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“Il trovatore,” An Operatic Thrill Ride

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Monday at 7:15 pm


Tune into Lyric Opera of Chicago’s opening night performance of Il trovatore, broadcast live on WFMT.

Combine a searing love triangle, an odious count, a long lost child, some gypsies, a civil war, a haunting, and a witch burned at the stake, and you’ve got Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore, an opera stuffed with devices to delight theater-goers and ruin the opera’s protagonists. Il trovatore is designed to feel like the fastest two hours and forty-five minutes in theater, with sword fights, shocking cruelty (and human error, it must be said), and tender love songs. It’s “the quintessential Italian melodrama,” according to biographer Martin Chusid.

Without having too much to do with the plot, the famous Anvil chorus opens the second act with a musical thrill ride, suggesting to this production’s original director, Sir David McVicar, the perfect moment for shirtless Hurculean bodies – by the way these strapping gypsies are responsible for hitting the anvils in time, as opposed to miming the hammer blows while the percussion section makes the strikes.

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Chained to the pyre: Yonghoon Lee as Manrico, Stephanie Blythe as Azucena in Lyric Opera’s “Il trovatore”; c. Robert Kusel

When he wrote Trovatore, Verdi was in high gear. He had several librettos in the works and had just scored a triumph with his heavyweight drama Rigoletto. At this point, he set out to write a different kind of opera, leaning more heavily on theatrics and the bel canto style of old.

For Trovatore, Verdi envisioned not one but two leading ladies: Leonora, the troubadour’s love interest, and Azucena, his gypsy mother. Amber Wagner, who sings Leonora in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production, describes her role as having “a lot of bel canto singing, a lot of coloratura, and a lot of exposure.” It’s a virtuosic part with lighter orchestral accompaniment, designed to show off the vocal technique of the singer. Azucena, on the other hand, is the linchpin of the story; she knows all, and is burdened by a curse that drives the opera to its conclusion. According to biographers, it was her character that was most affecting to Verdi.

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Quinn Kelsey as Count di Luna, Yonghoon Lee as Manrico, and Amber Wagner as Leonora; c. Michael Brosilow

For mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, Azucena’s dramatic power poses a unique challenge in performance. She told WFMT she has to check herself, that she doesn’t become so swept up in acting the part of Azucena, that it interferes with her singing.

Manrico, the opera’s hero, is suspended between the two worlds of his gypsy mother and fellow freedom fighters; and that of his beloved, the noblewoman Leonora. South Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee gets into his character: “I am such a romantic person with Leonora…and also such a fighter…a character I love to play.”

Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore was composed in 1853 to a libretto by Salvadore Cammorano, who died before completing the book. It was finished by Leone Emanuele Bardare. The opera is based on the play El trovadore by Antonio García Gutiérrez. Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production runs through November at the Civic Opera House.

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