Lyric Opera's 'Il Trovatore' grand opera at its finest

10.28.14
Asher Fisch
Chicago Sun Times

By Wynne Delacoma

Lyric Opera officially celebrates its 60th anniversary on Saturday with a suitably starry concert at the Civic Opera House. Actress Jane Lynch will be the master of ceremonies, and the roster of performers ranges from super-diva Renee Fleming to members of The Second City.  For a glimpse, however, of what prompted two young Chicagoans (Carol Fox and Lawrence Kelly) and an equally young Italian conductor (Nicola Rescigno) to take the perilous plunge into creating an opera company from scratch, buy a ticket to Lyric’s “Il Trovatore.” 

This production of Verdi’s gloomy masterpiece, which opened Monday night, has everything that opera lovers dream of encountering onstage. There was soul-stirring music, including a handful of familiar tunes, in arias, duets and choruses sung by artists capable of raising the roof. Set in a massive, brutal fortress, the high-energy, non-stop action served a story brimming with enough blood and thunder, lust and revenge to fuel a dozen video games.

Lyric has assembled a fine, mostly young cast for this revival of a production first staged by David McVicar in 2006. Amber Wagner, a young alumna of Lyric’s Ryan Center, has impressed Lyric audiences before; she was a searing Elsa in two performances of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” in 2011. Monday night was her first outing as Leonora, and her ringing, flexible soprano is well-suited to the role, which demands both seamless, lyrical singing as well as vocal acrobatics.

As Leonora’s rival lovers, the brutal Count di Luna (baritone Quinn Kelsey) and the tender Manrico (tenor Yonghoon Lee) were fierce, volatile competitors. Kelsey found a wonderful vocal balance between snarling outbursts and a darkly resonant power that made his Count both frightening and entirely human. Tall, slim and handsome, Lee unleashed his agile tenor with youthful ardor. His voice soared to the balcony as he urged his men to battle, but in intimate moments with Leonora and his mother, his phrasing became subtle and intensely expressive.

Stephanie Blythe’s Azucena occasionally seemed stilted, but her big, rich mezzo-soprano combined both ringing clarity and smoky depths as the tormented gypsy poured out her tale of sorrow and vengeance. As Ferrando, captain of Count di Luna’s guard, bass Andrea Silvestrelli commanded the stage, deploying his voice like a shaft of black steel. Like everyone else in the cast, mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges, who appeared as Inez, Leonora’s handmaiden, brought a sense of fully-drawn character to her role.

Director-choreographer Leah Hausman staged this revival with an exciting sense of momentum, fully supported by conductor Asher Fisch and Lyric’s orchestra. Soft-edged, plangent woodwinds underscored the opera’s melancholy mood, and pulsing strings were a comforting presence its opera’s quiet moments. But when the famous Anvil Chorus erupted, the dry ring of massive hammers on unforgiving metal was both thrilling and chilling.  Prepared by Chorus Master Michael Black, Lyric’s chorus was intimately involved in the action. The robust male choristers were ever-alert, a band of boisterous brothers itching for a fight, while the women became a celestial chorus. The austere, looming fortress walls of Charles Edwards’ set and Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s somber-hued costumes enhanced the ominous atmosphere.

This was the kind of opera Lyric’s founders envisioned 60 years ago — grand opera at its most extravagant best. Happy anniversary.