I will unapologetically state that Verdi’s Il Trovatore is one of my favorite operas and that it is not only a great opera, but a great drama. I can imagine eyes rolling at that statement, since Il Trovatore is traditionally dismissed as a contrived and silly story saved by Verdi’s astonishing music.
But Verdi didn’t consider it contrived or silly. And he was a master musical dramatist who fought ferociously with his librettists to improve the quality of their texts. So I am inclined to trust his instincts and explore what attracted him.
In medieval Spain, long before the opera begins, a witch was burned at the stake for supposed bewitching the son of Count di Luna. In vengeance, her daughter, the gypsy Azucena, kidnapped the child and threw him into the same fire. Now, many years later, Azucena’s son, the troubadour Manrico, and the Count’s other son, now the Count di Luna himself, are rivals for the lady-in-waiting Leonora. From Verdi’s pessimistic perspective, it cannot work out well for any of them.
There are certainly plot elements that defy contemporary credibility, like Azucena’s being in such a frenzy of rage that she throws her own child into the fire rather than the one she had intended to murder. But for Verdi, these absurdities were simply expressions of the inexorability of fate, of the futility of life, and of a world without meaning. To my mind, they point forward to the absurdist philosophies of the next century. This is a nihilistic work and Verdi's passionate music evokes that dark and elemental despair.
Minnesota Opera’s current production does not touch these philosophic depths. It does not even succeed at the task of simple storytelling. This was my companion’s first Trovatore and even with the surtitles, he frequently had trouble following what was going on onstage. He chose not the read the synopsis—and he shouldn’t need to. But there was just too much extraneous action that got in the way of the story. Many of director Kevin Newbury’s ideas, like what seemed to be an aborted attempt to crucify Azucena in Act Three, just seemed ridiculous.
Where was the horror that inspired Verdi? It wasn’t on the stage. Nor was it in the pit. There is blood and thunder in this score, but conductor Giovanni Reggioli’s erratic tempi robbed scene after scene of its power.
Allen Moyer’s minimalist set added little. The costumes of Jessica Jahn were pleasant but not particularly evocative. That is, when they were visible in D.M. Wood’s murky lighting. The story is dark; that doesn’t mean the stage has to be.
The singers provided the one bright light in this dismal evening. However, they were not stylistically on the same page. But the opera is partially to blame. Il Trovatore stands at the cusp of a new era, the end of bel canto and the movement towards what would eventually become verismo.
Baritone Lester Lynch proved a true bel canto stylist and his performance stole the show. Three singers from the Marinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia were not in that league, but proved adept. Soprano Mlada Khudoley’s Leonora exhibited far too many verismo mannerisms, but her lyric soprano was up to the role’s florid demands. Mezzo Olga Savova was a frequently thrilling Azucena. The weak tenor of Avgust Amonov made Manrico sound ineffectual and rough.
This was a polite Il Trovatore, which seems like a contradiction in terms, an absurdity in its own right. As moment after moment passed ineffectively, I found myself bored. By the end of the evening, I found myself angry that Verdi’s masterpiece had been so ill-served.
Il Trovatore continues at the Ordway Center through Sept.28.