Hawaii Opera Theatre’s production of Verdi’s “Il trovatore” (The Troubadour) is the first Honolulu has seen in over two decades. It’s a melodramatic shocker that took the world by storm, simultaneously delivering tradition while transforming opera into something new.
In its early centuries, opera was focused on delivering satisfying endings, natural conclusions to human dilemmas, endings that reinforced the natural order and goodness of the universe. All that changed in the Romanticism of the 1800s, which began to explore the darker sides of human nature and the many ways that fate can go wrong.
In the 1850s, Verdi produced three back-to-back blockbuster hits (“Rigoletto,” “Il trovatore,” “La traviata) that ushered in his mature style, catapulted him to world renown, and established shocking as a titillating norm.
Shocker plots are harder to devise than one might think, and the plot of “Il trovatore” is about as convoluted as they come.
At its heart, “Il trovatore” is about the destructive power of revenge: The elder Count burned at the stake an old gypsy woman he believed had cursed one of his two sons. In revenge – and while her mother was burning – Azucena, the younger gypsy woman, kidnapped the Count’s younger son, intending to throw him onto the burning pyre. In her frenzied delirium, she instead threw her own son onto the pyre.
You would think that would be lesson enough, but all that happens before the opera has even begun.
Fifteen years on, with the elder generation dead, Azucena has raised the Count’s younger son as her own and renamed him Manrico, the titular troubadour. Now in his early twenties, Manrico has fallen in love with Leonora, a lady of the court who represents all that is innocent and pure, and she loves him in return. The conflict is that the elder Count’s eldest son, who has inherited everything, including his father’s title of Count di Luna, is also in love with Leonora and not about to give her up to some riff-raff of a gypsy.
From there ensues a tale involving not only infanticide and murder but also war, duels, suicide, fratricide, class warfare – and more. In the end, of course, everyone good dies. Classic opera.
Perhaps most fascinating of all is the transition mid-opera from the old-style “number opera” into a then-brand-new integrated style.
The first half feels old-school, with its staged storytelling (the action happens off stage) and standard cavatina-cabaletta arias for each of the major characters. In the second half, suddenly verses from different arias – the monks’ chorus, Manrico’s off-stage lament, Leonora’s anguish aria – are all interwoven in the same scene, at the same time. It was revolutionary and psychologically powerful.
“Il trovatore” has some of opera’s most famous and vocally demanding roles, so it is almost impossible to find vocally mature singers who can convey the hormonal passions of youth. Kisses may have been more chaste than passionate, but the voices HOT chose were excellent.
Victoria Livengood was absolute dynamite as the gypsy Azucena, with her powerful, exceptionally expressive mezzo soprano voice, from ringing head notes to growling chest voice. A strong actress, Livengood held focus in each scene, so that the opera seemed more her story than the troubadour’s.
Both male leads were impressive, as well: Count di Luna (the younger Count) may not be very nice character, but baritone Michael Chioldi made him the most powerful – he has a beautiful voice! – and although tenor Carl Tanner is not close to Manrico’s age, he delivered a well-crafted performance born of experience. Both men displayed impeccable vocal technique well worth making an effort to hear.
Michelle Johnson (Leonora), the youngest of the leads, is just hitting her vocal maturity, and her lovely tone and bel canto lyric soprano promise a great career. Her voice was the lightest of the four in the first half, but perhaps she was saving for her powerhouse scene in the second half, when her voice was stronger.
Brandon Coleman was memorable as Ferrando, the Count’s Captain of the Guard who explains the backstory in the first scene, his smoky-dark, weighty bass lending gravity to the role. Also notable were Maya Hoover, as Leonora’s confidante Inez, and Ryan Souza as Ruiz, one of Manrico’s soldiers.
The singers were supported well by Conductor Emmanuel Plasson, who set singable pacing and ensured that every note by every singer was clearly audible. The orchestra’s performance was good but lacked the nuance that delivers dramatic impact.
HOT delivered its usual high standard in visual artistry, from richly-hued costumes to an impressive set.
Peter Dean Beck’s rectilinear set in foreshortened perspective presented castle walls around a central pathway, which transformed into various scenes via drops and rotating towers on either side of the stage. For the gypsy camp, a particularly lovely and effective drop suggested a forest camp with overlapping open-weave cloths hanging from an angled beam that cut across the rectangles, much as both gypsies and Verdi’s opera cut across traditions.
Beck’s lighting may have overplayed the symbolism of red conjuring fire, revenge, passion, and blood, but was otherwise effective, from the rectangles of light shining on the floor to the cross of light mirroring the church’s hanging cross.
Every opera has its challenges, and for “Il trovatore,” it is trying to stage scenes in which almost all of the action takes place elsewhere. A war is fought between scenes; swords are drawn, but the duel is offstage; a pyre is built, but then the scene shifts away; and the soldiers sing the happiest tune imaginable for “soon our swords will be dripping with blood.”
Director Paul Peers elicited every bit of action possible and used the chorus and extras to enhance the storytelling.