Il Trovatore at Opera in the Heights: Attention Must Be Paid

Tenor Brian Vu and mezzo-soprano Anne Maguire in Il Trovatore at Opera in the Heights.
Tenor Brian Vu and mezzo-soprano Anne Maguire in Il Trovatore at Opera in the Heights. Photo by Pin Lim

If you think the art of opera is dying, I turn your attention to Opera in the Heights and its splendid production of Verdi's propulsive warhorse Il Trovatore (1853).

Well...let me rephrase. The physical production is rudimentary, and the staging lacks imagination. Updating from medieval Spain to a quasi-dystopian future doesn't do any harm but doesn't do any illumination either. Count di Luna, the opera's bass villain, now wears slick suits and his henchmen don black T-shirts and slacks. Banners proclaim Luna Corporation, but nothing's made of this. Romani Azucena, the dynamic mezzo role and adoptive mother to tenor Manrico, prowls about in peasant skirt while her cohorts sport homeless chic.Manrico's love Leonora, a true Verdian dramatic soprano part, wears cocktail attire.

Everything reads like an afterthought. The setting is bare, two flights of stairs up to a door (the prison, the convent, etc.). Projections show a forest, I think, but it's as sketchy as the director's non-vision. At least there are flames and blood red spots for Aucena's justly famous aria, Stride la vampa (The flames roar), in which she recounts her mother's burning at the stake, a PTSD moment for sure, and one that haunts her throughout the opera and sets her on her life's mission of revenge.

If director Cara Consilvio doesn't do justice to this elemental opera there are other forces at work, and they work like gangbusters: Verdi, maestro Eiki Isomura and his dynamic orchestra, and the magnificent singers. Caruso, the definitive Manrico during the early 20th century, once said, so it's been reported, that staging Trovatore is simple. All you need are four of the greatest singers in the world. Opera in the Heights comes very near indeed. What an impressive young cast.

Verdi toyed with naming the opera after Azucena, one of only two mother roles he ever wrote. She's a force of nature and a revelation. Verdi loved outsiders, being one himself in his personal life, always bucking the system of primeval Italian impresarios and conventional opera houses that didn't want gypsies on stage any more than they wanted hunchbacks (Rigoletto) or prostitutes (Traviata). With Azucena, he gave opera one of its greatest characters. She's demented, misguided, living in a past that's always present, yet Verdi allows her the truest love of a mother. Whatever else she might be, she's redeemed by her love for Manrico. Verdi's heart is with her, you only have to listen.

Azucena is the mother of all mezzo roles, and the best singers of each generation have portrayed this compelling character: Horne, Simionato, Cossotto, Elias, Verrett, Zajick. After the performance I saw, let's add Anne Maguire to the list. What a marvel, what a voice. Titanic in retribution yet able to float shimmering passages of tenderness, Maguire brought everything she has to the role – dynamism, drama, and diva-hood, for what is Azucena without a big heaping dose of diva. She thundered in revenge and purred when remembering her former home. She was stunning.

But holding her own with defining power and grace was Chabrelle D. Williams as love-tossed Leonora. Her voice is powerful, incredibly supple, always molten gold. Her distinctive timbre shines with silky sheen and plush velvet. Her commanding voice reminds me of a young Leontyne Price, which is a very special thing. I predict great success for her in the future. She might just get it, for she's about to star off-Broadway in the Ricky Ian Gordan and Lynn Nottage opera, Intimate Apparel, January 2022. Our hats are in the air.

But what would any Verdi opera be without its conflicted villain, and librettists Salvadore Cammarano and Leone Bardare (who finished the work after Cammarano's death in 1852) supply a quintessential baddie with Count di Luna. Also in love with Leonora, thus a rival to Manrico, he's a brute, sadist, and all-round bad ass. Bass-baritone Nathan Matticks, dressed in sharkskin, turns di Luna into a fiery furnace, tearing through Verdi's impassioned lines without a sweat. He has power to spare, impeccable diction, and proud stage presence. He can boom with the best, as in the Act I Trio, or croon a love paean to his unrequited love in his famed aria, Il balen del sorisso (The light of her smile). Matticks is also fun to watch. While he can't wait to torture Manrico and put Azucena to the stake, his oily charm contrasts nicely to the couple's pure romance that eludes him. Watch as he encoils Leonora in sleazy embrace.

Verdi doesn't do Manrico any favors. As the romantic lead, his tessitura is old school Italianate opera. It's treacherously high and treacherously difficult. Brian Vu hits the notes, but his voice veers toward thinness, and we're not always confident he's going to make it. He does, though, but at times he's drowned out under Verdi's thunder. But he thrillingly blazed through Manrico's famous showstopping cabeletta Di quella pira (That pyre), stirring his comrades to arms. He makes a smashing-looking rebel with a cause with lithe frame sporting leather jacket and ripped jeans. (It's reassuring to know that in the near future the rebellious youth will still strut the style of James Dean via GQ.)

The supporting players were beautifully nuanced by Kaarin Cecilia Phelps (Inez), Calvin Maurecé Harris (Ruiz), and Mikhail Smigelski (a booming Ferrando). The chorus was equally memorable, receiving bravos for their heavenly nuns or ardent henchmen.

Maestro Isomura loves his Verdi and, even with a pared-down orchestration, brings out nuances in the score not often heard from bigger houses. There's energy throughout. Trovatore is lean and muscular, no dead space anywhere. It moves and rushes forward, all juicy overripe passion, everything Elemental. Isomura and his fine orchestra bring this to the forefront with masterful fire and fury. His woodwinds, harp, and brass were especially memorable.

Director Consilvio has a wicked sense of humor. During the iconic Act II Anvil Chorus, the refugees in Azucena's tribe stomp beer cans instead of hammering anvils. They're so environmentally friendly, they dispose of the crushed cans in a recycling bin.

Il Trovatore continues at 2 p.m. Sunday, November 14 and 21 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, November 19. (Tenor Dane Suarez and soprano Natalie Polito sing Manrico and Leonora on November 14 and 19) at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. For information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $34.50 - $84.50. Masks required.
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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