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‘Il Trovatore’: clarity amid complexity

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by ANGELA ALLEN

Il Trovatore (The Troubadour) at Seattle Opera’s McCaw Hall Hall through Jan. 26, is a death-soaked, secret-infused and passion-obsessed opera. Giuseppe Verdi’s gory tale of revenge and jealousy is one juicy piece — when it doesn’t stumble like a lame warhorse.

Which it didn’t. With an intricate plot, mixed identities, terrible secrets and musical beauty and lyricism, it conjures up a well-crafted Shakespearean tragedy. And as with Shakespeare, the audience must pay close attention to fully appreciate it. Thanks to great singers and smart production choices, SO told the tale well.

Michael Mayes (di Luna) and Martin Muehle (Manrico) in Seattle Opera’s ‘Il Trovatore.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

The plot is complicated and fueled by the parents’ sins visited upon their offspring. Brothers Manrico, the troubled troubadour (Brazilian tenor Martin Muehle) and the entitled Count di Luna (baritone Michael Mayes) are at battle with each other, but they don’t know they are brothers. The gypsy, Azucena, who burned her own child instead of one of the royal brothers in a revenge plot for her mother who was burned at the stake, rears Manrico and pretends to be his mother, but keeps this secret from him. Then there is the love interest, noblewoman Leonora (soprano Angela Meade) caught in the middle.

Leonora loves the tenor— and spoiler alert —dies for him. He dies, too, beheaded by his unsuspecting brother, the Count. Beheading and witch-burning are portrayed in shadowy form behind a scrim, but prepare for violence, if not bloody. Program notes compare the violence level to Game of Thrones.

As Verdi said, what else is life but death? His two young children and 26-year-old first wife died within months of one another, so death was on the composer’s mind.

Premiered in 1853 in Rome to an enthusiastic audience, Il Trovatore is arguably Verdi’s most popular opera during his prolific middle period. Even casual fans know many of its hits, notably the highly hummable first act’s militaristic “Anvil Chorus.” Verdi was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of 19th-century Italy. The Italians on the street loved and knew him. “Viva Verdi” served as the battlecry for Italian unification.

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We still love him, but only when the right voices are calibrated to his operas’ huge musical demands.

To do this opera justice, Seattle’s production relies on going big in many aspects, not solely on big voices. This one had 75 singers and massive sets that caused some sighing and excessive coughing during the many longish scene changes. But the sets convey gravitas and darkness with their heavy “stonework” and the golden Rembrandt lighting by Christopher Forey. The stage throws us back to 15th-century Spain as do the somewhat stiff, elaborate period costumes and military uniforms by Candace Frank, the flashing swords, duels and witches. John Conklin designed the original 1989 production, but Christopher Mumaw repurposed the sets and Frank updated the costumes.

To do Il Trovatore ultimate justice, however, the music requires four big Verdi voices powerful enough, and with enough range, to sing with and over the 57-piece orchestra. McCaw has the acoustics to project big voices, big orchestras and a 43-member chorus.

This SO production had the requisite grandeur and musical talent, yet remained fresh (maybe because so many in the cast and on the creative team were making their SO debuts). Among the voices was Washington’s very own Angela Meade’s rich soprano in the role of the much desired and conflicted Leonora. Her character is loved by brothers Manrico (Muehle) and the count (Mayes).

All three singers, part of a double-cast production, were making their SO debuts. The fourth major singer, singing for the first time at SO in this cast, was mezzo Nora Sourouziant as the “gypsy”/witch/mother/daughter Azucena carrying out her long-dead mother’s avenging wishes.

The stars sang confidently and convincingly, though Muehle, we were told before the performance, was under the weather. I didn’t notice. Their acting proved nuanced enough to dispel the operatic stereotypes of tender tenor, macho baritone, love-torn high-toned soprano, and hysterical gypsy-witch.

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Aside from the strong singers, this production’s success lay to a great extent in the ingenuity of stage director Dan Wallace Miller, dramaturg Jonathan Dean and crew, who clarified this complicated story by breaking it down into digestible scenes, cutting some material, and succinctly translating and updating Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto. Despite the challenges posed by its convoluted storyline, this production proved easy to follow despite the generations of feuds.

Northwest Soprano Angela Meade

Back to Meadeone of the Northwest’s brightest classical music stars. Born in Centralia, Wash., educated as an undergrad at Tacoma’s Pacific Lutheran University, and winner at 34 years old of the prestigious 2012 Metropolitan Opera’s Beverly Sills Artist Award, her frequent Oregon appearances make her a favorite of local audiences.

Angela Meade (Leonora) in Seattle Opera’s ‘Il Trovatore.’ Photo: Philip Newton

When I saw Meade in the summer of 2012 at the Astoria Music Festival singing excerpts from Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, she was plenty good. She’d received praise from such heavyweight New York critics as Alex Ross and Anthony Tommasini. Her robust, flexible voice was primed to take her places, especially when Verdi was required.

As in Norma, Il Trovatore’s Leonora’s vocal range and dynamics demand that she sing all-stops-out and in a whisper — that Verdi range! Her role requires long, lush lines and athletic coloratura runs. She swoons, she longs for and mourns her lover, she escapes to become a nun, she embraces a secret about loving the troubadour, she holds her ground against the aggressive courting Count di Luna, who is actually the count’s brother (though neither knows this till the end) —and she must die, of course.

Meade proved herself deserving of the non-stop applause and blast of bravas on Jan 13. After her Act 1 double aria, the audience clapped for 15 seconds, but after “D’Amor sull’ ali rosee” in the final part, she received 42 seconds of applause. She stood frozen during the adoration while music conductor Carlo Montanaro waited patiently to start up the orchestra again. She couldn’t miss, and neither does this production.

Next up at SO at the end of February is The (R)evoution of Steve Jobs promoted as “a cutting-edge crowd-pleaser.” A joint production of SO, Santa Fe Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, its summer 2017 premiere at Santa Fe Opera was the most attended show ever at that prestigious venue.

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Performed in Italian with English subtitles, Il Trovatore continues Jan. 19, 20, 23, 25, and 26. All performances begin at 7:30 pm except the 2 p.m. Jan. 20 matinee. The opera lasts about 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission. Tickets online.  Furloughed federal government workers can receive two free tickets to the company’s performances of at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 19 and Jan 23 and at 2 p.m. Jan. 20.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her website is angelaallenwrites.com.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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