It’s a prototypical love story: boy and girl fall in love, boy is challenged for the girl’s hand, girl kills herself for the boy’s freedom…wait, what? Oh, don’t fret—it’s only opera; and only a few do it better than Giuseppe Verdi. The second offering of the Fort Worth Opera’s 2011 festival is one of Verdi’s best-known and beloved works: Il Trovatore.
The story revolves around the troubadour Manrico (Dongwon Shin), and his relationship with Leonora (Marjorie Owens). Unfortunately for the happy couple, the Count di Luna (Malcolm MacKenzie) creates a third side to the love triangle. As a consequence, the Count and Manrico really don’t like each other. Further, the Count is carrying his own emotional baggage: his father burned at the stake a gypsy who he believed cursed his infant son. In retaliation, the gypsy (before her death) tells her daughter Azucena (Victoria Livengood) to avenge her. Azucena kidnaps one of the infant’s older brothers and runs off into the woods with him. Later, bones are found, and almost everyone accepts that the brother has been killed.
The love triangle continues to play out and ultimately Manrico and the Count find themselves on the opposite ends of a battle. Manrico (as well as Azucena) is captured and sentenced to death. Leonora appears and offers herself to the Count in exchange for Manrico’s freedom. The Count accepts and leaves to make the arrangements. Leonora then poisons herself so that she may die before dishonoring Manrico by being with the Count. The Count comes upon the two of them, she lying dead in Manrico’s arms. Enraged, he immediately has Manrico sent to the executioner. But it seems our gypsy has the last revenge: Manrico is the missing boy, brother to the Count. Instead of throwing the kidnapped child into a fire, she sacrifices her own and raises Manrico as her own. At last, the old gypsy burned at the stake has her revenge.
There are several standout performances in this production, which is directed by David Lefkowich. Marjorie Owens shines as Leonora. She has a dark, smoky tone to her singing voice that evokes a comparison to Renee Fleming. Her vocal dexterity deserves a special note. She fills the room with her sound, whether it is delicate moving notes or emoting in the coloratura range. Physically, she commands the stage; when she is on, she is the center of attention.
The women rule the night, as the performance given by Victoria Livengood as Azucena is equally brilliant. While the role does not have as wide a vocal range as that of Leonora, it makes up for it in stamina—and Livengood has that in spades. In addition to having a magnificent voice, she is easily the best actor of the evening. A remarkable moment for her is in the second act when she recounts the story of her mother’s death to the rest of the gypsies; as part of the staging, she is seen to be physically drawing in the crowd. Her control often has the same effect on the audience: everyone seems physically drawn in whenever she sings.
The men acquit themselves well, too. Malcolm MacKenzie makes his Fort Worth Opera debut by singing the role of the Count. Visually, he is everything a villain should be: thin, pale and goateed. Musically, he backs that up with a deep, rich baritone. Far too often, it is easy in opera to make the bad guy a tintype cliché; MacKenzie easily moves beyond that stereotype and makes the role of the Count quite human, with his conflicts and doubts roiling beneath the surface.
Finally, we come to the troubadour himself: Manrico, sung by Dongwon Shin, who equates himself amicably in most of the role, especially the aria in the opening act which must be performed off stage. However—and this is not completely his fault, as will be discussed below—he never really punches through the orchestral sound to take control of the stage. At times he sounds a bit timid, and this allows the orchestra to overpower him. There are a few exceptions. Among them is when, in the third act, Manrico, realizing that the Count has captured Azucena, makes a bold stand and declares his intentions to rescue her. Finally, Shin makes his own vocal stand and powers through the orchestral sound to take control of the stage; for those few minutes, no one else matters.
The production is accompanied by the Fort Worth Symphony under the baton of Joe Illick. The orchestra is a decent accompanist for most of the production, but was often unbalanced on opening night, with the orchestra being too loud, resulting in lessening the effect of some of the onstage action (including the rousing finale to the third act, which is anti-climactic with the sound of the orchestra being more prominent than the action on stage). The Fort Worth Opera prides itself on not using any sort of artificial amplification in their productions; greater attention must be paid to the balance between the pit and the stage. It is unacceptable for any crucial points to be lost because the orchestra is too loud.
Visually, the production doesn’t fare as well. The sets are plain earth tones, and waffle between the concrete and abstract without rhyme or reason (set design is by Dejan Miladinovic and Mileta Leskovac). The opening of the final act (which takes place outside a prison) for some reason has a set of giant shackles floating above the walls; in the gypsy camp of the second act there are two wagon wheels that just seem to hang above the proceedings—there are no wagons onstage, yet the wheels hang suspended nonetheless. However, when the sets stay more in the concrete realm, they have a small opportunity to stand out.
When the scene of the second act shifts to a convent, there is a beautiful, massive stained glass window flown in, providing a nonearth tone color palate for the first time in the production. In the end, the set is simply there; not adding too much, but also not horribly detracting from the production.
The costumes, by Milanka Berberovic, are functional but not brilliant. There are a few off moments: most of the Count’s soldiers wear the same uniform, but there are a few that are just in generic peasant garb. The ones dressed like actual soldiers have breastplates, but it seems to be a one-size situation. There is enough variance in body type within the chorus, so some of them fit, others are obviously too large, while few are too small. That being said, the dresses made for Leonora stands out and works wonderfully for her character.
Il Trovatore is an opera that is performed commonly enough that if you miss one, there will very possibly be another that you can see in a few years. Still, do not miss this production. The vocal fireworks alone make the price of admission worth it. You will not leave disappointed.
Here's a video promo for this production of Il Trovatore:
The Fort Worth Opera Festival 2011 continues with the following performances (and to read Mark Lowry's feature on the Festival, go here):
- Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado: 7:30pm May 27 and June 4 (Bass Hall) OUR REVIEW
- Verdi's Il Trovatore: 2pm May 29; 7:30pm June 3 (Bass Hall)
- Handel's Julius Caesar: 8pm May 28; 2pm June 5 (Bass Hall)
- Philip Glass' Hydrogen Jukebox, in the Sanders Theatre at Fort Worth Community Arts Center: 7:30pm May 24-26, 29, June 1-2, 5; 2pm May 28 and June 4