Monday, February 11, 2013

Opera San Jose: Verdi’s Il Trovatore

February 9, 2013

On very rare evenings, an opera aficionado will run across a performer who is not so much a singer as an alchemist of song. Such a one is soprano Cecilia Violetta López.

López’s performance in OSJ’s season-opening Pearl Fishers was so good I almost wrote it off as hallucination. But faced with Trovatore’s Leonora, one of the richest roles in all of opera, she gave early indications that she knew exactly what she was doing. López handled the long lines of the first-act Andante, “Tacea la notte placida” with ease, producing a divine sense of legato.

In the final act, as Leonora stood vigil outside the prison where her lover Manrico awaited execution, López performed the Adagio “D’amor sull´ali roseé,” in a fashion that almost defied description. She began with a deliciously quiet high tone that swelled to forte, and proceeded to manipulate the lines of the aria like a magician wafting smoke around the stage, weaving a web of emotion and song that spurred a usually staid San Jose audience to an extended ovation. It was a stunning moment.

Under the limitations of words on a page, this almost sounds like showing off, but it’s not. López moves about the stage with a calm grace, and her singing, for being so brilliantly nuanced, is much the same way. Later, smaller touches demonstrated her ability to stay rooted to the emotions of her character. Swearing a hateful vow to her nemesis, the Count, she drove the line slightly sharp, in the manner of a dramatic soprano, to invest it with an angry edge. Dying in the arms of Manrico, she sang her farewells with a faraway piano that almost seemed like a ventriloquist’s trick, as if her lines were coming from the hereafter.

López had a fine match with Alexander Boyer’s Manrico. Boyer’s tenor seemed slightly over-covered in the first half, but he warmed nicely to the lovely Adagio “Ah si, ben mio, coll´essere.” For someone with such great power, Boyer can also be very effective in quiet moments, as in the final scene, when Manrico asks Leonora, “What price did you pay for my life?”

Bass Silas Elash does a fine job with the prologue, scaring the wits out of Ferrando’s soldiers with the story of the burned gypsy. Mezzo Nicole Birkland performed a sincerely deranged Azucena (which is exactly the way to do it), drawing full intensity from the famed “Condotta ell´era in ceppi,” her vibrato widening in alarm at the memory of her slain mother.

Baritone Zachary Altman presented a striking figure with Count di Luna, but he spent the first half pushing too hard, especially in the Largo “Il balen del suo sorriso,” in which the Count voices his desire for Leonora. Considering the arc of a (very twisted) plot that eventually reveals the Count to be not as much of a villain as he appears, Altman misses the chance this aria offers to show a softer side. Fortunately, Altman eased off in the second half and sang much better.

Mezzo Tori Grayum shines as Leonora’s lady-in-waiting Ines. It’s Ines’ weeping that causes Leonora to look back from her entrance into the convent, creating a profoundly poignant moment. Playing Ruiz, the guard who leads Leonora to the prison walls, tenor Michael Jankosky sings much more expressively than one might expect from such a brief role. (Keep an eye on that kid.)

Andrew Whitfield’s chorus gave a boisterous performance. Kudos to the anvil-pounders (always a fun novelty) and to the men, who handled the rapid soldiers’ choruses with manly force.  At times, conductor David Rohrbaugh seemed to be driving them into untenable tempos, but then, it’s not wise for an outsider to get into the middle of domestic disputes. I appreciated stage director Brad Dalton’s approach, which gave full expression to the brutality that reigned over the opera’s medieval world – including a rather gory moment of prisoner-torture.

I enjoyed the black-and-brown uniforms that Elizabeth Poindexter gave to the Count’s soldiers, as well as Leonora’s gorgeous maroon gown in the final act. Steven C. Kemp’s set design took a minimalist approach, featuring rough columns and a highly versatile set of stone steps. Rohrbaugh’s orchestra played smoothly throughout, achieving a perfect dynamic give-and-take with the singers.

Through February 24, California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose. $51-$111. 408/437-4450,

The company announced its 2013-14 season, which will include Verdi’s Falstaff (Sept. 7-22), Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel (Nov. 16-Dec. 1), Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (Feb. 15-March 2) and Mozart’s Don Giovanni

Images: Alexander Boyer as Manrico, Cecilia Violetta López as Leonora; Nicole Birkland as Azucena. Photos by Pat Kirk.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and the author of the novel Operaville, available at

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