Against many odds, Verdi's Il Trovatore roared, and roared again, in the new Academy of Vocal Arts production Tuesday with a young cast that showed that the future of Verdi singing is in fairly good hands — and with lessons on what that means.
The opera itself is emotionally riveting when everybody is singing but makes no sense when they stop. Babies are either switched at birth or burned at the stake; a gypsy woman cackles vengefully; noble characters die for things like honor and fidelity. On a good night — and this was one — the opera becomes a gothic pageant whose great music suspends all disbelief.
This accomplishment was especially notable considering the staging by Michael Scarola was bare bones even by AVA standards, where grand opera is crowded onto the tiny Helen Corning Warden Theater stage. Scenery was plain and functional, costumes were all-purpose Italian Renaissance, and no babies were tossed into the flames.
Everyone on stage had ample theatrical heat, though vocal warmth was lacking among significant cast members. You can't complain too loudly if you've lived through Verdi-voice droughts that can make Il Trovatore hard to cast at all. But what Claire de Monteil (Leonora) accomplished with determination and vibrato still ran up against memories of floated upper-register soprano tones in certain passages. Similarly, Mackenzie Gotcher as Manrico and Timothy Renner as Count di Luna were more than just promising, but also a bit green, projecting their voices brilliantly, but in ways that made the opera feel relentless with unending vocal aggression.
The most finished and alluring voice belonged to Hannah Ludwig as Azucena, the infamous gypsy, with a rich-toned instrument that did fine with the big tunes assigned to her character but that was even better when revealing the soul of the character in recitatives, which had an ideal balance of lyricism and rhetoric. For her, surface elements of the character were only a doorway to what's underneath, which is exactly what makes the theatrical absurdity of mid-period Verdi operas completely excusable.
The major catalyst, unsurprisingly, was music director Christofer Macatsoris. His Verdi is always taut and bristling but felt particularly authoritative Tuesday, with effective rubato at the start of an aria that stoked the listener's sense of anticipation. Added emphasis on inner voices in the orchestra gave the music extra muscularity. His sense of rhythm meant that the music always had an inner agitation. Legend has it that one of Macatsoris' early mentors told him: "Calm down. You will become a great conductor." Well, he did get great but he hasn't calmed down. When Il Trovatore required thunderbolts, Macatsoris made them feel like psychological crises.
Nov. 9 and 11 at the Helen Corning Warden Theater
Nov. 18 at Lehigh University's Zoellner Arts Center
Nov. 21 at Central Bucks South High School
Nov. 29 at the Haverford School's Centennial Hall