- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

Although it continues to experience tight financial circumstances, the Summer Opera Theatre Company bravely continues to surprise and delight audiences with the high quality of its budget offerings. Case in point: the company’s current production of Giuseppe Verdi’s popular “Il Trovatore” (“The Troubadour”), which opened its short run with a Sunday matinee performance at the Hartke Theatre on the campus of Catholic University in Northeast.

First performed in Rome in 1853, “Il Trovatore” was one of Verdi’s earliest hits. It’s a complex tale of intrigue and mistaken identity in which Count di Luna, the villain of the piece, executes his long-lost brother, whom he wrongly thinks is the hated warlord-gypsy troubadour, Manrico, a powerful revolutionary rival. The machinations of the gypsy Azucena, Manrico’s mom (or is she?) complicate matters further, as does the Count’s lust for the beautiful Leonora, who is already enraptured with Manrico.

While loaded with wonderful music and ensembles for the soloists, the opera is perhaps most famous for its energetic “Anvil Chorus,” which opens Act II. But the “Soldier’s Chorus,” which commences near the beginning of Act III, proves nearly as rousing.

Sunday’s opening performance was not without glitches. The chorus occasionally seemed unsure of its musical entrances, and the supertitles appeared to be literal — and archaic — translations from the Italian that were at times hilariously inept. But the soloists were amazingly good. And the student orchestra, under the baton of H. Teri Murai, sounded crisp, professional, and above all, took great care never to blow the singers away.

As the opera’s antagonists, tenor Benjamin Warschawski (Manrico) and baritone Grant Youngblood (Count di Luna) were perfectly matched, although Mr. Youngblood has some edge as a dramatic actor, fully engaging his role as the coldhearted villain.

Both singers possess a powerful and expressive range coupled with plenty of support that enabled them to deliver the musical goods without any apparent strain.

Also impressive was Argentinean soprano Fabiana Bravo as the much put-upon noblewoman Leonora. Miss Bravo has a big, supple voice and uses it to advantage in this production. Yet, she is also capable of great subtlety and tenderness as exemplified in her love duets with Manrico.

Bass Kwang-Kyu Lee was fine in the role of Ferrando, Captain of the Count’s Guard. A relatively minor character, Ferrando nonetheless has some significant moments in this opera, and Mr. Lee made the most of them with his robust and well-supported instrument. At times, though, his phrasing seemed a bit off in the substantial narrative aria that opens the work.

Perhaps most surprising was the work of accomplished mezzo-soprano Patrice Houston. The way she inhabited and possessed her character, the devious gypsy, Azucena, was uncanny, as was her knife-twist of vengefulness as the final curtain fell.

Good in smaller roles were soprano Monica Szabo (Ines, Leonora’s close friend), and tenor Adam Hall (Ruiz), although Miss Szabo’s delicate voice was occasionally lost when she was positioned toward the rear of the stage.

Lighting director Donald Edmund Thomas was adept at making the gloomy, minimalist sets of scenic designer Lewis Folden seem more substantial. Director Leland P. Kimball’s staging of the work, while at times a bit pedestrian, nonetheless proved musically adept as he usually managed to get his soloists close to the front of the stage, the better to be heard in a space that can seem, at times, a bit acoustically dry for the richness of grand opera.

***

WHO: The Summer Opera Theatre Company

WHAT: Giuseppe Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”

WHERE: Hartke Theatre on the campus of Catholic University, 3801 Harewood Road NE, Washington

WHEN: Tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at2:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $40 to 65

INFORMATION: Call 202/526-1669 or visit https://www.summeropera.org.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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