Noah Stewart (as Manrico), Hope Briggs (as Leonora) and Scott Bearden (as
Count di Luna). Photo by Robert Shomler
As a person fairly new to opera, I found that I gravitated towards the lighter operas. I liked comedic ones (such as Barber of Seville which I saw at the Met, or Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment), or my favorite, Mozart operas. The Marriage of Figaro with the LA Opera was the first one that captivated me; I found its themes surprisingly modern. The ones that I had a harder time with were the heavier Romantic ones. In high school, I saw Aida at the LA Opera, where the ‘young sexy slave girl’ was an obese post-middle aged woman with paint on her face. Her ‘hot sexy ardent young lover’ was an obsese post-middle aged man who had difficulty moving around too far or too fast. There were some aspects of the production that kept me from appreciating the music, I think. And everything was so heavy and so long. I don’t remember much else aside from that. With this experience, I can’t even imagine what Wagner must be like. It just sounds like punishment.
So to be genuinely honest, I probably never would have went out of my way to go out and seek another Verdi opera (a tragedy, on top of that) on my own. But when I was kindly invited to attend Festival Opera’s Il Trovatore, I grabbed a friend and went.
The biggest impression of the evening was that I surprisingly fell in love with Verdi. Verdi capitalizes on opera’s strengths and avoids its pitfalls. There are certain emotions that translate so much better in song than through spoken word, such as passionate love, or a cry of anguish. Verdi capitalized on the strengths of this genre to personify love in song. Verdi manages to avoid the pitfalls that I feared. Although this opera is a tragedy, the music isn’t all about heavy and long drawn out phrases or sustained notes. There was an unexpected lightness written into the music, in the form of quick staccato notes in Leonora’s aria (sorry, I don’t know the names of any of the arias), or quick running triplets as a motif. And who can resist love being sung in soaring song? It was a great balance.
The plot of the story is, as my friend put it, a cross between Romeo and Juliet and a soap opera. The last 30 seconds of the show literally include the words, “He was your brother”, referring to a man who was killed by another. Throw in mistaken identity, thwarted love, jealousies, love deferred, and slow acting poison, and you have the plot. But who watches opera for the plot? The music more than made up for it.
The talent onstage was equally impressive. Standouts included Kirk Eichelberger as Ferrando, with nice projection and precision in fast slurred notes and the right amount of darkness. Hope Briggs sang the role of Leonora with a deep honeyed sweetness. There was no real subtlety in details, but her unabashed passion in her love songs gave me chills. Noah Stewart as Manrico personified his character well, with an alluring hint of danger and sexiness. The character of Manrico wears many hats during this opera, from threatening menace to dutiful son to ardent lover, and Stewart rose to the occasion admirably. Patrice Houston fully embodied every note she sang, indulging in the richness of the music. Scott Bearden sang the role of Count Di Luna. Despite his impressive accomplishments listed in his biography, he sounded bright even when he was threatening Manrico. Even at his most passionate Bearden sounded softly romantic, and it was unconvincing that his love for Leonora was a love that moves mountains. I also cringed when Bearden cracked a note and had pitch problems at the end of one of his arias. Overall, it was a great cast, and they served the material well.
The orchestra, under the enthusiastic direction of Michael Morgan, also sparkled. Conductor Michael Morgan was especially fun to watch, as he seemed to thoroughly enjoy the music. Not to the point of distraction, I found myself watching him sometimes to feel more aligned to the music.
On a side note – lots have been written about the audience at the Lesher Center for the Arts. I too noticed the unnerving loud unwrapping of candy throughout the opera, and unluckily, I happened to be sitting next to a woman who needed to leave her seat and walk over me, TWICE, during the first act. (She sat somewhere else for the second act.) She also ripped a part of her program, slowly and loudly, during a quiet spot in an aria to spit out her gum. I didn’t notice any cell phones going off though. I was surprised there was no announcement at the beginning, reminding people to turn off their cell phones or to unwrap any hard candies or lozenges, as they do in Jersey Boys and other shows I’ve been to. The audience may benefit greatly with this reminder.
Being the third largest opera company in the Bay Area, Festival Opera impressively accomplished its lofty goals of bringing great material to the people of Walnut Creek who might not want to make the trek out to San Francisco, nor pay the prices for it. The cast served up an excellent rendition of this opera, convincing me what a musical gem this opera is. What a treat that an opera company not in the middle of a big city can still serve its community with a moving performance.
Festival Opera. Remaining performances of Il Trovatore on Fri July 18 (evening) and Sun July 20 (matinee)