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Opera Pacific's 'Il Trovatore' engages both eyes and ears

May 01, 2003|Daniel Cariaga | Times Staff Writer

"Il Trovatore," often maligned, spoofed and denigrated, nonetheless remains a trove of musical riches high in the Verdi canon, and a gem of the composer's cherishable middle period. The reasons are obvious: its relentless melodiousness, its dramatic pungency, its wealth of great vocal ensembles.

All these virtues are on display in Opera Pacific's new production of the opera, being performed this week in Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, thanks to the incisive and affectionate conducting of John DeMain and the sensible, handsome and practical sets and stage direction of Dejan Miladinovic.

On Tuesday night, the pleasures were both audible and visible. An experienced cast sang neatly, if not spectacularly, acted with credibility and made the drama apprehensible. The uncomplicated and beautifully lighted sets make their points without gimmicks or overstatement, mostly through the use of stairs, flats and some striking wall decoration -- L.A. Opera's over-the-top production of 1998 still evokes unpleasant memories. The chorus, trained by Henry Venanzi, sings accurately and lustily; the men, in particular, are well blended and rich in sound.

In an era when Verdi specialists are few and far between, the ability of this company to cast the "Trovatore" principals is commendable if not without some problems.

A versatile and gifted tenor, Hugh Smith has previously proved himself on the Segerstrom stage; this time, as Manrico, he made a noble effort that was inconsistently successful. Heroic sounds alternated with pinched and strangulated ones; some lyric passages were marred by pushy vocalism. An actor who is both tall and imposing, Smith defeated himself with a mincing walk and a fey manner; with gobs of hair crowning his head, he sometimes looked like a dandified Captain Hook.

Smith's most convincing singing came in Act 4, in which his Leonora, Bulgarian soprano Zvetelina Vassileva, finally warmed up, giving a solid and affecting performance. Before that, she had been content to sing the notes carefully and with a tone undistinctive in every way. Though her experience in this role -- and in other Verdi challenges -- is extensive, hers is not a voice one would describe as Verdian, or heroic.

On the other hand, Irina Mishura, the Russian mezzo-soprano singing Azucena, earned the considerable approbation of the opening-night audience with singing, and characterization, that was Verdian to the core, and thrillingly, musically effective. She has chosen a sound that is less pretty than colorful, and her abundant resonance delivers the dramatic goods with consistency. Every aspect of her performance registered deeply with the observer.

Making his United States debut, Macedonian baritone Boris Trajanov gave a sometimes unpolished but impressive performance as Count Di Luna; his "Il balen" emerged handsome, resonant, beautiful. He still has much to learn about the nuances of recitative, but the voice is a major one. American basso Valerian Ruminski also showed high promise as Ferrando. In smaller roles, Heidi Vanderford, Chad Berlinghieri and Greg Vorst distinguished themselves.

With DeMain's taut leadership in the pit, the entire enterprise moved with inexorable urgency and repose through this great score. Miladinovic's staging underlined the dramatic moments while minimizing melodramatic excesses. Donald E. Thomas provided the atmospheric and evocative lighting.

The Tuesday night performance, and the entire 2003-04 Opera Pacific season, have now been dedicated to the memory of a company founder, Niles Gates, who died April 25.


`Il Trovatore'

Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Today, 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.

Ends: Sunday

Price: $25-$125

Info: (800) 34-OPERA

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