Review by Kelly Dean Hansen, Ph.D, Freelance Classical Music Writer
Music Director John Baril has seen his share of milestones in the pit at Central City Opera, but this summer’s “Il trovatore”—which just played its second performance and runs through August 3—represents a new height for him and the company. Giuseppe Verdi’s popular but often critically maligned score was given its best possible advocacy by Baril and stage director Joachim Schamberger in the jewel box theater. The production is traditional but innovative.
Schamberger directed Puccini’s “Tosca” in 2016, winning acclaim for his mix of stagecraft and technology, the incorporated video projections being his trademark. Here, they are used to subtle and impressive effect, along with the highly successful device of placing parallel background action to the scene on the stage upon a raised platform. This greatly aids in illustrating the complex and convoluted backstory and main plot.
Schamberger spares no effort in communicating the threads of the story to the audience, even adding explanatory projections between scenes that draw together the parallel threads of the story dealing with romance, revenge and war in medieval Spain. The opera’s four acts are each further divided into two scenes, so things can get confusing without guidance.
In yet another connection to “Tosca,” three of the four main singers in “ Il trovatore” were also the three principals in the earlier production. Baritone Michael Mayes has become a virtual face of the company, here delivering his fourth memorable and shattering performance in five years going back to the title character in 2014’s “Dead Man Walking.” In “Il trovatore” he plays a similarly villainous character to his Scarpia in “Tosca,” but Count di Luna is somewhat more complex.
Motivated in his hatred of the main character—Manrico, the titular “troubadour”—by both romantic rivalry and political opposition, di Luna is vicious and calculating. Yet Verdi gave him gorgeous music to sing. Mayes is at his best in Act II when attempting to abduct Leonora, the object of his desire, from the convent where she is about to take vows (believing Manrico, whom she loves, to be dead at di Luna’s hand). When he sings that even God himself will not keep him from her, Mayes delivers the sentiment with both passionate ardor and fearsome force.
As Leonora, soprano Alexandra Loutsion—who was a CCO Bonfils-Stanton Apprentice Artist just five years ago—provides another career-defining interpretation following that of “Tosca’s” title character. While Leonora is not the central character, the role is incredibly demanding, so much so that her last major solo in Act IV is often cut. Loutsion did sing one verse of it. This was just one example of Baril’s respect for Verdi’s score, which was evident throughout.
Tenor Jonathan Burton imbued Manrico with heroism and devotion, to his cause, to his beloved, and to his mother. The frantic aria “Di quella pira” in Act III—perhaps the opera’s most well-known musical excerpt—was appropriately powerful without being indulgent. As fine a singer as Burton is, he is also acutely aware of the drama going on around him, never drawing undue attention to himself (a real temptation in a role such as this).
The one newcomer to the principal four is mezzo-soprano Lindsay Ammann, who plays the vengeful gypsy Azucena (whom Verdi considered the main character). Azucena’s identity as both the supposed murderer of his infant brother and the mother of his rival adds another layer to Di Luna’s hatred—one that is only matched by her own. Since the opera’s conception in 1853, Azucena’s motivations and endgame have been ambiguous, and Ammann conveyed that ambiguity with both relish and mystery. Her Act II narrative of the background events to the story and of her need for vengeance was one of several highlights for Ammann. Another was her exceedingly tender Act IV duet with Burton.
All four roles are more demanding than usual, leading to the oft-quoted quip from Enrico Caruso that all it takes for a successful performance of “Il trovatore” is the four greatest singers in the world. These four are surely the best we could possibly hope for at a performance in Colorado or the entire western United States, not just at a tiny theater in the mountains.
Whan you add bass Ashraf Sewailam to the mix, this becomes even more special. Sewailam—a University of Colorado alumnus and Colorado favorite—plays the secondary role of Ferrando, one of Di Luna’s captains, but it is a secondary role of unusual importance. He must deliver the initial tale of the backstory from Di Luna’s perspective (we later get it from Azucena’s). This is a long and demanding monologue-aria that precedes the appearance of all the four principals. And it needs someone of Sewailam’s caliber.
The choruses of gypsies and soldiers are splendid, as is Baril’s orchestra. Verdi’s accompaniments range from the banal to the sublime, and these musicians had a keen understanding of when to come forward and when to let the singers take the lead.
Yes, the plot is grisly and dark, involving an unusual degree of coincidence and unlikely intersections of plot threads. Yes, the “Anvil Chorus” that opens Act II is one of the most recognizable of all operatic melodies, probably for the wrong reasons. But the opera does not deserve some of the negative reception it has endured over the years. There is a reason why it remains popular, and Central City’s production illustrated this. It is not to be missed.