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Frantic, Fiery, Over-the-Top 'Trovatore'

Opera review: Soprano Carol Vaness shines in Verdi's blood-and-guts drama, but uneven performances and lack of coherent artistic vision mar production.

April 28, 1998|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Saturday night was a milestone for L.A. Opera, its 500th performance. The occasion at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was a new production of "Il Trovatore," once Verdi's most popular opera but now seen as a creaky melodramatic relic.

This is a company that knows a thing or two about creaky melodrama. It began the season with one, Giordano's "Fedora," in which the heroine, a Russian princess, is driven by love to take poison. In "Trovatore," Leonora, a Spanish lady of the court, is driven by love to take poison.

Still "Trovatore" is a lot worthier of rescue than "Fedora." Verdi's middle-period score--intense, maniacal, unrelenting--is startlingly effective. And L.A. Opera tries hard to take seriously an opera long the butt of jokes from the Marx Brothers to Gilbert and Sullivan to old Saturday morning cartoons. That's, of course, no easy matter when you have a libretto around a Gypsy so bent on revenge for her mother's death at the stake that she throws the wrong baby--hers, not that of her mother's tormentor--into the fire.

"Trovatore" is blood-and-guts opera. Everyone in it is a slave to raw and wild emotions. Our modern equivalent is found less on the stage than in the movies, the spaghetti westerns or even some of the more artistic takes on violent horror. For Steven Lawless, who directs the new production, the metaphor, though, is real life. Implied in it are the killing fields of Bosnia, although neither the set, a somber field of swords that also appears to be a graveyard, by Benoit Dugardyn, nor the surpassingly sumptuous costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are specific to time or place.

Not entirely unlike the opera, the production mixes sophisticated theatrical effects with brazen sensationalism. Lawless tries everything. Heavy wooden panels that move in complex patterns, breaking the stage into ever-changing scenes, are an imaginative way to maintain crushing momentum. Fire bursts from the floor in time with the Gypsy music. Singers are sometimes, but not consistently, asked to undertake strange, stylized gestures. A bit of the little-known ballet music was included, a weirdly awkward rape scene choreographed by Andrew George for the chorus and a dancer (Kimberly Harris).

There was something of an air of opening-night desperation about all of this. The stagehands were clumsy moving the wooden panels, overshooting the mark or leaving cracks that allowed glimpses of the frantic backstage business. The fire was noisy and looked contrived. And the singers each seemed to have a different idea about the opera and their art.

The heroine Leonora is Carol Vaness and the main reason to visit the production. Witnessing her performance was like looking through a microscope being focused. She began with some unsteadiness in her high notes and without a command of the stage. But she found both, as character and tone became one; by the final act her singing was clear, dramatically pointed and quite beautiful. She was never, however, comfortable with the more extreme elements of Lawless' gestural language.

I imagine that Lawless and Gabriele Ferro, the conductor, must have thrown their hands up when it came to Leonora's lover, Manrico, and his mother, Azucena. Both are Russian belters. Vladimir Bogachov was all unsubtle ardor and stock gestures. Nina Terentieva, a hysterical Gypsy straight out of the Marx Brothers, seemed something of an acoustic phenomenon. Loud and with a vibrato wide enough to verge on wobble, her voice seemed to bounce here and there off the scenery. Still, hers is a kind of over-the-top singing and showmanship that can wow a crowd, and she got the evening's loudest ovations.

These were not the proper surroundings for the civilized Jorma Hynninen, as Count di Luna. As the evening's villain, the Finnish baritone must have felt the dramatic responsibility to wreak further vocal havoc. He hasn't the voice or personality for that, although he was very fine except when he pushed himself. Eric Owens, the storytelling guard, Ferrando, was also a more modest presence.

Opera can be a blood sport to audiences, with messy performances bringing out a lust for boos along with bravos. But I hope those responsible for booing Ferro will write in and say why. He may not have been able to unify all the singers (no one could), but the Italian conductor led a propulsive, beautifully paced, sensually phrased and ultimately well-disciplined account of the opera. Orchestra and chorus sounded the best I'd heard them all season. Without him in the pit, I can hardly imagine what this show might have turned into.

* "Il Trovatore" continues Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 1 p.m., May 5, 8, 13 at 7:30 p.m. and May 16 at 1 p.m. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., $24-$135, (213) 365-3500.

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