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Rethinking Verdi's Warhorse

The blood-and-guts opera 'Il Trovatore,' takes on new meaning in its first production in L.A. in 29 years.

April 19, 1998|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Take "Il Trovatore"--please. The opera that launched a thousand send-ups has been riffed on by famous funsters from Gilbert and Sullivan ("The Gondoliers") through the Marx Brothers ("Cocoanuts" and "A Night at the Opera"), and it's not hard to understand why.

The 1853 Verdi work does have a cryptic story: A man named Manrico, believing himself to be the son of a mysterious gypsy, becomes the leader of a rebel army in 15th century Spain. He falls in love with the same woman who is loved by Count di Luna, the leader of the king's army. Then, when the count captures Manrico's gypsy mother, she is unveiled as the murderer of the count's brother. Manrico gets caught while trying to save her, and a few deaths later, the mysterious ties that bind Manrico and Di Luna are at last revealed. Abstruseness aside, there are also a few plot points that do seem slightly over the top--such as when the gypsy tosses the wrong baby (namely her own) on the funeral pyre.

Yet as the presence of such high-profile parody suggests, none of this has precluded the work's fame. While there hasn't been a production of "Il Trovatore" in Los Angeles in 29 years, it was a hit in its day.

" 'Il Trovatore' was once Verdi's most popular opera," says L.A. Opera general director Peter Hemmings, whose company opens a new production of the piece at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday. "It's one of the famous three operas of his early maturity."

"In the past, the plot and the rather conventional planning of the music have meant that audiences and critics especially have dismissed the piece as being much less interesting than the modernist pieces like 'La Traviata' and 'Rigoletto,' " Hemmings continues. "[Director] Stephen [Lawless], like me, feels that the piece's formalism is perfectly feasible for today's audience."

Indeed, it falls to Lawless--whose last L.A. Opera outing was a well-received 1996 staging of "The Elixir of Love" and who is one of the company's most frequent directors--to prove that the grand opera with the "Kick Me" sign has been misunderstood.

" 'Trovatore' has a reputation of being very creaky, but it's a terrific piece, full of ideas," says the affable jeans-clad director, 42, seated in an office at the Highland Park sound stage where "Trovatore" rehearsals were being held earlier this month. "Both 'Rigoletto' and 'Traviata' are mold-breaking operas in terms of their subject matter and how they're constructed. Well, I actually think it's as mold-breaking in its way as 'Rigoletto' and 'Traviata.' "

"Trovatore" is particularly innovative, in Lawless' view, because of what it says about chivalry and war. "It reminds me a little bit of Shakespeare's 'Troilus and Cressida,' " he says. "What 'Troilus and Cressida' does is it takes the notion of chivalrous warfare and just says it's a load of baloney. There is no chivalrous warfare.

"There's a kind of fantasy of chivalry--a code of conduct--which everybody plays lip service to," he continues. "But when it comes to the crunch, it does not exist: It's blood and guts and mud. And I think that's quite a bold statement."

The British-born Lawless, who lives in the town of Lewes, near London, trained at the London Opera Center in the mid-1970s. He began his professional career as a stage manager and soon moved up to assistant director, and then director.

He first encountered "Il Trovatore" while under contract as an assistant director at Covent Garden, from 1980 to '86. "The first thing I ever did was a very quick revival of 'Trovatore'--the old Luchino Visconti production," says Lawless. "Visconti had done it in about 1964 and I got it 'round about 1982. Every British director had had a go at it. The designs are very stark and abstract and didn't really work. But I was so impressed. It's been kicking around in my mind for 15 years now."

Lawless served as director of productions for the Glyndebourne Touring Opera from 1986 to 1991. Toward the end of that tenure, he mounted a highly successful production of Britten's "Death in Venice," which aired on BBC-TV and was released on video.

As it turns out, Hemmings had met Lawless at the Scottish Opera in the 1970s. But the young director first came to L.A. as Peter Hall's assistant in 1990, for "The Marriage of Figaro." "I was always enormously impressed, as was Peter Hall," says Hemmings. "He must have learned a lot working with Peter Hall because he is in many ways rather similar. He is both cerebral and practical."

Lawless' L.A. Opera assignments have included "Cosi fan tutte" in 1991 and 1996, "Don Pasquale" in 1995, revivals of "The Marriage of Figaro" in 1994 and 1997, "Un Ballo in Maschera" in 1993, "Ariadne auf Naxos" and "Albert Herring" in 1992, although "Elixir of Love" was his first original production. Next season, he will again join forces with "Elixir" and "Trovatore" conductor Gabriele Ferro on a revival of the company's 1990 "Falstaff."

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