By Jane Recker
Verdi’s middle period completely rocked the opera world.
With newfound financial security, Verdi felt comfortable throwing out the time-honored operatic forms and allowing opera to become more real, more connected with the music. It was during this time he composed three of his greatest works: Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Il Trovatore.
Those first two shows have entered our cultural memory so seamlessly people don’t even know they know them. Spotify “La Donna e Mobile” and you’ll find you know every note to an Italian aria you’ve never heard of. And if you’ve seen Pretty Woman, you’ve seen La Traviata when Vivian attends the opera (the movie itself is even a loose adaptation of the opera, albeit with a much happier ending).
But Il Trovatore has never entered the public sphere in the same way. Though objectively a great piece of opera, it doesn’t have the same glitter or believable romance as La Traviata and lacks the musical iconicity of Rigoletto. Compared to Verdi’s other works, it’s a very “meh” show indeed.
That’s probably the best way to describe Lyric Opera’s production of Il Trovatore: “meh.” Though the mild quality of the show itself doesn’t help, the lack of chemistry and compelling direction keeps this production from having any flicker of operatic drama.
Il Trovatore tells the story of the doomed love between Leonora (Tamara Wilson) and the trovatore, or troubadour, Manrico (Russell Thomas), son of the gypsy woman Azucena (Jamie Barton). The couple’s ardent desire to be wed is complicated by Count di Luna (Artur Rucinski), who wants to marry Leonora himself. As in any Verdi opera, in between the interactions between the main characters there are massive chorus scenes with plenty of drama and fighting.
It’s those chorus scenes that give the show the life and energy it needs to continue. As always, the Lyric chorus is spot on with their singing and with creating an alternate world onstage for the audience. Whether it’s stage fighting with swords and climbing over barricades as soldiers, or working as smiths and enjoying drink as gypsies, every member of the chorus is fully invested in creating a believable individual character to contribute to the whole. Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes also contribute in creating these worlds, adding a little eye candy for the audience without being too distracting.
As far as the leads go, it’s the women that are the stars of this show. Barton has a nice turn as Azucena, transitioning between a rounded middle voice to an anguished, wailing low register and popping in razor sharp high notes when needed.
It’s Wilson, though, who carries this show on her back. There are not many voices like hers. A dramatic soprano able to cut through the orchestra with a spinto-esque quality on her high notes, within mere measures she’s able to pull her voice into something resembling more of a light coloratura, floating high notes with ease. These quick shifts between the highly dramatic and a purer quality are transcendent, adding more depth to her stellar acting and blowing away the audience.
While individuals have success in this show, it’s when their together that things begin to flop, namely between Manrico and Leonora. The majority of the show hinges on these star-crossed lovers, so the total lack of chemistry between the two onstage positively sucks the air out of the show. That’s not to say that Wilson and Thomas can’t act, though. As mentioned before, Wilson shows her acting chops in her solo scenes and when with Count di Luna, and Thomas has a great give-and-take with Barton. But put the two of them together, and everything begins to feel stiff.
Perhaps, though, that’s more on revival director Roy Rallo than them. Sure, the Lyric is a big house, but prior directors haven’t had to rely on ye olde “park and bark” to ensure their singers could be heard. For an opera that relies so heavily on ill-fated romance, there’s a lot more singing straight out to the audience than there are intimate interactions onstage.
Take, for instance, the scene when moments before she’s about to become a nun, Leonora realizes that Manrico wasn’t killed in battle and is, in fact, very much alive in front of her. Should that happen in real life, one might expect Leonora to run to Manrico, to embrace him tightly, to kiss him passionately. Instead, Wilson’s Leonora (after singing straight out to the audience of course) slowly makes her way over to Manrico and gently touches his face. It’s these consistently underwhelming interactions that discredit all believability that Leonora would – in the fated fashion of all Verdi sopranos – kill herself out of love to save Manrico. The show’s ending feels forced and rush, the emotions simply aren’t there.
The reason to see this show is Wilson’s singing; it will move you and leave you speechless. But if you’re looking for a Verdi classic with drama, romance and dazzling staging, hold out for Lyric’s La Traviata in March.
Lyric Opera presents “Il Trovatore” through December 9 at 20 N Upper Wacker Drive, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.