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Monday, January 15, 2018

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Il Trovatore

The Met revives Verdi's blood-and-thunder masterpiece with an invigorating cast.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Man with a plan: tenor Yonghoon Lee sings "Di quella pirra" in Act III of Il Trovatore.
Photo by 
 The ne plus ultra of potboiler plots, characters written larger than Marvel® super heroes, instantly catchy, hummable tunes and a history that includes one-time participation by the Marx Brothers (in A Night at the Opera). What's not to love about Il Trovatore?

What is Il Trovatore?
This is Verdi's eighteenth opera, written on the heels of Rigoletto and right before La Traviata. It is a setting of a sensational Spanish play, a story of obsessive lust, multiple abductions, and violent revenge, set against the backdrop of a brutal civil war.

What's the story?
This is the one about two guys who happen to be in love with the same girl and are rivals fighting on opposite sides in a civil war. What they don't know is that thanks to a horrific incident involving a murdered infant and switched babies, is that the two rivals are actually brothers. Everything comes to a head in the famous Miserere scene, when the tenor's head comes away from his body. Ouch.

What's the music like?
The music is good--really good. Verdi poured everything he knew into these four acts, creating memorable melodies (the "Anvil Chorus" opens the second act) challenging arias for all four of the opera's principal characters and in the Miserere, one of the best climactic scenes in all of Italian opera. And that's saying something but it's also not exaggeration.

Who's in it?
This cast features the return of tenor Yongoon Lee as Manrico, the opera's hot-headed protagonist. His love interest is soprano Jennifer Rowley who makes her house debut, taking on one of three Verdi heroines named Leonora. Anita Rachvelishvili is good casting for Azucena, but is replaced by Dolora Zajick later in the ruin, De Luna (the opera's deeply nuts villain) is split between Quinn Kelsey and Luca Salsi, bringing some fresh hemoglobin to this very bloody opera. Marco Armiliato conducts.

How's the production?
Sir David McVicar's cozy relationship with the Met started with this production, the first successful staging of Il Trovatore at the Met in decades.. Inspired by the black paintings of Francisco Goya, this Sir David set the show in a war-torn hellscape with a stretched El Greco-style crucifix off to stage left as if to remind the characters that mortality is never far away. The show is set on a revolving unit stage that transforms easily from battlefield to convent to castle, and the anvil chorus uses real full-sized anvils hit by big shirtless dues with sledge hammers.

Why should I see it? 
Aside from the big shirtless dudes, this opera is (when done well) one of the most entertaining Italian operas. It has a breakneck pace that gives the audience little time to think about the absurdity of the plot, and enough good tunes that you will walk out of the theater humming.

When does it open?
The anvils drop on January 22, 2018.

Where can I get tickets?
Tickets  are available through MetOpera.Org or by calling the box office at (212) 362-6000. You can save the $10 service fees by going to the box office in person at the Met itself, located at 30 Lincoln Center Plaza. Hours: Monday to Saturday: 10am-8pm, Sunday: 12pm-6pm.

Recording Recommendations:

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

Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala cond. Tullio Serafin (1962)
Leonora: 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.

Chorus and Orchestra of the Academy of St. Cecilia Rome cond. Carlo Maria Giulini (DG, 1984)
Leonora: Rosalind Plowright
Manrico: Placido Domingo
Azucena: Brigitte Fassbander
Comte di Luna: Giorgio Zancanaro

This is a recording that you're going to like if (like me) you're really into conductors. Carlo Maria Giulini takes a detailed and academic approach to Verdi that may not be to everyone's taste but he also conducts a musical and thoroughly involved performance. The sound is bloody terrific. Also, this is the recording to get if you want Placido Domingo as your Manrico, a role he always did well. Rosalind Plowright is a cool Leonora, but crazy under the surface as the character should be. Gripping. 

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