Summer Company's 'Il Trovatore' Is Something to Sing About

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Summer Opera Theatre Company's production of Verdi's "Il Trovatore," which received its first performance on Sunday afternoon at Catholic University, is startlingly good -- far better, on almost every level, than stagings I've seen at the Kennedy Center and even at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

Why does this trim, no-frills rendition, cast mostly with relative unknowns, work so well when "Trovatore" has so often spelled doom for bigger stars and much richer and more powerful troupes? (Joseph Volpe, until recently the Met's general manager and hardly a man known for false modesty, candidly admits in his new autobiography that the company hasn't offered a decent performance in years.) I think the success has to do with Summer Opera's demonstrated seriousness of purpose in devoting a full four weeks to intensive rehearsals before allowing the results to be seen. With very rare exceptions, our grander companies don't (indeed, can't ) do that -- and certainly not for "Il Trovatore."

Ever since the Marx Brothers sent up "Trovatore" in "A Night at the Opera" more than 70 years ago, it has been generally acknowledged that the libretto is among the most profoundly illogical theatrical confections this side of "Il Guarany." And yet the emotions it taps into -- honor, jealousy, lust for revenge, willingness to die for somebody one loves -- are genuine and profound, even if their representations in this opera are indeed a little loopy.

Take the final duet between Manrico and Azucena. While most of us will never know exactly what it is like to be the adopted son of a witch's daughter who mistakenly threw her own child to a flaming death, it is far easier to understand nostalgic memories of the places where we grew up, especially when they are shared with somebody we love. And so "Ai nostri monti" ("Home to Our Mountains") works every time, because beneath whatever silliness we find in the surface plot there is a suffusion of deep, welling and universal feeling.

Summer Opera played to the deeper Verdi: There was hardly a cymbal crash throughout the afternoon that didn't seem part of a long-meditated and carefully shaped totality. H. Teri Murai's conducting was taut and fierce, and his small but well-drilled orchestra responded reflexively to his direction. Soprano Fabiana Bravo, a Catholic University alumna, sang with a healthy, florid lyricism and intensity as Leonora. Baritone Grant Youngblood, a late substitute for Jason Stearns as Count di Luna, grew stronger and stronger as the afternoon wore on; his rendition of "Il balen" was brilliantly expressive both musically and dramatically.

Benjamin Warschawski, who sang the tenor role of Manrico, has the ringing high notes for "Di quella pira," one of opera's all-time showpieces. But I was even more impressed by the aching tenderness he brought to softer passages such as "Ah si, ben mio" and "Amor, sublime amor," which gave the character a human dimension that is too rarely explored. Patrice Houston has an unusually light mezzo-soprano voice; whatever her Azucena may have lacked in the way of plummy tone was mostly made up for by agility of phrasing. Soprano Monica Szabo made a bright, ebullient Ines, while Kwang-Kyu Lee sang the role of Ferrando with dignity and lithe grace.

But it was the combination of all the singers, both working together and (quite understandably) trying to outdo one another, that gave the afternoon its freshness and excitement. The staging, by Leland P. Kimball III, was simple and all-purpose but evocative and effective, with scenic designs by Lewis Folden and lighting by Donald Edmund Thomas.

Summer Opera is facing some difficult times. For 28 years, it has operated debt-free. But now, despite a sold-out audience that filled Catholic University's pocket-size Hartke Theatre, it has come to the end of its cash reserves; Deanne M. Giarraputo, the troupe's executive director, insists that the company will not be run on a deficit. I hope Summer Opera will find the wherewithal to carry on. In the meantime, this "Trovatore" is not to be missed.

Il Trovatore will be repeated Wednesday night and Sunday afternoon. Tickets are still available for Wednesday night, ranging from $40 to $63. Call 202-526-1669 or visit http://www.summeropera.org .

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