Perhaps the greatest showcase for vocalists in all of opera, Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore, which was encored June 26 as part of the Metropolitan Opera's Met: Live in HD Series, is one of the most purely pleasurable works in the entire repertory. Its most recognized piece is the famous “Anvil Chorus” which begins the opera's second part (it's divided into a prologue and four “parts” rather than acts), but even though that piece has been heard countless times in movies and on TV commercials, those who know the opera well know that it's merely the tip of the iceberg. I would feel confident to say that without exaggeration, there are at least 20 pieces in Il Trovatore that surpass the Anvil Chorus. It's filled with incredible vocal pieces: great arias, duets, trios, choruses, and cabalettas including some of the greatest arias in the catalogue, such the soprano's first act aria, “Tacea La Notte La Placida,” the spectaular Part Three aria “Ah, Si, Ben Mio,” which is followed by a crowd-pleasing cabaletta, “Di Quella Pira.” The opera is filled with great arias, duets, trios, choruses, and cabalettas. it is not a profound or deep work, but a work of genius nonetheless.
Part of the problem that plagues Trovatore is that it is tied to one of the most ludicrous librettos in the entire operatic repertoire. Its absurd story was used as the perfect subject for mockery by the Marx Brothers in their film A Night at the Opera. I won't go too far into the plot, but it concerns the conflict between a gypsy's son, Manrico (tenor Marcelo Alvarez) and the noble Count di Luna (baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky) over a woman, the noble Leonora (soprano Sondra Radvanovsky), the two male characters not knowing that they're brothers, with Manrico having been snatched as a baby by the gypsy Azucena (mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick) as revenge for the execution of her mother by the Count's father. This ridiculous plot (though, I must confess I found myself absorbed in the final part's story of sacrifice and love) is part of what leads to criticism over Trovatore, but the vocal music is so sublime it requires, as Enrico Caruso famously observed, “the four greatest singers in the world.” The music may require the four greatest singers, but if an opera's story ever deserved the treatment of a Chuck Jones Looney Tunes cartoon, this is it. (I could see Daffy as Manrico, Bugs in drag as Leonora, and Elmer as the count.)
Il Trovatore is consistently on the slate for opera houses, but as Caruso's dictum indicates, its vocal demands can expose a singer's inadquacies, and several are observable in the Met's production. The strongest member of the cast is Sondra Radvanovsky; her Part One aria seemed a little weak to my ears, but her subsequent singing was quite assured and strong, her husky voice on full display, though she took the character far too seriously and her mugging was quite evident in the HD presentation. She is probably the greatest Leonora to come along in many years. I have been hard on Marcelo Alvarez in the past, and his performance as Manrico leads me to wonder why the Met is so keen on him in difficult Verdi roles. His top range is nowhere near what the role requires, and he does not possess the power or the lyricism to carry the role the way many of the great tenors of the past have. Dmitri Hvorostovsky is certainly committed fully to the role of di Luna; in closeup, he seems to be attempting to escape his skin in order to convey the dramatic qualities of his role, but as I mentioned, this is a role that requires vocal endowment above all else, and though Hvorostovsky was quite fine at moments, it was too uneven a performance. As Azucena, Dolora Zajick sang with the confidence of someone who's sung the role for almost 25 years, which she has; this role is the one least likely of the principals to make or break the opera, and while her contribution was satsifactory, it was not capable of transforming this into a transcendent experience, which, with truly masterful singers, it can be. Marco Armiliato, an energetic, gregarious conductor, led the MetOrchestra in its standard brilliant effort, particularly in its support of the singers in the climactic Part Four
The Met's Live in HD Series will be featuring several encores this summer, with a new slate of operas to air live starting this fall. Please visit metopera.org/LiveinHD for more information.
photo credits: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera