Il Trovatore at the Opéra de Montréal
31 January 2012

Il Trovatore has more in common with Lars von Trier’s dire film Melancholia (see my last post) than with the luminous film Monsieur Lazhar. There is not a whole lot of understatement in the Opéra de Montréal production, and the opera itself is powerfully dramatic, if not overpoweringly so.

Count di Luna is madly in love with the beautiful Leonora, but she loves the troubadour Manrico and has no time at all for the powerful Count. Manrico was raised by the gypsy Azucena, although it turns out he is wrong in thinking of her as his mother. This is, in fact, a confusing story. If, however, you have managed to survive the improbabilities of other operatic narratives (the last one that tested my patience was Dvorak’s watery Rusalka, last fall), you are less likely to pick a fight with the plot of the incandescent Trovatore. With its spectacular on-stage fire, in which Azuceta and her mother perish at the stake, and its obsession with revenge, there’s not an awful lot of redemption in Il Trovatore, either.

So why did I not only not walk out of Il Trovatora (as I did on Lars von Trier’s Melancholia), but find it exhilarating?

Is the difference between the two the difference between stage and screen? In part, it is. The wide screen and surround-sound have an overwhelming impact in the cinema, surpassing the effect of all but the most riveting on-stage performances. I have been known to walk out of a number of films, starting with Ken Russell’s The Devils in 1971, and I have never yet walked out of a life production.

Is it the physical distance from the stage that makes the difference? Physical distance helps, for sure, and cinema has become expert at reducing that difference.

Is it the world-historical distance dividing contemporary Montreal from 16th century Spain? Not sure. The Devils is set in 17th century France; I have walked out on films set elsewhere and in the past just as readily as I have walked out of films set in worlds closer to me.

Verdi’s music is beautiful, and the choral scenes compelling. With the chorus standing in for us, ordinary people standing on the sidelines watching and judging the terrible on-stage drama, there is something so fun about the Gypsy chorus scene that it makes up for much of the surrounding darkness. And that is true even if the staging badly needs work. Why it is that a dozen or more chorus members spend so much of their time just standing in one place looking as though they really don’t know what to do with themselves?

Another quibble is that the production is unexciting visually, with the exception of the lurid fire. Hard to blame the production, though, for the fact that Manrico is dead and the flames are licking at Azucena before she lets on that the Count and Manrico were brothers.

I’ve reached the point where I will forgive an opera almost anything if the music is beautiful enough and there are one or two spectacular singers. Which is very much the case here, not only with Soprano Hiromi Omura’s Leonora, who has the entire audience in the palm of her hand, but also with the darker figure of Azucena, sung by the thrilling Italian mezzo Laura Brioli.

The men are good, but not up to that level, for a good voice is not on its own quite enough. Where the two women have a natural physical grace, Canadian baritone Gregory Dahl is just plain wooden as the supposedly obsessed Count di Luna. Korean tenor Dongwin Shin does a respectable job as Manrico, but his presence is overshadowed both by Omura and Brioli.

And then there’s Giuseppi Verdi. What a star.

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