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With ‘Il trovatore,’ Washington National Opera returns with a vengeance

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The Washington National Opera opened its fall season Saturday night with a no-nonsense “Il trovatore,” directed with elegant restraint and whistle-cleanliness by Brenna Corner. A collectively splendid cast allows marvelous singing to tell the tale, with scarcely a frill to be found.

Indeed, Biscay and Aragon have never seemed so spartan — especially compared with last season’s overstuffed Seville. Erhard Rom’s spare, industrial sets (steel stairs, long drapes, sleek panels and grids) could easily have tilted itself right into Obsession-ad minimalism. Instead, his long, graceful lines and simple surfaces helped gently channel our attention — a canny choice when unraveling this love story tangled in a witchy multigenerational family feud.

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Lighting designer A.J. Guban’s crimsons, blues and stained-glass effects beautifully softened the set’s edges as S. Katy Tucker’s projections deepened the psychological stakes: Azucena’s traumatic past is play-acted in ghostly shadows above her tormented retelling, the seared silhouettes of unshakable memories. (Tucker also brought a satisfying dose of fire and brimstone to the finale, met with a chorus of gasps.)

Where Corner’s production did indulge, to wonderful effect, was in exquisite costumes by Martin Pakledinaz. Against Rom’s set, the rich textures and colors (even the gleam of the armor) felt like a celebration of detail, a contrast of grand and intimate that served Verdi well.

I don’t usually foreground the background, but this approach to “trovatore” went a long way in making the music so lucid and vivid. The Washington National Opera Orchestra sounded buoyant and lively under the baton of Michele Gamba (making his company debut). This is an orchestra that knows how to Verdi, as skilled at conveying the bold-italics drama of the brass as they are with tracing his graceful lines through the strings. They performed beautifully, and Gamba seemed especially game to handle the opera’s challenging pace and variety. Extra praise to the brass and woodwinds for beautiful work in every act, deftly underlining vocals with perfect penmanship. As always in this hall, I longed for my own volume knob: More everything!

Soprano Latonia Moore made a relentlessly compelling Leonora, impossible to take your eyes off and wielding the blade of her voice more convincingly than any of the sword-fighters onstage. As Billie in last season’s Met production of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” Moore demonstrated dramatic agility to match her ability — grief breaking her voice in a controlled collapse.

As Leonora, she brought the same ever-encroaching despair, offering a soaring “Tacea la notte placida” and strong duets pleading for Manrico’s life to the powerful baritone Christopher Maltman as an aggressive, obsessive Count di Luna. But it did seem like opening night may have been a rough one for her: She strayed off path in some of Verdi’s more precarious climbs. A slight rasp that serrated the edge of her tone grew insistent in the second act. The rest of intermission aided things noticeably; her fourth act “D’amor sull’ali rosee” was sublime.

My favorite singing of the evening came from the duo of mother and son. (Well … sort of.) Gwyn Hughes Jones gave a brilliant turn as the doomed Manrico, his steely tenor a perfect match for mezzo soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis, whose Azucena was fire all night.

Azucena is the mother of most of the opera’s peril, and Bryce-Davis, making her WNO debut, was the source of most of its power. She offered her recounting of Azucena’s most wretched memories (“Condotta ell’era in ceppi”) and her plaintive prison duet with Manrico (“Ai nostri monti ritorneremo”) with crystal clarity and diamond sharpness. Those who caught Bryce-Davis as Baba the Turk in last year’s Met production of Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” already know her show-stealing powers; WNO audiences are fortunate to have the same chance.

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Jones’s Manrico was also sensational. His third-act aria (“Ah, si ben mio. Di quella pira!”) was a highlight of the evening. (He even sounded great from offstage, enraging the count with his pesky troubadour-ing.) What he withheld as an actor he made up for in song, his voice strikingly precise, his control a reflection of Manrico’s relentless valiance.

The role of Ferrando was in fine hands with bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, last seen with the WNO as Escamillo in “Carmen” and set to reappear soon as Orest in Francesca Zambello’s new production of “Elektra.” An imposing yet instantly charming presence, he has a voice that could blow open the back exits.

This being Verdi, the chorus is of particular consequence, and the Washington National Opera Chorus was in fine, expressive form all night: nimble, crisp and a pleasure to listen to. I loved the heavenly glow the members imparted to “Miserere d’un’alma,” as well as the hushed confidence of “Squilli, echeggi la tromba guerriera.”

And, of course, they energized the opera’s ever-anticipated hit single, “Vedi! le fosche notturne spoglie,” i.e. the “Anvil Chorus,” for which I must humbly suggest going a little easier on the anvil. The beauty of this production is how it allows the complexity of “Il trovatore” — in score and story — to unfold with a delightfully natural ease. That is, nothing needs to be hammered home.

Il trovatore, at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Nov. 7. kennedy-center.org.

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