Arts & Events
Lorenzo in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice asserts, “The man that hath no music in himself,/ Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,/ Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils,” but he wasn’t Giuseppe Verdi. Il Trovatore, the second in Verdi’s trilogia popolare, clearly demonstrates that the reigning king of opera in late-19th century Italy believed that “sweet sounds” were the absolute best mate for treason, stratagems and spoiled lives.
Jealousy and revenge are the driving passions of many of Verdi’s gloomy operas, but Il Trovatore seems especially endowed with a dark palette of murky human emotions. The Festival Opera’s current production, housed in the Dean Lesher Auditorium in Walnut Creek, excellently inhabits the work by providing a stellar cast filled with fine soloists and a wonderfully well-coached chorus.
Tenor Noah Stewart is in the lead as the trovatore, Manrico, the troubadour-soldier raised by gypsies. A former member of the San Francisco Opera’s Merola and Adler programs, who has appeared on the SF Opera stage in Der Rosenkavalier, Samson and Delilah, and Phillip Glass’ Appomattox, Stewart has a gorgeous voice, richly colored in the low and middle range and with a vibrant emotional intensity in the higher notes. He uses his voice at full power to drive along the emotions of the story, weaving his way, and ours, through the plot’s less plausible convolutions and the rather stolid direction by Giulio Cesare Perrone.
He was vocally matched by Hope Briggs as the lovely Lady Leonora. Briggs also has a warm, complex sound in the mid and lower registers and vibrant, focused notes in the high parts of her range that can slice through you like a knife. Equally powerful dynamically, Stewart and Briggs performed beautifully together during their love scenes, Briggs bringing a gracious presence to the role (as she does to similar aristocratic roles) and Stewart the slightly self-conscious dignity of a young man in love in the midst of war.
Mezzo Patrice Houston sang Azucena, the gypsy. Houston is a wonderful singer—with a voice like soft butter tinged with honey and an astounding legato line, but frankly, she’s just not creepy enough for my taste. More than any other character, Azucena is the one through which the dark fates twist the lives within the opera, and she’s mad as a hatter. Having watched her mother die at the stake, she steals the Count’s infant son in order to throw him into the flames in revenge for her mother’s unwarranted execution. But her fit of vengeful fury so overwhelms her senses that she throws her own infant into the fire and doesn’t realize what she’s done until he’s nothing but a heap of charred bones.
As we learn at opera’s finale, Azucena has raised the Count’s son only to sacrifice him on the altar of revenge: another lunatic act. Houston, with her fine, beautifully integrated voice, just doesn’t project enough craziness to command the audience to believe in her bat-winged harpies of revenge. Likewise, Scott Bearden, another excellent singer, does not project the commanding evilness that drives the jealousy of the Count so that his one ambition in life seems to be to kill Manrico, his rival for Leonora’s love.
Nonetheless, it was a pleasure to listen to these singers. An interesting attribute of Verdi’s operas in general is that both music and singers can sound pleasant, engaging and even playful while the most horrific events occur. The music just rolls on.
Kirk Eichelberger sang a splendid Ferrando. His bass voice is always a pleasure to hear. Michael Morgan of the Oakland East Bay Symphony led the excellent ensemble. Director Perrone’s stage sets fit well into the opera’s atmosphere: composed of faux green marble columns, they lent a strangely subterranean quality to the drama. Designer Susanna Douthit’s costumes were oddly mixed, with Manrico’s gang looking motley and Saracen but sporting crucifixes.
Despite its irregularities, which are only a small part of the opera’s overall effect, this is a Trovatore to see and be caught up in its drama, savoring its wild emotions and splendid vocal theater.
Presented by Festival Opera at 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. (925) 943-SHOW, www.festivalopera.com.