OPERA NEWS - Il Trovatore, Giovanna d’Arco
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In Review > International

Il Trovatore, Giovanna d’Arco 

Teatro Real

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Francesco Meli (Manrico) and Maria Agresta (Leonora) in Francisco Negrín's production of Il Trovatore at the Teatro Real
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real
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Ekaterina Semenchuk as Azucena with the Teatro Real chorus
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real
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Roberto Tagliavini as Ferrando and Ludovic Tézier as Count di Luna
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

FOR FANS OF GIUSEPPE VERDI, Madrid was the place to be in July, when the Teatro Real’s summer season offered a new production of the perennially popular Il Trovatore alongside concert presentations of the composer’s relatively obscure seventh opera, Giovanna d’Arco.

Designer Louis Desiré’s resolutely plain set, resembling nothing so much as a monumental parking garage, made an austere but functional backdrop for the vaguely evocative mixed-period costumes and Francisco Negrín’s quirky but largely straightforward staging. A pair of moveable illuminated beams, pushed laboriously into place by the players, served to divide the stage, among other things forming a giant cross for the convent scene. This produced an indifferent effect, except to annoy those viewers whose sightlines were disrupted by their presence. Other oddities, such as a gaggle of extraneous schoolchildren listening to Ferrando’s narrative in place of the usual soldiers, were only mildly distracting. 

Thanks to the red-hot commitment of Ekaterina Semenchuk’s angst-ridden Azucena, the ubiquitous avatar of her dead child was mainly an asset, adding a level of both pathos and creepy horror to the Gypsy’s obsession. The equally omnipresent vision of her unfortunate mother was likewise harmless, until she derailed the opera’s denouement by engaging in a literal tug-of-war with Leonora—inexplicably en deshabille and bound about the waist—an interpolation that cut off any meaningful interaction between condemned hero and self-sacrificing heroine in the final scene. It’s a pity so many directors miss the clear musical cues signaling the important emotional connections here; “Ai nostri monti” is among the tenderest mother­–son scenes in all of opera, yet here it was presented with a disheartening sense of disconnect; the apparition of the burnt child absorbed Azucena’s attention while Manrico, left out in the cold, struggled to relate from halfway across the stage. 

Maria Agresta, lovely of face and graceful of movement, seemed vocally over-parted as Leonora, breaking the line in unwanted places and fudging some of the role’s more challenging coloratura, though her affecting presence, histrionic commitment and some soaring phrases conveyed the essence of the role. Francesco Meli, as the titular troubadour, displayed a generally attractive, healthy-sounding timbre, particularly when singing at full throttle in the upper reaches, but his performance suffered from a tendency to scoop, some unsteadiness at dynamics lower than forte and a disappointingly tenuous grasp of the Verdian idiom. Apart from a few patches of hoarseness at climactic moments, Ludovic Tézier, as di Luna, deployed his rich, resonant baritone with flowing lyricism and admirable dynamic control. What was missing was the rhythmic bite and instinctive sense of rubato through which the true Verdian creates dramatic tension and gives shape to his character's emotional journey. Roberto Tagliavini invested Ferrando’s difficult “Abietta zingara” with power, resonance and rhythmic thrust, making it a high point, and he managed to hold his own against the potential scene-stealing of his young followers. The Réal’s male chorus, relegated to the bleak perimeters of the parking garage, made a ringing contribution, singing with hearty enthusiasm and a stunning sound, though they came unmoored from the orchestra in the opening scene. The chorus women later provided their own highlight with a transparent, devotional prayer before Leonora’s entry into the convent.

Semenchuk’s blazing performance would have justified Verdi’s early thoughts of titling the opera La Zingara (The Gypsy). Sybil-like in her complete surrender to recurring visions and nightmares, the mezzo’s Azucena, vocally masterful and dramatically intense, fully projected every aspect of the character’s psychological torment without sacrificing sympathy for her maternal instincts. 

On the podium, Maurizio Benini led a befuddling reading, so poky in places that several big arias seemed in danger of grinding to a halt. In “Il balen,” Tézier got away from the orchestra, despite his best efforts to keep the brakes on to match the maestro’s glacial tempo. Verdi’s characteristic thrust and lilt were in short supply.

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Plácido Domingo (Giacomo) and Carmen Giannattasio (Giovanna) in the Teatro Real's concert performance of Giovanna d'Arco, conducted by James Conlon
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

THE FOLLOWING NIGHT, the slancio that was missing in Trovatore was present in abundance in James Conlon’s taut, propulsive reading of Giovanna d’Arco, the work’s Teatro Réal premiere. The concert setting may have lacked Trovatore’ssets, costumes and live, leaping flames, but the musical fire burned bright in the composer’s youthfully exuberant setting of a quirky, a historic libretto by Temistocle Solera, which nonetheless clearly ignited Verdi’s dramatic and melodic imagination. 

If you like early Verdi, you’ll love Giovanna d’Arco, with its superabundance of flowing, aching, pulsing and soaring melody, its lively pacing and its ravishing, characterful ensembles. The plot, borrowed from Schiller, is mainly a frame on which to hang the kind of heartfelt outpourings and heartrending conflicts that defined Verdi’s dramatic sensibility: love versus duty, patriotism versus faith, family versus honor—it’s all here in irresistible technicolor.

This Joan of Arc’s challenges include not only charges of witchcraft but the temptations of the flesh, as the enamored Dauphin, not content with his victory in the field, attempts to lead her astray from her heavenly mission. Carmen Giannattasio brought a voice of beauty, texture and lyrical amplitude to the challenging title role, an assignment that calls for purity and passion in equal measure. Giannattasio’s committed singing and dark tone made for a mature, introspective Maid of Orleans, lending extra pathos to her struggles against her romantic yearnings. Michael Fabiano sang with plangent tone, stylish legato and rhythmic pliancy in the role of the hapless Dauphin, who regains his kingdom but loses his champion—not to the ignominy of the stake but to a glorious death on the battlefield.

Conlon led the orchestra through a rousing, high-energy account of an underappreciated score. The chorus, which is particularly active in this opera as villagers, soldiers, angels and devils, again made a strikingly sonorous and powerful contribution.

As for Domingo he remains a wonder of nature. There are, of course, things he can’t do the way he used to, but it seems churlish even to bring them up in light of what he can still do, which is breathtaking. More impressive than the vocal magic he retains in his sixth decade of performing is the unassailable musical authority that declares itself the instant he opens his mouth, in much the same way his riveting physical presence is felt every time he walks onstage. (For me, the dramatic high point came in Domingo’s devastated reaction to the news “Giovanna è spenta” (Giovanna is dead), an effect he achieved without singing a note.) At seventy-eight, he commands a rare blend of vocal technique, interpretive mastery and, most important, an instinctive understanding of how to convey the composer’s dramatic intentions through sound. Indeed, the passing years seem to layer more nuance and resonance onto the performances of an artist who was already known for the depth and chiaroscuro of his characterizations. He sings every melody as if it sprang straight from his soul and were the only possible outlet for his passions.

His rapport with Verdi is particularly riveting; when it comes to conveying the special “tinta” the composer was so careful to impart to each of his works, Domingo remains unmatched. The role of Giovanna’s conflicted father, Giacomo, is a perfect fit for the bari-tenor. His complete immersion in his character invites the audience to immerse itself just as fully, and even if you’ve come in looking for cracks in the vocal armor, you will likely find yourself swept up in the waves of melodic/dramatic tension and passion that define the operatic experience as it should be. —Louise T. Guinther

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