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Trovatore returns to golden age of singing
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Trovatore returns to golden age of singing

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Il Trovatore
Seattle Opera
McCaw Hall
Through January 30


Caruso said that all you need to stage Verdi's Il Trovatore is the four greatest singers in the world. The four lead parts are so demanding, both in vocal resources and in artistry, that the opera, with its silly plot, will fail without the thrill of the most gorgeous singing imaginable. When you have singers who can sing it well, there is no more beautiful music in all of opera. But you must have all of them: a tenor, soprano, mezzo-soprano, and baritone, for all are crucial.

Speight Jenkins has worked this miracle not just in one, but in two casts!

Suffice to say that the sets are abstract yet attractive, the stage direction doesn't get in the way of the music, and the other elements are handled well. But this review has to be about phenomenal singers. But before I get too carried away, let me mention that the Seattle Opera Chorus outdid itself, playing its big role to perfection. (It has, of course, one of opera's biggest hits: the "Anvil Chorus.")

Zinka Milanov set the standard for Leonora back in the 1950s. Very few others have ever come close to the perfection of her floated pianissimos, pure vowels, and vocal power, expression and taste - but both of Seattle's Leonora's did. On opening night, Lisa Daltirus (Doll-tee-roos), Seattle's Aida a season ago, once again proved she is as good as it gets, both vocally and dramatically. A beautiful voice, under extraordinary control, combined with committed artistry, makes her portrayal (especially in her pianissimo dying moments) unforgettable. (She even tossed in some unwritten high notes!) At the Sunday matinee, the young Mary Elizabeth Williams was scarcely less impressive. With an even bigger, richer middle voice, Williams delivered an equally impassioned Leonora. Both sopranos excelled in spinning out a perfectly seamless Verdian line.

Yet the most astounding performance of all came from tenor Antonello Palombi (previously Seattle's Rhadames in Aida) on opening night. I have never heard a more powerful tenor voice. (No, not even John Vickers or Mario Del Monaco; perhaps Giovanni Martinelli, or Melchior, whom I have heard only on ancient recordings.) Besides his amazing, intensely focused volume, Palombi had tremendous control, allowing him to vary his tone expressively, all the way down to perfectly focused soft notes. He sang with impressive legato and refinement, as well as passion. In his aria, he began a held note softly and then swelled to triple forte before a beautiful diminuendo back to soft. His first-ever Manrico was an unqualified triumph.

Arnold Rawls, at the Sunday matinee, was nearly as successful. His impassioned tenor easily filled the role, showing no signs of fatigue in this demanding role. He, too, sang with an excellent line and attractive tone.

Equally important is the baritone role of Count di Luna. Gordon Hawkins' towering presence made his fulsome voice all the more impressive in the part. A true Verdian, Hawkins fills the Count's shoes with the line and ease of a Leonard Warren. Proving that Verdi baritones are perhaps not as rare as generally thought, Todd Thomas (Sunday matinee) was worthy both vocally and dramatically.

In these performances of red-hot singing, none were more wildly dramatic than those of the two mezzo-sopranos who sang the gypsy Azucena, who, typical of this crazy plot, threw her son accidentally into the fire that was burning her mother at the stake! Both Malgorzata Walewska and Mary Phillips threw themselves into this role with such abandon that one feared for the wear on their voices. No weaknesses here!

Seattle is indeed lucky to have the services of bass Arthur Woodley so frequently. His performances are so reliable and impressive that one might begin to take him for granted. His Ferrando was no exception. Larger than most comprimario roles, this part gave him great opportunities to shine; and shine he did! His big opening scene with the male chorus was as fine as I have ever heard.

Opening night saw a few rough spots when coordination between the singers and the pit was less than perfect. But these performances were intense, pushing dramatic power to the edge, and a little awkwardness in the heat of the moment is far preferable, for my ears, to metronomic regimentation. French Canadian Yves Abel kept things moving admirably, never drowning out singers or intricate, soft choral moments. The bassoon/clarinet accompaniment before Leonora's fourth act aria was especially lovely. Abel works primarily in Europe. We are lucky to have such a gifted young conductor appear regularly at Seattle Opera, where this is his fifth opera.

Those who were present at opening night saw what a singer's commitment can cost: Lisa Daltirus kept it together to the very end, but when the wall of cheers hit her at the curtain call, she lost it completely, hardly able to stand as she sobbed, leaning on another singer. Two nights earlier, there was a death in her family, about which she had told almost no one. When offered the chance to fly home for a few days, she refused, saying she didn't want to miss opening night. (She did go after her performance, but will be back for all subsequent dates.)

Visually attractive, dramatically intense, and vocally unparalleled, these performances are not to be missed.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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