Packed with music of brilliance, power and intensity, Giuseppe Verdi's 1853 masterpiece, "Il Trovatore" ("The Troubadour"), opens West Bay Opera's season next Friday, Oct. 17 with a remarkable cast of singer-actors to match the beautifully lyrical score.
Grand opera has always been the butt of jokes and parodies targeting its excesses. The absurdly incomprehensible libretto for "Il Trovatore" has inspired send-ups by the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan and the Marx Brothers. Yet this production, sung in Italian with English supertitles, holds rewards both for opera buffs and for newcomers to the medium. The key is to focus on the music, which carries the essential dramatic relationships.
A tragic love story set against a background of civil war in 15th century Spain, "Il Trovatore" tells the story of a gypsy woman, Azucena, who is driven to avenge her mother's unjust death at the stake. (Her mother had been accused of causing the illness of one of the two infant sons of the old Count di Luna.) Grieving for her mother, Azucena secretly steals the child from the palace, builds a pyre at the site of her mother's death and tosses in the baby -- only it turns out it was her own baby that went into the flames. The now-crazed gypsy raises the duke's son as her own, and calls him Manrico. He grows to be a leader of the rebels battling the new Count di Luna. Neither knows they are brothers.
Things get even more complicated when a young noblewoman named Leonora pays a visit to Count di Luna's castle. She is observed and then serenaded by the titular troubadour, Manrico. But the Count also has his eyes on Leonora. Jealous, he challenges Manrico to a duel, but the final sword-stroke is stayed by some premonition. All of the dramatic actions that follow take place off stage, but their descriptions are the subject of some of most gripping tunes in all opera.
The general director of West Bay Opera, José Luis Moscovich, has assembled an extremely well-balanced cast of excellent voices for this production. Soprano Cynthia Clayton has sung Leonora to acclaim at Opera Grand Rapids in Michigan. In her earlier career, she sang mostly lighter roles including Puccini and contemporary operas. More recently, she's been singing some heavier, darker Verdi repertoire, including a well-regarded Desdemona in West Bay Opera's "Othello" last year. Clayton said she is looking forward to singing two of the most magical of Verdi arias in "Il Trovatore:" The first act's "Tacia la notte" ("The night was silent") and the elegant, bel canto style "D'amor sull'ali rosee" ("On the rosy wings of love").
Tenor James Callon has sung Manrico at Opera San Jose, and considers it his favorite role. He particularly enjoys the flights into the coloratura of bel canto tradition. His performances are marked by youthful energy and athleticism. His second act aria, "Di quella pira" ("From the pyre") is just one of the melodic bel canto songs he sings.
The key role of Azucena will be sung by Patrice Houston, a veteran of seven previous Trovatores across the nation. Her impassioned portrayal, she says, observes the fine line between the character's madness and the calculated vengeance against the Count. Her specialty as a mezzo soprano tragediennes was inspired by Irene Dalis, herself a mezzo who culminated an international career before founding Opera San Jose. Dalis told Houston back in her San Jose State Opera Workshop days that she had an exact copy of the Dalis voice. Houston will demonstrate that mastery in the second act's "Stride la vampa" ("Wild flames are soaring").
The evil Count di Luna is sung by baritone Krassen Karagiozov. It will be his debut in the role, as well as at WBO. The young Bulgarian has great range, vocal strength and authority.
The similarity in the training of the four principals is bound to make for an ensemble-like chemistry on stage.
Also in the cast is bass Christopher Filipowicz as Ferrando, the captain of the guards. West Bay's excellent chorus will have its moment with the opera's much loved (and abused) "Coro di Zingari" ("Gypsy Chorus"), better known as the "Anvil Chorus."
The director of this production is Igor Vieira, who made a stunning appearance as Dr. Dulcamara in last year's West Bay Opera production of "Elixir of Love." Sets and projections are by Jean-François Revon; Lisa Lowe created the sumptuous period costumes.
All of the singers interviewed said that although there are many great arias in this opera, they most looked forward to the final act, where all of the building dramatic tension finally explodes. Spoiler alert: The final 10 minutes include a) Leonora being denounced by Manrico for infidelity; b) Leonora admitting she has taken a slow poison; c) The count dragging Manrico away; d) Leonora dropping dead; e) Manrico being executed; f) Azucena screaming "You are avenged, O Mother"; and g) The count lamenting "Yet, I must live on."
All of which is quite absurd, yet musically irresistible.
What: West Bay Opera's "Il Trovatore"
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Friday, Oct. 17, and Saturday, Oct. 25, at 8 p.m.; Sundays, Oct. 19 and Oct. 26, at 2 p.m.
Cost: Tickets range from $40-$75
Info: Go to wbopera.org or call 650-424-9999.