Andrew Meacham writes Il Trovatore opens with foreboding and menace as a Spanish military officer lays the groundwork for revenge. Musically and in tone, the table is set: This will be dark.
The opera by Giuseppe Verdi premiered in Rome in 1853, sandwiched between Rigoletto and La Traviata, and is considered one of the composer’s best works. Verdi had been impressed by Garcia Guitierrez’s 1836 play, El trovador (The Troubadour), and persuaded Salvadore Cammarano to write the libretto.
Much of the action in the complex plot happens offstage, including a gruesome tale of infanticide narrated by the captain, Ferrando, in the opening scene. Friday, St. Petersburg Opera bass-baritone Kwang Kyu Lee threw down the gauntlet in his call for revenge (the baby was believed to be the brother of Count di Luna, the troops’ commander), with mellifluous gravitas.
This production is a faithful rendering of great music, with principals who have been cast well and some strong supporting performances. True to the ominous score, whatever befalls the leading couple has less to do with them than a suffocating fate, the legacy of past atrocities. Manrico, the leader of the rebel forces, and Leonora met before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
He is also the infant thought to be cast in a fire, though neither he nor the count — his brother — know that. (If you’ve seen it a million times, you know. If you haven’t, I’d recommend reading a synopsis first.)
As Leonora, Alexandria Batsios performed like the production pillar she had to be. The soprano handled arias with great articulation, such as her chilling lament when she believes Manrico has died. As Manrico, Michael Morrow, a powerful tenor, displayed unparalleled vocal attack in the opera’s most critical scenes. Overall, his portrayal of the romantic lead was solid and precise, if also a bit colorless.
Baritone Christopher Clayton shone as Count di Luna, whose unrequited love for Leonora also sets him at odds with Manrico. Clayton has interpretive skills to go with an expansive baritone, and a duet with Leonora was one of the show’s highlights.
Mezzo-soprano Claudia Chapa delivered one of the opera’s strongest performances as Azucena, who burned that baby decades earlier to avenge her gypsy mother’s execution at the stake. Chapa owns a lovely and richly deep voice, and endowed the role of Azucena with a wild abundance.
Other supporting singers acquitted themselves handily, including Kathleen Farrar Buccleugh, as Ines, giving delicately phrased warnings about the mysterious troubadour (who turns out to be Manrico) to her friend Leonora.
As with all of the company’s productions at the Palladium, which has no pit, it’s up to maestro Mark Sforzini and other creative staff to figure out where to place the orchestra. Musicians tucked beneath a staircase upstage reach the audience through a dark gauzy screen. It works as well as anything else on a set by Steven Mitchell that must serve as various locations within a palace, a gypsy’s camp and a convent.
While the cloth barrier might slightly dull the output of a 32-piece orchestra, it’s also kind of a treat to see how the opera handles such challenges from show to show. We see mostly the lights of their music stands, as if looking onto a valley from a hillside.