Saturday, March 05, 2016

Opera Review: Singing steals the show in Winter Opera's "Il Trovatore"

L-R: Maria Kanyova, Neil Nelson
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Verdi's 1853 tragedy "Il Trovatore" ("The Troubadour") has proved to be one of the most enduring hits produced during his "Middle Period" (basically the 1850s), which also gave us the massively popular "La Traviata" and "Rigoletto."  Winter Opera's current production is not, perhaps, ideal.  But its musical values are solid, and that's saying a lot.

"Il Trovatore" is classic romantic Italian opera, with doomed lovers, a witch's curse, babies switched at birth, jealousy, violence, and death.  You can find a complete plot synopsis on Wikipedia, but for the purposes of this review I'll just note that nobody lives happily ever after.  If "Il Trovatore" has a message, it might be "don't mess with the gypsies."

Claudia Chapa and chorus
According to opera and theatre critic Charles Osborne, the great Enrico Caruso is said to have once observed that all it takes to perform "Il Trovatore" is the four greatest singers in the world.  He was exaggerating for effect, of course, but the fact is that the opera's four principal roles are very demanding both vocally and theatrically.  Verdi's music has elements of the heavily ornamental bel canto style (especially in the music for Leonora, the romantic lead) but also requires real power and lyrical beauty.  Add in the fact that he and librettist Salvadore Cammarano put all the leads through emotional hell and you have material that demands singing actors at the top of their games.

Winter Opera has a quartet of fine singers in the roles, with pride of place going to bass-baritone Neil Nelson as the arrogant and lustful Count di Luna, whose obsessive and one-sided pursuit of noblewoman Leonora leads to disaster.  When I reviewed his performance as Hagen in Union Avenue Opera's "Götterdämmerung" last summer, I noted that his big, powerful voice easily delivered even the lowest notes with authority. It still does, and his acting is once again impeccable. His "Il balen del suo sorriso" was a brilliantly creepy portrayal of a man whose lust has totally overridden any principles he once had.

L-R: Claudia Chapa, Jorge Pita Carreras
Soprano Maria Kanyova, who has given us so many top-notch performances in Opera Theatre of St. Louis productions over the years, is in fine form again as the object of di Luna's unwelcome affections, trying to find happiness with the doomed Manrico.  Her dynamic range and vocal flexibility were impressive when saw her at Wednesday night's final dress rehearsal and her acting was completely committed.  Her "D'amor sull'ali rosee" in Act IV had real tragic weight.

Mezzo Claudia Chapa is perhaps a bit young for the role of Manrico's revenge-obsessed mother, but she sings with real power and acts with great conviction.  "Stride la vampa," the aria in which she describes how her mother was burned as a witch and her need for vengeance, was very compelling,

Tenor Jorge Pita Carreras brings a solid bel canto voice with a rich low end to the role of Manrico, but nothing else.  At least when we saw him, he rarely made any connections with his fellow actors and seemed largely disengaged from the drama, often staring out into the middle distance. His tragic downfall, as a result, lacked the dramatic punch is should have had.

Antoine Hodge, chorus
Bass-baritone Antoine Hodge makes an excellent Ferrando, delivering the expository aria "Di due figli vivea padre beato" at the top of Act I with the relish of a true storyteller.  Soprano Sharon Sullivan is a sympathetic Ines, Leonora's confidant.  Tenors Clark Sturdivant and Ryan Keller have effective cameos as Manrico's second-in-command Ruiz and a messenger, respectively.

Director Mark Freiman has had considerable success on local opera stages as a singer and his direction of Winter Opera's "Tosca" in 2013 was also impressive, but work here struck me as rather uninspired.  Far too often, actors were simply planted on stage and singing towards the audience, even when they should have been interacting with each other.  I also felt his decision to pantomime the events being narrated by Azucena and Ferrando produced a lot of unnecessary and distracting stage business.  Less would have been more in this case.

Down in the pit, conductor Darwin Aquino leads the orchestra in a very polished interpretation of Verdi's score.  It's not a large ensemble (23 musicians) but they produced a satisfyingly robust sound.  Nicole Aldrich's chorus also sounded larger than its size would suggest.

Scott Loebl's sets were minimal but very effective, and the nocturnal backdrop for Leonora's garden in Act I, scene 2 was quite striking—deep indigo with a bright full moon.  Sean Savoie's lights helped maintain the illusion.  JC Krajicek's medieval costumes were very effective as well.

Winter Opera continues to produce very respectable (and sometimes quite fine) productions of opera classics, and their home in the Skip Viragh center is one of the better spaces for musical theatre in town.  Their "Il Trovatore" will be presented Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., March 4 and 6.  It's definitely worth seeing, especially if you love your Verdi (as so many of us do).  Visit the company web site for ticket information.

Join me at the Fourth Annual Award Ceremony of the St. Louis Theatre Circle at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 21, at the Skip Viragh Center for the Arts at Chaminade. If you can't make it to the ceremony, you can watch HEC-TV's live stream of the event at

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