The set-up: The singers at Houston Grand Opera, after a bumpy Act I of Giuseppe Verdi's blood-and-guts melodrama Il Trovatore (The Troubadour, 1853), must have gotten their vitamin-B shots during intermission, for they all returned and delivered a thoroughly thrilling conclusion. (I exclude the dramatic Verdian mezzo Dolora Zajick, as crazy gypsy mom Azucena, who can sing this role in her sleep. She is her own force of nature, like Vesuvius or Mt. Etna, and needs no added stimulus whatever to deliver a full-blooded characterization. She is one of the wonders of the operatic world, and any chance to hear and see her is a blessing and cause for celebration.)
The execution: Verdi's classic, composed immediately after Rigoletto and before La Traviata, floods the stage with juicy, almost overripe, passion. Neither subtle nor stately, this is one of opera's most elemental works. Everything is in capital letters. Its themes are Love, Lust, Revenge, Torture, Superstition, War, Mother Love, Xenophobia. You may not be familiar with the arias' titles, but you know almost all of Trovatore's show-stopping melodies, as they've been overused in commercials, cartoons, or gloriously satirized by the Marx Brothers in A Night At the Opera. The "Anvil Chorus" anyone?
What makes Verdi's work so accessible and incredibly powerful is his uncanny musical ability to tell a story. He's a master of theater and cuts right into the meat of the action. He writes tunes that stick in your head, tunes that create unforgettable characters by their apt melodies, tunes that grab and shake you. You won't fall asleep in this opera.
Manrico (tenor Marco Berti), the troubadour, has been raised thinking he's the son of vengeful gypsy Azucena (Ms. Zajick). In fact, he's the brother of tyrannical Count di Luna (baritone Tómas Tómasson). Both men love Leonora (Tamara Wilson), but she loves Manrico, which only enflames di Luna. Azucena wants to wreck havoc on the Count because, years before, his father burned her mother at the stake as a witch. The awful truth comes out -- also how Manrico came to be brought up by Azucena -- but not before Leonora drinks poison, Manrico is executed, and the Count is told he has killed his own brother. Azucena, now mad, has her revenge.
Other than gangbuster music, what Trovatore has in spades is propulsion. There's nothing extraneous, no padding; it's lean and muscular, no dead space. The opera rushes forward, spewing thunder and sparks. It's in-your-face, and there's no way you can be unaffected. When done well, it rolls over you and flattens. As a crash course in the power of opera and the theatrical wonders Verdi's music can conjure, there's no better primer than the fiery Il Trovatore. It hasn't been bettered.
Tenor Berti, a presence in all the international opera houses, has Verdian power to spare, but the quality of his voice never varies. It's metallic when soft, and metallic when pushed, and often sounds like we're hearing it through a horn on an Edison graphophone, only louder. It's not plush and plangent, but it certainly carries and is always on pitch. It took the entire Act I (acts I and II in the original) to get used to the splintery quality, but his second act showstopper, "Di quella pira" ("Those awful flames of that pyre..."), his exhortation to the troops to storm Di Luna's fortress and rescue his mother, was thrilling to say the least, his best Verdian moment.
Wilson, one of the jewels from HGO's studio program, also took her time to settle comfortably into Verdi's conflicted heroine, Leonora, but she, too, found her way after the break and delivered a stunning "D'amor sull'ali rosee" ("On the wings of love"), floating those trilling high notes with heartbreaking intensity. Her voice is always crystal clear and free, her diction impeccable, and once she's out of that voluminous Renaissance mantle, is able to move without encumbrance.
Cutting a virile, handsome stage presence, Baritone Tómasson, a bit wobbly at first, came into focus with his love song to Leonora, "Il Balen" ("In the light of her sweet glances..."). Di Luna might be Trovatore's villain, but even he has a heart. Who but Verdi would humanize this unrepentant blaggard with such a soft spot?
What keeps Verdi's juggernaut oiled is the extraordinary Azucena, one of the great Verdian mezzo roles. As always, supernova Zajick is absolutely mesmerizing. We can't take our eyes off her. She puts up her sails and courses through Verdi full-rigged, a splendid galleon. In one of opera's most famous arias, "Stride la vampa" ("The flames are crackling!"), she remembers her mother burned at the stake. The horror, the madness, the searing need for revenge -- it's all there in the music, and in Zajick's hypnotizing performance. Later in the castle dungeon cradling Manico's lute, she hallucinates her old homeland in the Biscayan mountains, "Ai nostri monte," with a sweet tenderness that breaks your heart.
In subsidiary roles, HGO studio artists, bass Peixin Chen, as Di Luna's general Ferrando, who tells the opera's backstory in sonorous tones, and soprano Natalya Romaniw, as Leonora's lady-in-waiting, are definite singers to keep an ear on.
Maestro Patrick Summers stirs up Verdi and makes this old war-horse as fresh as any contemporary opera. No matter how many times we've heard this classic, there are always new marvels in it, and the maestro forcefully coaxes them out in the open.
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Director Stephen Lawless' production, new at HGO in 2005, keeps the focus clearly on the principals, but some of his choices are mighty questionable. Where are the anvils, for one? The gypsies don't man forges to beat out Verdi's rhythm, instead they are expert swordsmen -- along with a few women, too -- who engage Di Luna's hapless captives in furious combat, banging their swords together instead of forging weapons.
The slugging warfare is expertly staged by fight director Bryan Brynes. Benoit Dugardyn's rough unit set of black wood panels works well, sliding in and out to create various stage spaces, and flying up in sections to let in the gypsy hordes or enemy armies, or slowly opening to reveal Leonora at prayer.
The verdict: Verdi's masterpiece -- one of so many -- is, as Anton Bruckner might say, inextinguishable. If there's any work that could be the epitome of 19th-century opera, this is the one. Filled completely with music that not only fully delineates its characters but has solidly entered our consciousness, it's a veritable steamroller, and HGO does it proud. Verdi creates a unique style all his own when writing for the voice, and Trovatore is the best master class of them all. Make that "Master Class" -- don't forget the caps.
Verdi's seventeenth opera, one of the most revered works for the musical stage, ignites on May 1, 4, 8, and 11 at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-OPERA (6737). $15-$370.