Il Trovatore from Opera in the Heights: Elemental, Volcanic, In-Your-Face Opera

The set-up:

Giuseppe Verdi's monumental and monumentally exciting opera (1853, composed immediately after Rigoletto and before La Traviata) roars into Opera in the Heights and flattens everything else around. It leaves one breathless.

The execution:

The gypsy camp is swarming with excitement (the famous "Anvil Chorus"), but earth mother Azucena (mezzo Jenni Bank) sits apart from the swaggering merriment. She is deep in thought and stares intensely into the void. A streak of white parts her hair like Elsa Lancaster in Bride of Frankenstein. She is elemental and not one to be messed with. The lights go all spooky, lighting her from below, and she's off into one of opera's most famous arias, "Stride la vampa" ("The flames are crackling!") as she remembers her mother burned at the stake. Full of horror yet profoundly moving, her aria plumbs the agility and lungs of any mezzo, as Azucena's frightening vision turns to implacable vengeance, imploring her son Manrico, the "troubadour" of the title (tenor Lázaro Calderón) to avenge the tortured death of her mother years earlier.

Bank soared through the exciting powerhouse aria, which calls for a Verdian technique of the highest caliber since he asks for drama with a capital D and the agility to cover the scale with strength and, yes, subtlety. Bank is her own force of nature and achingly conveyed her obsessed gypsy heart through masterful command of her stupendous voice. Thrilling to behold, it's like hearing the waves of the sea.

In Verdi's masterpiece -- one of so many -- "Stride" is among countless other showstopping arias, duets, trios, and chorus numbers. Many of them you already know, its tunes having entered our consciousness a century ago. It's a veritable steamroller, and OH does it proud.

Fortunately, Bank is not alone on stage as a superlative Verdi interpreter, surrounded as she is by Calderón, soprano Lara Tillotson, as Manrico's love Leonora, and baritone Adam Meza, as evil Count di Luna, who's also in love with Leonora. Verdi created a unique style all his own when writing for the voice, and Trovatore is a master class. The four principals triumphed.

While Calderón may be somewhat uninvolved as an actor, he has the voice of a masculine angel and sailed through Verdi's treacherous passages that call for clarion declaration or equally ardent lovemaking. His Act III pièce de résistance, the stirring "Di quella pira," where he envisions the horrible fire about to consume Azucena, rang through Lambert Hall like the most radiant claxon call.

Tillotson, possessed of a most appealing stage presence, has a rich, deep soprano that's securely at home from her chest to head tone. Her voice is full of amber and just as densely colored. She was effortless. (Word around Heights Boulevard is that Michelle Johnson, who sings Leonora in the alternate Emerald cast, is a wonder to hear, also.)

Meza was just as accomplished with his sturdy baritone that leapt through his character's signature arias of hate and love. His ballad about Leonora, "Il balen del suo sorriso" ("The light of her smile"), was as exquisitely bathed in smitten ardor as his outpourings to rival Manrico were wreathed with contempt. Costumed in black and gray, he made a most convincing villain and sang as if possessed by Mephistopheles. (Throughout, Dena Scheh's spot-on costumes made a singularly favorable impression.)

Even the subsidiary roles were lovingly etched by bass Daymon Passmore, as captain of the guard; soprano Traci Davis as Inez, lady in waiting to Leonora; and tenor Felipe Gonzalez, as Manrico's buddy Ruiz. The choruses, both male and female, were rousing where appropriate and moving when most simple, especially the procession of nuns in Act II, singing of eternal grace and redemption in ironic contrast to the testosterone of the military-like march that precedes them.

Director Brian Byrnes wisely kept the staging unfussy and let the singers do what they do best. Maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo whipped up the reduced OH orchestra into appropriate frenzy, keeping Verdi taut and trim and moving ever forward. You can hear his love of Verdi in the crisp phrasing and silky textures he elicited from his players.

Verdi and librettists Salvadore Cammarano, who died before finishing the work, and the young Leone Bardare, who was brought in to complete it and who beefed up the role of Leonora, keep this opera hopping. There's no dead space. Yes, the maligned libretto overflows with witchcraft, superstition, revenge, and the most crazy mother in the operatic canon, but for all its contrived scenes and shady motivation magician Verdi weaves a gangbuster spell through propulsive rhythms and achingly lush melodies that scream "opera at its best." Trovatore rushes forward, spewing thunder and sparks. It's in-your-face opera, elemental and volcanic. There's no way one can be unaffected by it.

The verdict:

If you want a crash course in opera and the theatrical wonders Verdi's music can conjure, there's no better start than the powerhouse Il Trovatore. It hasn't been bettered. Musically, neither has this production from Opera in the Heights.

Verdi's dramatic tale of the ultimate mother's revenge plays through March 25 at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Blvd. The Ruby cast performs March 23 and 25; the Emerald cast (Dominick Rodriguez, Michelle Johnson, Andrew Cummings, and Sarah Heltzel) performs March 22 and 24. Purchase tickets online at www.operaintheheights.org or call 713-861-5303. $10 - $55.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover