Wednesday, March 28, 2007 | Giuseppe Verdi’s “Il trovatore’s” dark, tragic storyline contains so much drama, it’s fitting that San Diego Opera’s production narrowly avoided its own disaster. When the previously announced tenor in the role of Manrico was forced to withdraw due to vocal chord damage, SDO was in a race against the clock to find a replacement.

Enter Argentinean tenor Dario Volonté who was both in between performances and very familiar with the role of Manrico (it being one of his favorites). After attaining a visa, Volonté arrived for the final week of rehearsal — a behind-the-scenes tragedy avoided!

Verdi’s gripping music for “Il trovatore” lends itself well to the melodramatic libretto. Many songs are ensemble pieces where each performer’s voice layers over and under another’s; a lovely effect even during anguished arias.

“Il trovatore’s” plot has been criticized for being too difficult to follow, and it is a little confusing, but this opera would be interesting even if you didn’t “get it.”

Years before the start of this story, a gypsy woman accused of bewitching a child was burned at the stake. Avenging her mother’s violent death, Azucena (Marianne Cornetti) in turn kidnapped the child and allegedly burnt him to death. Years have passed and now the child’s living brother, Count di Luna, loves Leonora who in turn loves the troubadour Manrico. And that’s just the introduction to the story which continues to weave a tangled web of death, revenge, unrequited love, violence and sadness.

The production’s stark, dark sets add to the gloomy ambience with creativity. A first glimpse of the stage before curtain reveals ominous, gleaming swords thrust into the stage. (There are 78 sword pockets built into the stage for this effect.) Take another look at the stage and you notice there are dead men in armor amongst the swords. The sword also serves as a motif of revenge; appearing in some scenes suspended above tormented characters. Sliding doors and trapdoors serve to section off areas of the stage, creating prison cells and gypsies lairs. Minimal lighting enhances the story’s mood; cold, stone surfaces add to the stark atmosphere.

“Il trovatore’s” dismal libretto belies the beauty of several arias. Leonora’s (soprano Paoletta Marrocu) songs of love and devotion to Manrico stir the soul. Marrocu exhibits a nice vocal range while retaining a lovely timbre. Simultaneously, she portrays Leonora convincingly; transforming her from noblewoman in love to her broken-hearted death throes. Unfortunately, near the end during her emotional and tragic scenes, her lower register was drowned out by the orchestra.

Emotive tenor Dario Volonté’s Manrico powerfully captures the essence of a conflicted man with a vengeful promise to his mother, his clear voice carrying clear across the audience and no doubt up into the balconies. Volonteé deftly handles Manrico’s tender arias

Manrico’s As Count di Luna, Alexandru Agache’s uses his grand, supple baritone with force to display the enraged Count’s jealousy. Encapsulating di Luna’s possessiveness he creepily holds Leonora’s handkerchief to his face, taking in her scent while singing of his desire for her.

Although the character doesn’t appear in every scene, much of the entire opera perches squarely on the shoulders of Azucena, the gypsy. If not for the gypsy, there would be no story. American mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti immediately owns the role — just jumps inside the character — reliving her mother’s gruesome death with fire flashing in her eyes. Her robust voice carries out over the audience, even as she sings slumped in a prison cell. Cornetti walks the thin line between frenzied vengefulness and madness. It would have been so easy to portray Azucena as simply mad; Cornetti gave her a compelling, complex character. And she deserves credit for balancing on that wagon cart!

Rounding out the cast, talented Priti Gandhi (you may remember her from last season’s “The Magic Flute”) Leonora’s confidante Inez sweetly sings in effort to soothe and persuade Leonora away from Manrico. Tenor Joseph Hu makes a big impression in a smaller role as Ruiz; Hu leads Leonora to Manrico’s prison tower with clever trepidation, bestowing on Ruiz a real personality.

Bass Hao Jiang Tian often stole the spotlight when he was onstage with his sumptuous voice and wonderful stage-presence. As the Count’s top soldier Ferrando, he opens “Il trovatore” by recounting the old gypsy story to his men in effort to keep them awake during their watch for the troubadour. Alternately captivating and horrifying his men with the tale, the ensemble gathers around Ferrando with flair.

“Il trovatore” has dynamic scenes with the ensemble chorus featured more prominently in the action than other operas seen this season. Chorus Master Timothy Todd Simmons is to be commended for his work in this production along with Fight Director Steve Rankin. Those swords don’t just stay stuck in the stage; soldiers and gypsies fight, an ensemble sings with galvanic sword maneuvers. It’s all visually stunning.

SDO’s Principal Guest Conductor Edoardo Müller conducted with fervor and sensitivity and had the pulse of the music down.

It’s heady stuff: the story, the angst of the characters, the violence, the voices, the emotional, melancholy arias — and it’s absolutely intoxicating. Kudos to Dario Volonté for jumping in to the rescue.

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