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Noah Stewart / Leah Crocetto
In the old days, in ornate lobbies, portly gents with heavy accents cried out loudly, above the din of nattily-attired conversant patrons, "Read the story of the opera - English and Italian!" There was none of that as folks arrived in Meymandi Concert Hall for North Carolina Opera's season finale, a semi-staged presentation of Verdi's Il trovatore. By "semi-staged," one means, here, no sets, but the singers were costumed and, in front of the substantial orchestra of 49 players, they moved around the stage, effectively utilizing, at the direction of David Paul, that fairly narrow swath of space to convey, basically, all one wanted or needed to know about the convoluted tale that the composer reveals through some of his consistently most impressive and admired music. Concurrently, the orchestra had the vocalists' backs (literally), which once or twice was a bit of a liability - singing over the orchestra tends to produce better results in venues with pits, but with an experienced conductor in charge, as was the case on this occasion, "concert versions" can be highly effective. And certainly the NCO's regular conductor Timothy Myers knows his way around: his work with this magnificent score, as realized by the hand-picked instrumentalists, assembled from throughout the region. He demonstrated his complete command of the music and his unfailing senses of proper dramatic timing and sensitivity to the needs of his excellent singers. So we had to imagine the castles, the ramparts, the battlements, the cloisters - and we could and did. (That so many of us grew up listening to Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts of operas, during which the visuals were all imaginary, makes experiencing presentations like this one something like a grand march down memory lane.)
The plot is so confused and confusing it's almost worth ignoring while the amazing parade of one big hit after another washes over the audience, but supertitles make understanding and comprehension easy. The NCO's titles were very well managed, with few gaps and blank spaces, and they were valuable, too, even for folks who know (or think they know) the opera well, for the clarity of the titles' texts helped illuminate aspects of the plot, particularly as revealed in some of the fast-moving recitatives, that often pass by unnoticed. One didn’t really need to do homework in advance of this show, nor were libretti needed - but those who wanted to prepare were given several opportunities by the NCO, including a lecture by the general director at Quail Ridge Books on April 18 and an open rehearsal on April 22.
The opera was given complete by a very impressive young cast of singers, most of whom have the appropriate vocal heft and staying power to suggest that they are - or at some point will be - part of the great Verdi vocal tradition spoken of with awe and reverence by old timers. If the Count, portrayed by Liam Bonner, seemed to be first among equals, it may be due to his substantial and rich baritone voice plus his disarming good looks and commanding stage presence. The title role (that is to say, the part of the troubadour) was taken by tenor Noah Stewart, who has both beauty of voice and youth on his side. Their shared love object, Leonore, was brought to life with great effectiveness by soprano Leah Crocetto. And Azucena, the gypsy whose quest for revenge leaves the others dead or miserable, was impressively projected by mezzo-soprano Robynne Redmon.
It's worth mentioning how well matched these principals were and how admirably they worked with and complemented each other in their various duets and other ensembles.
The other artists were Richard Ollarsaba as Ferrando, Stephanie Foley Davis (Inez), John Cashwell (Ruiz), Robert Chapman (the Old Gypsy), and Brian Oliver Smith (a messenger).
And it's worth mentioning, too, that a good many of these vocalists are from around here (as the saying goes) or were trained in NC or have worked here before - all of which surely contributed to the overall effectiveness of the ensemble.
The chorus of 44 singers, coordinated and trained by Nathan Leaf, was nicely managed, too, and there were many old opera hands in the ranks, people who are experienced in different opera and operetta productions hereabouts. I am not convinced that having the men flank the orchestra most of the time was an altogether good idea, for there were some minor coordination issues on a few occasions - but then what else could have been done with them, in this context? (Well, for openers, they might have turned to face the audience when singing.)
The credits for the production included some impressive costumes, coordinated by Denise Schumaker, lighting and production management by Ross Kolman, and stage management by Mary Parisi.
The NCO's team worked as a team for this production, putting on a polished, appealing, and often impressive evening of great opera in an acoustically-viable room. The music was beautifully sung and played, and the drama was keenly delivered in all respects. First-time visitors cannot have been disappointed by this introduction. More experienced opera lovers, even those who have seen and heard Il trovatore many times, may surely count this evening as a superior performance. It's far and away good enough to go see and hear it again when it is repeated on Sunday afternoon, April 29, in Chapel Hill. For details, see the sidebar.
Yes, the NCO delivered Trovatore handsomely, but in fact the company, now ending its second season, has delivered all year, under the secure and steady leadership of Eric Mitchko and his artistic colleagues. Carmen drew raves, as did an experimental work, the Glass opera, Les enfants terrible (reviewed twice in CVNC, here and here). Trovatore showed that staging is not essential - and wouldn't we rather invest the difference, every now and then, in still more operas, downstream? The company is fulfilling many of the expectations of those who forged it from its two predecessors, Capital Opera and the Opera Company of North Carolina. It's time for the public to rally to the cause of first-rate opera in our region and to support the work of this company. With our collective backing, NCO can deliver what all of us who love this art form have long hoped for - viable, high-quality productions of classic and new operas right here, in our midst. Now is the time.