Even as Pope John Paul II succumbed to his mortality and died, the world was flooded with images of his remarkable tenure—chief among them the cross. So too did Stephen Lawless’ imagination and Benoît Dugardyn’s skill fill the Hummingbird Centre for the Performing Arts with the visual cantus firmus of the centuries-old symbol whether as tool of war or icon of final suffering, coincidentally adding another level of meaning and timeliness to this fascinating production.
The set was a marvel of stark walls and hangings that separated or joined the cast as required and permitted Joan Sullivan Genthe’s lighting design to subtly underscore the proceedings (the convent courtyard) or bring extra heat to the action (ranging from real flames during “confession” of murder to a spectacularly golden sunrise in the gypsy camp).
However, their overall approach was not without risks. On more occasions than can be forgiven, the extra-musical sounds generated by the set’s moving parts brought an unintended smile or near-riot when the behind-the-scenes movement threatened to destroy Leonora’s ( Eszter Sümegi, brilliant at every turn) Act IV tour de force. Having a dozen or so swords lodged into and across the downstage area was, initially, a multi-level metaphor, not the least of which was the graveyard that all battles become. But as time went on, the slight difficulty the “troops” had in docking their weapons and the notion that seasoned soldiers would be caught dead unarmed only weakened the image’s original power. Still, the use of shadows was eerily effective, adding considerably to the pervading tone of misguided revenge.
On several occasions, Lawless opted to use all the elements at his disposal to construct a series of tableaus which provided both relief from darkness and reinforcement of the subject matter. Most telling of these was the carnage-after-conflict shot, centred with a fallen cross that appeared to be Leonora’s burden and achieved in one frame what The Passion of the Christ couldn’t in its pointlessly excessive “Ode to Blood” entirety (cross-reference below).
Throughout it all, Richard Bradshaw guided his charges with verve and authority, producing a result that was compellingly forward thinking if harmonically underdone. Like few other conductors today, he has the magical gift—particularly in the ensembles—of being able to let the music breathe, ebb and flow; if only that same tightness could spill over to the chorus (notably the men, who were often at odds with the pit).
Of the principals, the women easily out-shone their suitors/tormentors. Sümegi gave a dynamically charged performance that was notable both for its powerful surety and her courage—despite the mid-stage acoustical desert that also rendered much of the chorus’ lines incomprehensible—in crafting the intimate moments with introspective finesse usually reserved for the recording studio.
As the troubled gypsy Azucena, Irina Mishura devoured the role with consistently first-rate dramatic treatment that was only overshadowed by her soaring top and heady declamations. Her Act II aria (“E to la ignore”) and duet with Manrico will serve as benchmarks for decades.
Mikhail Agafonov brought a flexible range and variety of shadings to the title role, but his occasional flirtation with pitch vagaries scraped off some of the sheen that galvanized the house whenever Verdi thrust him into the stratosphere. Last-minute replacement Daniel Sutin settled into the part of Count di Luna with energy and panache, gallantly surviving the sword play with Manrico but unable to prevent his ruthless band from engaging in a synchronized weaponry “ballet” that seemed more Monty Python camp than battle-ready bullies.
This Il Trovatore has much to recommend it—a sumptuous feast for the ear and the eye; its message and music woven into an artistic fabric that resonates with modern times just as validly as at its première a century-and-a-half ago. JWR