The turnout on Tuesday night at the Ordway for the Minnesota Opera’s staging of Verdi’s Il trovatore (The Troubadour) was impressive. A bustling lobby and long line at the box office translated into a full house. And people do dress for the occasion—rumors of Minnesotans wearing jeans to the opera proved to be mostly false. It’s good to know there is a place in the Twin Cities to don one’s Oscar de la Renta stiletto heels or, in the case of one elderly gentleman, one’s kimono.
Il Trovatore, an opera with music by Giuseppe Verdi and libretto by Leone Emanuele Bardare and Salvatore Cammarano; directed by Kevin Newbury. Presented by the Minnesota Opera through September 28 at the Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul. For tickets ($65-$150) and information, see mnopera.org.
There was good reason for the high attendance. More happens in Il trovatore, a romantic tragedy set in Spain during the Renaissance, than on a whole season of Flavor of Love.
First, the dramatic back story. A young boy is bewitched by a Gypsy and falls ill. The Gypsy is hunted down and burned at the stake. As she is dying, she orders her daughter, Azucena (Olga Savona), to avenge her death. Azucena kidnaps the boy and prepares to throw him into the still-smoldering ashes of the pyre. But—oops!—in her grief she accidentally incinerates her own son instead. She decides to keep the kidnapped boy and raise him as her own.
Meanwhile, the kidnapped boy’s father dies of grief over his missing son. On his deathbed, he orders his other son, Count di Luna, to keep searching for his brother.
Flash forward. A young woman named Leonora (Mlada Khudoley) is in love with a mysterious black knight named Manrico (Avgust Amonov), who is the boy raised by Azucena. Of course, the now-adult Count di Luna (Lester Lynch) is also in love with Leonora and vying for her undying love—which is rarely something that can be forced, although that doesn’t deter di Luna from trying. (Besides, a woman in an opera should have more than one suitor; if the suitors are brothers and don’t know it, that’s a bonus.) Manrico is also caught in a love triangle of sorts: he’s loved by both his mother, Azucena, and Leonora. More than once, he must choose between them.
Twists and turns take place as di Luna and Manrico vie for Leonora’s love and Azucena attempts to avenge her mother’s death. To quote The Big Lebowski, there are “a lot of ins and a lot of outs”—which all leads to even more death and tragedy in the end, much to the delight of opera fans. And, as if the wrenching of hair and rending of garments aren’t enough in and of themselves, Il trovatore provides one of opera’s all-time best pick-up lines. “Have you come down from heaven,” Leonora sings to Manrico, “or have I joined you there?”
Because this opera was written in the Romantic style, it tends toward dramatic swings of emotion (think people dying of poisoning, but taking ten minutes to sing about dying before they finally expire)—yet a lot of the “good stuff” (that is, the blood-and-guts action we pay to see at the movies) happens offstage.
To alleviate some of this frustration for the modern audience, the staging incorporates a large screen on which are projected the fire from the pyres, the burning Gypsy, the various animal forms her spirit takes, and the night sky. When Azucena recounts for her son the fate of her mother, she enters into a trance-like state and we see her mother’s face on the screen. This was fantastic for setting the mood, but also a little creepy. The Gypsy looked quite seductive for someone about to be engulfed in flames—but that’s sixteenth-century Gypsies for you.
This opera is demanding to perform; it features four Bel Canto double arias for three of the principal characters and requires extreme vocal agility. Khudoley and Lynch in particular give powerful, transporting performances. There’s palpable chemistry between the two, who are equally matched in the quality and power of their voices.
For me, Amonov’s portrayal of Manrico stands in contrast to the other performers. While his vocals and techniques are of the highest quality, he lacks a commanding stage presence and fails to inject true emotion into his actions. Although the focus in opera is on vocal performance, the “dream” is interrupted if a performer fails to convey emotional authenticity. This is particularly disappointing in an opera singer so young (Amonov is 34), who might be expected to inject a youthful passion into the proceedings.
But overall, the beautiful, lusty production leaves the audience more than satiated. Il trovatore is a melodramatic dream set to music; despite the wild plot, its genuine emotions resonate.
Rebecca Collins is a writer and thing-maker who lives in South Minneapolis. She is also the communications coordinator for the Minnesota Film and TV Board and edits the blog MNDialog.