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Figaro and Trovatore in LA

LA Opera's La Nozze di Figaro and Il Trovatore

Andrew Korniej

Between performances of La Bohème, I took a short trip down to the great city to the south (Los Angeles) to begin work on a film history research project I've been nurturing for a few years; also to see an important Minimalist retrospective at MOCA and to scope out the new Disney Concert Hall (truly amazing, though nothing was playing there).

I'm almost incapable of going somewhere that doesn't have opera scheduled while I'm visiting, so I managed to get cheap, but decent, seats for the last two performances of the LA Opera's 2003–04 season, La Nozze di Figaro and Il Trovatore. Both productions featured singers who are attracting a lot of attention nationally, and each was well conceived, communicating the many levels of meaning in these two very complex operas.

Saturday night was the Figaro starring Domingo protégé (and winner of his Operalia competition in 1998) Erwin Schrott, who, Germanic name aside, hails from Uruguay and is another great-looking baritone (baritone connoisseur Pat Beresford, who was down there a few weeks earlier, had told me to look out for him). The opening scene had Figaro painting his new quarters bright red, prior to the eponymous wedding. It was a startling visual as he rolled scarlet paint onto the high walls, his voice and presence robust and virile. The original Susanna for the production, Isabel Bayrakdarian, was up here in San Francisco singing Mahler, so the earlier Barbarina, Jessica Rivera, who was delightful in every way, took the role. Figaro is an ensemble piece, and the cast was evenly excellent.

Mezzo Sandra Piques-Eddy made an adorable, awkwardly adolescent Cherubino, and her Voi che sapete was utterly charming. A slightly weaker spot was the somewhat out-of-focus Countess of Darina Takova. It is a role open to a wide variety of interpretations (she is, after all, the mischievous Rosina of The Barber of Seville), including Carol Vaness' Covent Garden performances of the character as a bored and lonely lush. But it seemed that Takova did not know whether to play it as the grand lady of the house looking for payback from her unfaithful husband, or as an older Rosina out for a little more fun and relishing her conspiracy with the servants. However, the Countess' aria of sadness and regret, Dove sono, is always a joy to hear, and Takova performed it beautifully.

But I must confess that I have yet to see the point of, nor enjoy, the final scene of Figaro. It always seems unnecessary, never funny, and I wonder why, after the preceeding 'false' ending, Mozart didn't just let us go home a little earlier. But then, I feel the same about parts of Strauss' homage to Figaro, Der Rosenkavalier (not to mention all of his Arabella) so maybe someone else can point out the appeal of the garden scene. It was nicely handled here, though, with the anachronistically dressed characters carrying flashlights to illuminate their way through a deep blue scene.

The following night was, simply put, the best Trovatore I have ever seen and one of my greatest nights at the opera. Although it had some of the idiosyncrasies of the last SFO production (no anvils in the anvil chorus), it fortunately had much more color and much more of the energetic movement of soldiers and gypsies that accompany the thrill of Di quella pira and complement the soaring and mournful Act IV scena.

It has been said that Trovatore is an easy opera to perform: all you need are four great voices—and that was happily the case here. Ever constant Dolora Zajick was the vengeful gypsy Azucena, of course (would she allow anyone else to sing the part?), and Roberto Frontali was a very accomplished and menacing Count di Luna. The tenor was Franco Farina, who had the notes and the swagger to portray a very memorable Manrico.

But the night undoubtedly belonged to American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as the neurotic Leonora. It was a stunning performance, and if you don't believe me, go to her website and read some reviews.

Not only is she making a name for herself as a Verdi soprano at the Met (Luisa Miller and an upcoming, not-to-be-missed I Vespri Siciliani), San Diego (Don Carlo), and in Europe, but she is one of those increasingly rare sopranos with an unmistakable timbre to their voice; in this case, something along the lines of Magda Olivero singing Verdi or a more dramatic and interesting Angela Ghiorghiou.

I have had the privilege of seeing a handful of definitive and revelatory performances over the past 22 years (Gwyneth Jones' Elektra and Brünnhilde, Catherine Malfitano's Madama Butterfly, Shirley Verrett's Lady Macbeth, and Olga Borodina's Dalila come to mind), and this performance ranked up there with them all.

Ms. Radvanovsky played Leonora as a crazy, deranged woman, instead of the sad victim we often see. She fetishized Manrico's sword and distractedly cut herself with it; she had to be led away by her companion Inez, and had a jumpy nervousness throughout. Her look was wild-eyed and disturbing, hair coming undone, and it makes perfect sense that this woman, who so willingly swallows poison on the faint delusional promise of saving her lover, would not be totally of sound mind! Her exquisite D'amor sull'ali rosee was ethereal and really did seem to float on rosy wings. The subsequent plummet to the chant of the Miserere gave us an insight into the despair of an unhinged woman. Let me please, one day, see her Sleepwalking scene…

This production was unusually interesting in that it performed the rarely heard 1857 revision for the Paris Opéra (albeit still sung in Italian). This included part of the original, and entertaining, ballet music, which was performed as a dark scene of the torment and rape of three gypsy women, segueing from the Anvil scene. They also used the Paris ending, which incorporates some of the Miserere music into the chilling climax and gives us a more believable stretch of time for Manrico to be taken offstage and executed. There was an overall powerful sense of movement to this production, particularly during the Act I quartet, and a gorgeous palette of rich, earthy colors offsetting the characteristic black shadows and silhouettes.

Trovatore is often held up as one of the more preposterous operas, but this Los Angeles production showed us a truly emotionally unsettling piece that carried with it the dramatic truth that makes great opera. Fabulous!