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Review: Verdi’s ‘Il Trovatore’ by the Academy of Vocal Arts

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Verdi’s Il Trovatore was revived at the Academy of Vocal Arts for the first time in 20 years this week, and it’s a revelation. Filial love inspired Verdi, and that intense emotion is passed on to a new generation here.

Claire de Monteil and Mackenzie Gotcher. Photo by Paul Sirochman.

Claire de Monteil and Mackenzie Gotcher. Photo by Paul Sirochman.

Music director Christofer Macatsoris studied the score anew and taught it carefully to a fine cast of resident artists, who already graduated from music colleges before passing advanced auditions to enroll at AVA.

Trovatore stands at a cusp. It’s a bel canto opera, with an emphasis on beautiful songs (which is the meaning of that Italian term), but it has much more thunder and violence than previous operas in that genre. In this respect, it ushers in the music dramas of Verdi’s later period. Productions of this opera need to maintain a balance and not allow bellowing from the tenor during “Di quella pira” nor barking from the gypsy Azucena during her arias. This production achieves that balance.

A Spanish nobleman in the 15th Century, Count di Luna, is infatuated with the beautiful Leonora who does not return his affections. Instead, she’s in love with the Count’s military rival, a mysterious troubadour named Manrico who serenades Leonora at night. The count hates Azucena, who put a curse on his family because the count’s father burnt Azucena’s mother at the stake. And Azucena holds the mystery of what happened to the count’s brother, who disappeared when a baby.

Hannah Ludwig. Photo by Paul Sirochman.

Hannah Ludwig. Photo by Paul Sirochman.

This AVA production stresses the love that Azucena feels for the troubadour, whom she has raised since infancy. Compared to many performances at major opera houses, this has more pulse, more urgency, more forward flow. All of the singers sound extremely well-coached and well-rehearsed, with superior attention to rhythm and articulation.

This concentration of detail is heard right at the opera’s start, when three drum rolls emerge as true musical phrases, with careful crescendi of volume. Then bass Daniel Noyola, as Luna’s officer, tells the back story to assembled soldiers, with beautiful modulation and crisp staccato notes, which is not a surprise to those of us who heard him previously as Don Giovanni, and a minor character materializes as a significant musical figure.

Hannah Ludwig is sensational as Azucena. The mezzo, in her fourth and final year at AVA, sings the role beautifully, with no screaming or barking yet with powerful, dramatic chest tones. There’s smooth transition as Ludwig navigates from thrilling top notes down the scale to deep tones at the bottom.

Claire de Monteil, a Paris-born and Geneva-trained soprano in her first major role at AVA, is a fine Leonora. She has a very large voice and sings musically. Her character’s religiosity and mixed emotions develop convincingly. She will benefit as she adds a wider range of colors to her voice in the future. Timothy Renner reveals noble stature and a rich baritone voice as Count di Luna. Tenor Mackenzie Gotcher has the lyric gifts to float a lovely “Ah si, ben mio” (“Ah yes, my beloved”) and the ringing tones for a stirring “Di quella pira” (“The horrible fire”) as his mother is about to be executed. His duets in the last act with Azucena and Leonora are gripping.

Trovatore’s frequent choruses are sung by twelve of AVA’s resident artists (who play lead roles in other operas) and they sound full-bodied in this hall’s reverberant acoustic. The famous Anvil Chorus is especially exciting. (A soldiers’ chorus and a few other passages have been cut.)

Stage Director Michael Scarola provides lots of action, with more violence than usual. He even shows Manrico’s execution graphically on stage; it’s usually unseen, off stage. The sets by Peter Harrison are efficient. Some of the action seems cramped in the tiny Helen Corning Warden Theater at AVA, so audiences should look forward, as I do, to seeing the production again on the larger stages of Lehigh University, Central Bucks South High School, and Centennial Hall at The Haverford School.

Running Time: Two hours and 35 minutes, with one intermission.

Mackenzie Gotcher. Photo by Paul Sirochman.

Mackenzie Gotcher. Photo by Paul Sirochman.

Il Trovatore is presented through Tuesday, November 28, 2017 by the Academy of Vocal Arts at various locations throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania. A list of performances as well as tickets may be found online.

There will also be a radio broadcast on Saturday, November 11 at 1 PM on WRTI-FM.

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