For 35 years, the Los Angeles Opera’s opening night, with its black-tie festivities, has, with one exception, heralded the fall season, regardless of the weather.
No one needed to remember Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion why the seasons haven’t turned, turned, turned last year for the arts. But with a new production of “Il Trovatore” by Verdi, the fall was supposed to straighten up.
The mood could not be festive. For the large, mostly vaxxed, mostly masked audience, this was the first trip in a very long time to a theater to experience a fully staged live opera. There were some incredibly big and bold voices. There was an exquisite soprano. There was a chorus, glorious. There was an orchestra that sounded so rich, loud and colorful, even in the pit of an acoustically challenged hall, providing pleasure. There was the Verdi pot.
A toast, then to LA Opera. He is a survivor of the pandemic, overcoming obstacles and not just the usual ones. The sets for production, shipped from Europe, did not arrive on time. Due to the safeguard of container ships off San Pedro, new sets had to be built from scratch in 10 days, recreating a similar feat 19 years ago when a labor strike hit the port of Los Angeles.
Obviously, the first night’s performance went off without a hitch (which isn’t always the case with any production, any year). Even the climate-modified nature seemed to be, momentarily anyway, an opera fan. No heatwave. No air filled with smoke from fires blackening the lungs of the singers.
But what the pandemic ultimately did for LA Opera is a harder question to answer. It was not a normal opening night in many ways. The first music heard was the national anthem, sung by the audience through masks, which gave it a touching and muffled sweetness.
There were no star singers but rather new talent. Much has changed in society during the pandemic, and it’s clear that LA Opera, which has been an outspoken leader in combating diversity in opera, is making a notable effort to have a racially and physically diverse cast.
He also selected an opera which, despite all its popularity, has long been problematic for its racial stereotypes. It is the opera that has the anvil choir, which treats the zingari (traditionally translated as Gypsies but now better translated by LA Opera as Romani) as the horrible other, with their witches who cast evil spells and burn babies.
There is a lot to do and LA Opera chose a Monte-Carlo production by Spanish director Francisco NegrÃn to solve these problems. It does this in part by making everything so dark and spooky that you can’t easily tell what’s what or why.
This Louis DÃ©sirÃ© set so proudly built by LA Opera is a beautiful aftermarket construction with moving parts including a tower that goes up and down. The crevasses serve as a creepy, creepy chorus. Fires come and go, as an austere dramatic motif. The floor of the stage rises towards the back and everyone feels far away, adding to the dark and ominous darkness.
Nowadays, every director tries to redeem the âTrovatoreâ. LA Opera’s production in 1998 placed opera in Bosnian death fields. NegrÃn’s effort is to humanize Azucena, who avenges her Roma mother’s stake by stealing and cremating the baby of a 15th-century Spanish prince. In one of the booklet’s many incongruities, it turns out that Azucena mistakenly cremated her own baby, so she raised Spanish like hers.
This time we are witnessing “Trovatore” from Azucena’s point of view. Her charred child appears and reappears, as does the charred mom. Centuries of terror and abuse against the Roma seem to have created a community of mourning, of which Azucena becomes a symbol for NegrÃn. The past cannot be escaped.
Too little of that, however, ends up on the scene. Badly directed, conventional semaphore singers, unconvincing theatrical gestures which immediately give them back to opera characters. All this fire, horror and angst seems stereotypical in and of itself. Few things are visually original and especially not the Robert Wilson-lite lighting effects of the illuminated pillars.
However, leaving the singers alone is not always such a bad thing in “Trovatore”. It is often said that four impressive singers are enough. In fact, five are needed, and LA Opera has pulled off an impressive four.
Most striking is Guanqun Yu as Leonora, the love interest of Manrico, the troubadour (Azucena’s “son”) and the count (Manrico’s enemy and, we finally learn, his brother). Verdi made her a fiery heroine. Yu, on the other hand, is articulate and understated and the most believable figure on stage. Its true and pure high notes become all the more significant as they lack brilliance. The sense of determination and purpose she gives Leonora by sacrificing her life for love is an inner strength rather than an outer exaggeration.
Manrico by Limmie Pulliam is yang for his yin – physically, vocally and theatrically. He has a healthy, focused, sounding tenor that penetrates space but is never vulgar. He didn’t show a lot of nuance, but neither Verdi nor Negrin when it came to Manrico. While Pulliam required a noticeable effort to sing softly, that effort was as touching an effect as the effort required for Yu to sound heroic.
Raehann Bryce-Davis could have been two different Azucenas. On stage, she was reduced to storing traumatized movements to earn our mercy, but she vocally filled the emotional void. She leaned on her resonant mezzo-soprano voice to reveal complex depths of character.
The humble baritone count Vladimir Stoyanov showed his strength mainly in his swordplay. But the mighty bass Morris Robinson, like Ferrando, the captain of his guard, made the earl’s army formidable. Leonora had a sympathetic Tiffany Townsend as a suffering maid.
James Conlon was, unsurprisingly, in his element with Verdi, with the production’s publicity noting that the company’s musical director has directed more than 500 performances of Verdi’s operas throughout his career. He provided the singers with his usual solid support and, if needed, a few nudges in the direction of excitement. The orchestra played as they wanted, and the choir sang that way too.
This is not the first time Conlon has received the loudest applause, interspersed with “maestro” cheers, during the encore. This time, he was not only the conductor of the evening but the symbol of a company back in action.
How to get back, you might ask? The risk factor may not be low enough for everyone to sit inside the Dorothy Chandler Lodge for nearly three hours. The vaccination requirements allow exceptions. (Those who are not vaccinated must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of the performance.) Even though masks are mandatory for everyone throughout the evening, a couple in the row behind me took away theirs the second they reached their places. Others in my view of the orchestra section let masks slip under their noses during the performance.
A check of the microCOVID project risk calculator shows that participation in “Trovatore” could represent about half of your weekly risk budget. As an alternative, the performances on October 3 and 6 (when Gregory Kunde takes on the role of Manrico) will be broadcast live for a fee.
Or: Dorothy Chandler Hall, 135 S. Grand Ave., LA
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6, 2 p.m. Oct. 10
Tickets: $ 19 to $ 292 to see in person, $ 30 to broadcast
Info: (213) 972-8001 or laopera.org
Duration of operation: 2 hours 45 minutes