Opera Review: IL TROVATORE (San Francisco Opera)

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by Tony Frankel on September 21, 2023

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


San Francisco Opera is now reviving what is perhaps Verdi’s most popular opera, Il Trovatore (The Troubadour), which itself is a revival which I saw at LA Opera and Lyric Opera. But something is different here: intimacy on a grand scale. The massive set seems more imposing, and the glorious orchestrations — brought to glorious life by conductor Eun Sun Kim — positively swirled around the packed theater of the War Memorial Opera House. If only the sound were this good at L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. And last night, making the current production new and exciting, were the four leads: Russian Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk as Azucena (replacing Anita Rachvelishvili two weeks before opening); Romanian Baritone George Petean (making his SFO debut) as Count di Luna; well-established Mexican Tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Manrico; and especially the great American Soprano from Los Angeles, Angel Blue as Leonora.

Verdi's Il Trovatore with Ekaterina Semenchuk
and the San Francisco Opera Chorus

As before, audiences are transported back in time to experience Sir David McVicar’s Goya-esque interpretation of Verdi’s gypsy drama. Maintaining the Spanish locale, he moves the action from a 1409 civil war to the better-remembered Spanish American Wars of Independence, fought against Napoleon. The nightmare imagery of The Pilgrimage to San Isidro (1820-23), one of the so-called Black Paintings by Francisco Goya, is used as the show-curtain, perfectly setting up the darkness of a bizarre and fantastical but still-terrific story.

A section of Goya's The Pilgrimage to San Isidro,
used as a show-curtain for SF Opera's Il Trovatore

Charles Edwards‘ sets remain fresh, faring well since this interpretation opened here in 2009 (co-produced with The Met and Lyric Opera). Except for lighting designer Jennifer Tipton‘s gorgeous rays of sunshine in Act IV, she wisely just exposes Edwards’ earth-toned set, which includes a life-size crucifix and a massive wall that serves as a fortress battlement, palace interior, prison gate and church clerestory, as occasion requires. Transposing the plot’s setting using Goya’s Romantic aesthetic is especially evident in Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes, clothing the cast in mostly monochrome military garb or simple shift dresses.

Soprano Angel Blue as Leonora, tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Manrico

One of the three triumphs of Verdi’s “middle period,” Il Trovatore follows Rigoletto and precedes La Traviata, with which it shares more than just a similar-sounding title. Both are dramatic tales of tragic love featuring demanding vocal roles and off-stage serenades sung by the lead tenor.

Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Manrico with the SFO Chorus

Based on the 1836 play El Trovador by Antonio García Gutiérrez and adapted by Salvadore Cammarano, this rather sprawling story in four acts involves revenge, abduction and witchcraft, as well as bands of gypsies and warring soldiers. At the center of the story is the titular troubadour Manrico, his rival the Count di Luna, and the object of their affections, Leonora. Complicating this love triangle is the gypsy Azucena, who has raised Manrico as her own child. Her sad story only unfolds gradually and provides the plot’s major twists and turns as it reaches its vengeance-filled climax. Revived by director Roy Rallo, SFO’s production is justifiably dark and hellish.

Robert Pomakov as Ferrando and the SFO Chorus

As Ferrando, the captain of the count’s troops, Robert Pomakov is a towering figure with a rich, expressive, and incredibly clear voice. His opening monologue — revealing Azucena as the daughter of a witch burned at the stake who abducted the Count’s infant brother in revenge — sets the bar high for the impressive voices that follow.

George Petean as Count di Luna

Petean sings silkily and smoothly, especially in his Act II aria “Il balen del suo sorriso,” and his bravura baritone finds expression in seemingly effortless lines of incredible fluency and fulsomeness. Powerhouse Arturo Chacón-Cruz’s soaring, full-throated tenor is outstanding to listen to, particularly when accompanied by a single harp. As the vengeful Azucena, Ekaterina Semenchuk is no Stephanie Blythe powerhouse when it comes to growling lower notes, but she’s definitely, as they say, no slouch. Her angry whirlwind of an aria “Stride la vampa” is thrilling.

Ekaterina Semenchuk as Azucena and Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Manrico

But it is Angel Blue’s precise phrasing and emotional expressiveness that not only made her an excellent and sensitively-rendered Leonora but a favorite with an appreciative audience. Her soaring soprano boasts a power that ignites our passion, especially in the lilting waltz of “Di tale amor che dirsi” and the heartfelt sighs of “D’amor sull’ali rosee.” Blue’s is a rigorous, strong voice; she sounded alluring in pianissimos and tortured in declarative passages, convincing and forceful with a full and ringing tone.

Angel Blue as Leonora

Almost as much a vehicle for rousing choruses as for moving arias, Il Trovatore blends both extremely well. The massive SFO Chorus under John Keene is one of the reasons why this opera is so exciting. Members perform a stirring rendition of the justly famous “Anvil Chorus,” replete with bare-chested men wielding huge hammers. During the “Miserere” of the final act, an unseen all-male chorus approaches the transcendent with rich chant harmonies reminiscent of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil.

Angel Blue as Leonora

In sum, this is an excellent revival of an earlier production and Verdi’s memorable and stirring score makes it one of the composer’s best and beloved efforts. In the end, Trovatore never fails to please the crowd. It will surely survive into the next century, especially if Angel Blue is there to lead the way.

Ekaterina Semenchuk as Azucena

photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Il Trovatore
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave
in Italian with English supertitles
ends on October 1, 2023
for tickets, call 415-864-3330 or visit SF Opera

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Camille Claudel September 26, 2023 at 10:48 am

Enrico Caruso said that Trovatore is easy — you just need the four greatest singers in the world. I would put Semenchuk and Blue in that category; Petean and Chacon-Cruz, not quite…but good enough.


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