- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 4, 2000

The Washington Opera opened Verdi's stirring "Il Trovatore," its second opera of the new season, at the Kennedy Center Opera House last week. Loaded with great music, including the ever-popular "Anvil Chorus," Verdi's mid-career masterpiece is always a crowd-pleaser, and this new production won't disappoint even the most jaded opera buff. The singing and chorus work is world class, the orchestra, under the company's artistic director, Placido Domingo, plays cleanly and with focus, and Martin Pakledinaz' sumptuous costumes are visually arresting.

First performed in 1853, "Il Trovatore" ("The Troubadour") is another one of those operas with a plot that has more twists than a James Bond film. Prior to the action of the opera, set in the medieval period, employees of the Spanish Count di Luna have discovered a gypsy hovering over the crib of his infant son. She is driven off, but when the child later sickens, the gypsy is hunted down and burned at the stake. The infant later disappears, never to be seen again — at least by the folks in the Count's court.

Fast-forwarding about 25 years, we discover that the boy was kidnapped in revenge by the gypsy's daughter, Azucena (mezzo-soprano Barbara Dever) and raised by her as her own. He is now known as Manrico (tenor Fabio Armiliato) and has become a knight and a rival of the current Count di Luna (baritone Justino Diaz) in a raging civil war. Disguised as a humble troubadour, he is also the Count's rival in love for the hand of the lovely Leonora (soprano Carol Vaness). What neither antagonist realizes, of course, is that they are brothers, and the inevitable bloody tragedy unfolds.

All this warfare, intrigue, passion and revenge provides ample opportunity for showy arias, duets, trios, and rousing choruses, and the Washington Opera's cast tucks into them with gusto. At the top of his game on opening night was tenor Fabio Armiliato as Manrico. Slight of build, Mr. Armiliato, nonetheless, has a formidable voice, sharp and clean, accurate and well supported. His vocal ornamentation was particularly accurate, his enunciation impeccable.

As the devious gypsy Azucena, Miss Dever is absolutely riveting. Seemingly a minor character, Azucena is actually the focal point of the opera. All the plot lines run through her, and only she knows the dark secret that could alter the course of the principal characters' lives. She is driven by love but torn by tragedy and a vengeful passion that cannot be quenched. Somehow, Miss Dever is able to bring out these contradictions with fine dramatic acting and a bold, deeply supported voice that owns the entire stage when she is on it. Frequently, given their vocal range, mezzos are buried by the orchestra, but not Miss Dever. Hers is dramatic singing at its very best. (Note: from Nov. 16 on, Azucena will be sung by Irina Mishura.)

As the implacable villain Count di Luna, baritone Justino Diaz is in fine, menacing form, giving the opera's denouement a high level of credibility, and he anchors the bass line of Verdi's numerous ensembles with great, snarling authority. And as Ferrando, the Count's first-in-command, bass Stefan Szkafarowsky brings a surprising level of lyricism to a role that, in a lesser singer, merely supports the narrative line of the opera.

Somewhat less successful was soprano Carol Vaness in the role of the opera's hapless heroine, Leonora. Miss Vaness has the equipment, the ability to project, and is a fine dramatic actress. But her upper register seemed a little thin on opening night, and her command of Verdi's tricky vocal figures was tenuous at best.

Stephen Lawless' direction of this production was steady and secure. The characters were well-placed and the chorus did not wander about aimlessly as in last week's opening of "Don Quichotte." Aside from some tempo disconnects in Act I, the Washington Opera Orchestra performed with understated elegance for maestro Domingo and never overshadowed the singers even in the opera's most boisterous moments.

Thumbs-down, however, on the set, created by Belgian scenery designer Benoit Dugardyn. Egad — for a second week in a row, we were treated to boring, dismal, one-size-fits-all monotone scenery. The gray, simulated wood backdrops functionally resembled the moving panels that shrink Holiday Inn ballrooms down to individual meeting rooms. These sliding backdrops were efficient, no doubt, minimizing the time between scenes, and efficiently partitioning off areas of action. Further, they cleverly acted as an acoustic shell, helping project the singing forward. But visually, they seemed as hackneyed as the endless parade of black-and-white commercials we've been getting on TV for the past few years. The only innovation here was a nifty rainstorm that greeted the audiences as they entered the auditorium.

Adding to the visual insult was the been-there, done-that symbolism built into the sets. From the characters spreading themselves out against a huge gray cross (done in "The Graduate" back in the late 1960s), to the table of toy soldiers in Act III (seen in the Deutsche Oper Berlin's grayscale production of Wagner's "Die Walkure," staged here in 1989), to the dead bodies and swords gratuitously scattered about the stage whenever convenient, to the doors that opened and shut like guillotines, to the bloody moon periodically glimpsed beyond the walls (Count di Luna — get it?), this kind of anti-war, anti-Christian melange was old 25 years ago. Why must we suffer through boring socialist visuals designed solely to "wake up" bourgeois opera audiences?

If today's European designers aren't making fun of operas, they're turning them into leftist propaganda. Once leading-edge and innovative, Euro-designers and their American counterparts have been trapped in a smug, postmodern, anti-Romantic rut for as long as we can remember. It's time for these cases of arrested adolescence to grow up and create sophisticated productions worthy of today's high ticket prices. Or go get a real job in the sewers of Paris where they can work with black and gray every day.

{*}{*}{*}WHAT: The Washington Opera production of Giuseppe Verdi's "Il Trovatore," in Italian with English surtitlesWHERE: The Kennedy Center Opera HouseWHEN: 8 p.m. Nov. 7, 10, 16, 22; 7 p.m. Nov. 13, 25; 2 p.m. Nov. 19. Alternate cast singing on Nov. 10.TICKETS: $63-$234PHONE: Box office at 202/295-2400

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