Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Marco Armiliato
Producer: Sir David McVicar
Leonora: Anna Netrebko
Count di Luna: Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Yonghoon Lee: Manrico
Azucena: Dolora Zajick
Fernando: Stefan Kocan
Dmitri's back! And opera-loving New Yorkers are ecstatically swooning. Although I had seen it back in 2009 from the furthest house right upper corner of the Family Circle, there were many reasons for me to attend the revival of Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera yesterday afternoon, including a slightly better seat, the opera's fabulous score, Anna Netrebko daringly stepping into Sondra Radvanovsky's inherently Verdian shoes as Leonora, the silly but still gripping plot involving three storylines overloaded with love, hate, revenge and death, and, last but not least, the iconic – and performed partially shirtless – anvil chorus. All those legitimate incentives, however, paled in comparison to the perspective of getting to enjoy universally beloved Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the scheming Count di Luna again in his last of only three performances as a serious health scare had him essentially clear out most of his professional schedule.
Moreover, Joaquin having decided to make this first October Saturday a gray, cold, wet, and generally miserable one (So much for fall being my favorite season), checking out this oldie but goodie Il Trovatore right down the street in the Met's familiar environment sounded as good as any proposition, and certainly a promising way to kick off my 2015-2016 opera season.
If opera has occasionally been deemed a dying art, it sure did not look like it yesterday in the Met's huge opera house that was packed all the way to the standing room area, where people were busily piling up in two rows, and buzzing with excitement. Happily stuck between a large contingent of chatty Italians who had made a special trip to the island for the occasion and two Russian Babushkas beaming with pride every time one of their country fellowmen was onstage, I could not but be fully aware and grateful for being part of a very special occasion.
When Dmitri Hvorostovsky first appeared onstage the week before, the ovation was so humongous that maestro Armiliato had to stop the orchestra and the baritone briefly acknowledge the rapturous greeting. Well, there was no reason that we could not match, possibly surpass, that audience, and after pulling out all the stops, we did earn our own moment in opera's history too. Fact is, convalescent or not, the man of the moment treated us to another flawlessly poised and desperate Count di Luna, his hauntingly burnished voice shining as beautifully as ever in countless dark hues. Although he was clearly the bad guy, there was most likely not a single dry eye in the entire house after he nailed "Il balen del suo sorriso", his heart-breaking ode to unrequited love.
His long-time colleague and friend Anna Netrebko, in all probability the world's most famous soprano these days, has been adding new and demanding roles to her resume at an impressive pace. For her second foray into Verdian territory, she took on sweet but nevertheless strong-willed Leonora with her trademark intensity and commitment, her magnificent and powerful voice effortlessly filling up the Met's cavernous space with a seemingly endless supply of dazzling sounds. She is still not the most subtle performer out there, but she does know how to carry her points gorgeously across.
Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick has pretty much been the Met's go-to Azucena since 1988, and while she could probably do the part in her sleep by now, she was very much awake and kicking yesterday afternoon as the aging gypsy haunted by her past and still seeking revenge after all these years. Just like her character, her singing was fierce and uncompromising.
It had to be mightily intimidating to be the relatively untested fourth element in such an ensemble of seasoned singers, but up-and-coming tenor Yonghoon Lee convincingly held his own and some as Manrico, the mysterious troubadour and leader of the rebel forces. His bright singing, genuinely remarkable in its clear articulation and assured phrasing, combined to a charismatic presence and energy galore, definitely makes him a newcomer to watch closely.
While the singing was, as my live HD broadcast-watching friend Steve so rightly put it, "consistently glorious", the Goya-inspired production, which places the plot during the Spanish Civil War, was its usual drab with the occasional inspired touches, such as the ominous huge crosses looming in the background and the grittiness of the rebels' camp. The transition between the sets was at least very efficient and did wonders with keeping the momentum of the convoluted story going.
But ultimately, the opera's raison d'être is Verdi's unfailingly compelling score, which miraculously keeps on churning out high-flying melodies in an amazingly wide range of styles. Each of the four lead singers gets to belt out devilishly difficult and stunningly beautiful arias that ingenuously contribute to define their characters' emotional truths, emphasize the dramatic twists and turns of the narrative, and simply provide divine musical entertainment. One of the Met's regular conductors, Marco Armiliato led the excellent orchestra in a vibrant and supple performance, which provided the perfect instrumental background for the recurrent electrifying vocal feats.
Chances are most people in the audience yesterday afternoon had originally bought their tickets for Anna Netrebko, but the undisputed star of the show remained Dmitri Hvorostovsky all the way to the curtain call, when he was greeted with not only a roof-raising rock-star ovation, but also a shower of white roses thrown from the orchestra pit. And everybody took their Kleenex out again. Speaking of emotional truth, they had kept the best for last.