to hold the stage at the Met due to a plethora of uninspired or tasteless productions (Graham Vick's for example). Back in 2009 however, they finally struck gold with David McVicar's rotating set. The production is rather barren, but McVicar's careful mis-en-scene and strong stage direction on this night made the production come off as vibrant. On stage right, a massive figure seems to hang on a cross. Further inspection reveals this figure to be that of a woman on a stake and her body is charred. It is spirit of the dead witch (Azucena's mother) that the soldiers speak of in the first scene and it haunts every scene just as Azucena's thirst for vengeance indirectly dominates the action in the opera. In the second half of the work, there seemed to be five other bodies that joined her, which could imply the other deaths that are related or occur during the course of the drama. Whether or not that is the correct interpretation, it is an astute visual element that lingers in the viewer's mind without every causing distraction.

The most impressive scene in the entire production is the gypsy encampment which features a battle between two young gypsies. It is a rather interesting image of the two men battling out and then being interrupted by an angry Azucena. Again, my interpretation could be off, but it seemed to be a visual reference to the battle between the brothers in the opera's main plot. The fact that these two gypsies reconcile at the end of the scene adds a nice counterpoint to how the opera actually ends and creates a glimmer of hope in such a tragic work. The duel was another well executed scene by stage director Paula Williams. As Di Luna starts off the battle, he grabs Leonora in a menacing manner. Jones' Manrico, who had his sword drawn, sheathed it to protect his beloved and ran to her aid when the Count threw her down. When the trio was repeated, the Count ominously grabbed hold of Manrico. This build in physical tension made the eventual payoff of the sword fight satisfying.

Daniele Callegari was phenomenal at the podium. He gave Verdi's energetic score propulsion without ever rushing or over powering the singers. During Azucena's monologue, he built a cathartic climax through a subtle stringendo (speeding up) that matched Zajick's dramatic power. His precision with the rhythmic accompaniment in the "Miserere" felt like death pervading the atmosphere and only added to the inner torment of his Yu's Leonora. It was also nice to see Callegari refuse to cut up sections of the opera as is customary in many performances. While those conductors usually opt for the cuts in order to move the drama along, Callegari proved that the energy of the work could be sustained with a commitment to the composer's original intentions.

Il Trovatore proved a sensational marriage of intelligent and passionate individual performances with a strong production that relished in Verdi's forceful melodrama. Il Trovatore still has a number of performances left this season at the Met, but this particular group has set a high standard that could be hard to top.

Other Opera Reviews

Otello (October 16, 2012)

L'Elisir D'Amore (October 5)

Carmen (September 28)

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