Hi Hi Verdi: LA Opera Reopens with Classic Tragedy

After more than a year offstage due to the you-know-what, LA Opera is back as Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 Il Trovatore launches the 2021/22 Season for long-suffering Angeleno opera aficionados. But what a “cheerful” choice!

As the lead sentence of Naomi Andre’s article in LA Opera’s Performances Magazine puts it: “There is something kind of odd about Il Trovatore.” “Kind of?” Verdi’s turgid tragedy, with a nightmarish libretto mostly by Salvatore Cammarano, adapted Antonio Garcia Gutierrez’s play featuring witchcraft, burning at the stake, civil war, duels, mistaken or confused identities, thwarted love, “gypsies,” grim reapers straight out of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, imprisonment and other cheery plot points and bagatelles.

No, the story’s not set in 21st century USA, but 15th century Spain. Yet French scenery designer Louis Desire’s spare, severe sets, like his costumes, aren’t compatible with a period piece, but more modernist in tone. English lighting designer Bruno Poet has a field day with onstage special FX, conjuring up moving pillars of light, a tower that looks like a descending elevator and enough flames to make this reviewer relieved to be sitting near an exit.

What uplifts Il Trovatore – which translated from Italian to English means “The Troubadour” (not to be confused with The Troubadour Theater Company, which is presenting Lizastrata, a far more lighthearted work adapting Aristophanes’ Greek classic Lysistrata, at the Getty Villa in Malibu) – is Verdi’s rapturous score. Despite and in contrast to the rather morbid and macabre melodramatic storyline, the opera’s glorious music is often radiant, as upbeat as the plot is decidedly downbeat. Just as the violent, vengeful saga may make you feel like reaching for an Advil, in Act II, scene 1, the immortal, instantly recognizable “Anvil Chorus” (“Coro di Zingari”) zings out, enlivening our spirits with the maestro’s masterful, melodious sounds. The sonorous crescendos of the “Anvil Chorus” have been gladdening hearts and perking up ears for almost 170 years, and didn’t fail to do so on LA Op’s opening night. Despite an approximately 15-month hiatus conductor James Conlon’s baton is anything but rusty, while chorus director Grant Gershon’s ensemble is as resounding as ever.

The multi-culti cast includes: Texan Mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis as Azucena, daughter of a woman believed to be a Romani enchantress. (The Romani people – formerly known as “Gypsies” – are now called “Roma,” which is considered to be a more culturally sensitive name of this ethnic group, often popularly portrayed as being imbued with mystic powers.) The title character of the Troubadour, aka Manrico, is alternately played by two tenors – until Oct. 3 by Missourian Lillie Pulliam, then Oct. 6-10 by Gregory Kunde, of Illinois. In keeping with the production’s colorblind casting, the former is Black, the latter white.

Not only are Manrico and the Count Di Luna (Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov) on opposite sides of Spain’s civil war (no, not the one with Franco, La Pasionaria, the International Brigades, POUM, Hemingway, etc. – the 15th century version), but they are vying for the hand of the fair Leonora, played by Chinese soprano Guanqun Yu. This tragic triangle meets a fate filled with twists and turns reminiscent of ancient Greek drama and Romeo and Juliet. Georgian (Atlanta, not Tbilisi) bass Morris Robinson rounds out the cast as Ferrando, captain of the Count’s guards, in this stirring production helmed by Barcelona’s Francisco Negrin, whose background directing arena and stadium shows are evident in this work’s technique.

For the most part, members of the sold-out opening night audience packed in the Dorothy Chandler (there was no social distancing but operagoers had to wear masks and present proof of vaccination or of a negative PCR COVID-19 test in order to receive wristbands for admittance) were very receptive and enthusiastic about basking in the presence of live opera again, after all this lost time. (Who knows what future operatic masterpieces will be spawned by the pandemic? “Ill Trump-vatore”? A tale of negligent homicide and mass murder in three acts, featuring the “Evil Chorus”?) In the seats some naysayers nitpicked about the mise-en-scene and so on, but I quipped: “Well, it beats watching it on Zoom,” and they all agreed. Overall, the aud delivered numerous “bravos,” such as to Guanqun Yu after her big aria, and after the grand finale a well-deserved standing ovation – not only to the cast and crew, but to LA Opera itself, for surviving the you-know-what, and returning to regale us all, yet again, against the odds.

This season, Angeleno opera lovers can look forward to Wagner’s Tannhauser, Rossini’s Cinderella, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and Verdi returns with Aida, plus more. Welcome back!

Il Trovatore is being presented until Oct. 10 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N Grand Avenue, Los Angeles CA, 90012. For tickets: Il Trovatore | LA Opera ; (213)972-8001.