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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Il Trovatore

Verdi's blood and thunder melodrama returns...twice!
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Dolora Zajick (left) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (center) in Il Trovatore.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2015 The Metropolitan Opera.
Verdi lovers might want to make two trips to the Metropolitan Opera to see Il Trovatore twice this season. The role of the fiery, devout and ultimately suicidal heroine Leonora will be sung by Anna Netrebko in the fall and Angela Meade in the spring. The strong cast also features Dolora Zajick and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in key roles.

Il Trovatore is the middle child of Verdi's "Big Three" (the others are Rigoletto and La Traviata) a trio of operas that catapulted the composer into the front ranks of Italian music for the rest of his long life. It is a fiery, red-blooded tale of two brothers, separated at birth and fighting on the opposite sides of a bloody war while both being in love with the same woman. With compelling choruses and memorable arias ("Tacea la notte", "Stride la vampa", and the lung-busting tenor showpiece "Di quella pirra", it is a thrilling night at the opera.

The tenor Enrico Caruso once quipped that all that was needed for a successful Trovatore was "the four greatest singers in the world." The Met will do its best to fulfill that requirement, with Mr. Hvorostovsky as the opera's sneering villain and Ms. Zajick as Azucena, the hero's mother and the opera's most memorable character. The veteran mezzo considers this one of her signature roles and has sung Azucena on the Met stage many times since the 1980s. The role of Manrico will be sung by three different tenors: Yonghoon Lee, newcomer Antonello Palombi and the war-weary veteran Marcello Giordani. And you already know who the sopranos are if you've read the beginning of this article.

Sir David McVicar's stark production (inspired by the paintings of Francesco Goya and set during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s) uses a rotating stage and looming walls to convey the sense of oppression and looming disaster that hovers over this opera. The famous Anvil Chorus is a showpiece with strapping choristers hitting real anvils with hammers full force, producing the sound of the grinding machinery of war alongside one of Verdi's most memorable melodies.

Il Trovatore opens Sept. 25. The late-season run starts Feb. 3. On Oct. 3, Il Trovatore will open the MET Live in HD season with the performance broadcast around the world.

Recording Recommendations:

Here's two good ones. Both of these recordings are currently in the catalogue. Both are available from Deutsche Grammophon. And both were recorded in 1962.

Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala cond. Tullio Serafin
Leonore: Antonietta Stella
Manrico: Carlo Bergonzi
Azucena: Fiorenza Cossotto
Comte di Luna: Ettore Bastinanini
It took me a long time to settle on this particular Trovatore as my "go-to" recording. This one, recorded in Milan in 1962 isn't perfect, but it's likeable, energetic and well sung. Carlo Bergonzi simply hits it out of the park as Manrico. Fiorenza Cossotto is a haunting presence as Azucena, making the most of this complex character. Ettore Bastianini is a dastardly Count Luna with just a hint of humanity. 
Vienna Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan
Leonora: Leontyne Price
Manrico: Franco Corelli
Azucena: Giulietta Simionato
Comte di Luna: Ettore Bastinanini
This is a semi-legendary live performance from 1962, recorded at the Salzburg Festival. It preserves the great Leontyne Price as Leonora. She is perfectly partnered with Franco Corelli, the embodiment of the manly Italian tenor. Both her "Tacea la notte" and his "Di quella pira" embody their respective characters perfectly. Cossotto is a wonderful, haunting Azucena.

Bastinanini, (who would have a falling out with Karajan a few years later) is even better here than on the above-mentioned studio recording. The Vienna Philharmonic put their backs into a superb performance, and anyone who wants to hear Karajan when he was still a great opera conductor needs to give this a spin. An essential.

Note: This is a live performance taken from a radio broadcast. Also, this same performance has been issued before, on various labels of dubious origin. For this reissue in the Salzburg Festival Dokumente series, the DG engineers dug up the original master tape of the Austrian radio broadcast.  It is in mono sound.

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