NEW YORK (AP) -- Gilbert and Sullivan parodied it repeatedly. The Marx Brothers made fun of it in "A Night at the Opera." And for the past 20 years, the Metropolitan Opera had unintentionally done its part to further heap ridicule on Verdi's "Il Trovatore."
But on Monday night, the company finally came up with a new production — and a fine cast — that does justice to this dark masterpiece teeming with inspired melodies. It comes as close as may be humanly possible to making sense of the opera's outsize characters and their over-the-top emotions — a gypsy who mistakenly threw her own child into the fire, two long-lost brothers who are deadly enemies, and a heroine who tries to save her beloved by swallowing slow-acting poison and giving herself to his rival.
Scottish director David McVicar, in a production first seen at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2006, has taken his inspiration from the paintings of Francisco Goya and updated the action from the 15th century to the Napoleonic Wars. The scenery, designed by Charles Edwards, is dominated by a huge wall that slices across the stage and serves as the backdrop for, variously, a royal palace, a gypsy camp, a convent and a prison. The set revolves on a giant turntable to keep the action going during the rapid-fire scene changes, allowing the work's eight scenes to be staged with just one intermission. That proves critical in maintaining the sense of breakneck pacing that the score and the plot demand.
The heartiest ovations of the night went to soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as the heroine, Leonora. With her strong, evenly produced sound and expressive flexibility she has all the makings of a first-rate Verdi soprano. At times her tone can be a bit piercing, and she had one misadventure with a high note early on. But she grew in confidence as the evening wore on and her final aria, "D'amor sull'ali rosee" ("On the rosy wings of love"), with its difficult trills, was impressive.
As the haunted gypsy Azucena, mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick remains a vocal phenomenon of the first order more than 20 years after she made her Met debut in the role. Perhaps age has made the break in her voice between upper and lower register more noticeable, but for sheer visceral thrills in this music she's hard to beat.
The men were good, too. Tenor Marcelo Alvarez sang the role of the doomed hero, Manrico, with full-throated lyricism, and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky boomed mellifluously as the villainous Count di Luna, though one worries about the long-term toll such heavy roles may be taking on his beautiful sound. Bass Kwangchul Youn brought unusual distinction to the supporting role of Ferrando, di Luna's captain.
Gianandrea Noseda conducted with sweep and refinement, avoiding the oom-pah-pah sound that can sometimes cheapen the rhythmic urgency of Verdi's score.
The Met must be relieved to have a viable production of "Trovatore" back in the repertory. This is, after all, one of Verdi's most popular operas, from the same period in the early 1850s that gave the world "Rigoletto" and "La Traviata," both of which are mainstays at the Met. The previous "Trovatore," a Graham Vick version that premiered in 2000, was full of gimmicks like a giant crucifix that turned into a gangplank and was virtually laughed off the stage. Prior to that was a dismal 1987 production with sets by Ezio Frigerio that consisted of a long staircase extending across the stage and six big black pillars that slid about aimlessly.
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