The Houston Grand Opera closed its 2013 season with a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore on May 11, 2013. Il Trovatore isn’t just any great opera, it is opera writ as large as possible – at least the Italian variety. It has everything that makes opera a great art form – melody, drama, virtuosic singing, emotional conflict, and passionate expression. The story which is ridiculous on the printed page, springs to life with Verdi’s inspired music. Having just written a work completely without parallel, Rigoletto, Verdi looked back to the style of opera that he had obliterated. Il Trovatore is a glorious summation of the great works of the first half of the 19th century. That he was simultaneously working on La Traviata an opera so different in tone and feeling from Il Trovatore is a wonder of art.

Most opera lovers are familiar with Caruso’s quip that all you need for a successful performance of Il Trovatore is the four greatest singers in the world. Houston didn’t meet that standard, but it mounted a production that was very satisfying. Incidentally, Caruso only sang Il Trovatore 13 times at the Met, all in 1908 and 1909. Thereafter he surrendered the role to Leo Slezak and Giovanni Martinelli.

The title role was sung by Marco Berti who has recently achieved a dominant position as one of the world’s leading spinto Italian tenors. In fact, Mr Berti’s voice verges on the dramatic. He has already added Otello to his repertoire. His strength is the stentorian; his voice is very large and his high notes ringing. The more lyrical parts of Manrico are more of a problem for him then the declamatory and heroic. His was a rousing performance that fully engaged the audience.

Berti, Tómasson, and Wilson

Berti, Tómasson, and Wilson

Leonora was sung by newcomer Tamara Wilson. Ms. Wilson labors under the curse of Zinka (anyone who has to ask “Zinka who?” needs to enroll in beautiful singing 101). Zinka’s recording of Il Trovatore is still available and hovers over the head of any soprano who attempts Trovatore’s Leonora like Beethoven’s symphonies oppressed Brahms. Wilson’s singing was quite good. Her voice has yet to fully mature and is at times strident. She is able to float the high tones that the role requires, but it takes some effort. She is young and it is hard to tell where her voice may finally land. A promising artist.

The Count di Luna is one of Verdi’s greatest baritone roles. It requires the high range that defines the species. The Icelandic baritone, Tómas Tómasson is a converted bass. The baritone roles he now sings are set in the middle and lower part of the baritone’s range. While he has a fine sound, he is not a Verdi baritone. His part is full of high notes which he negotiated by omitting them. This is not a part he should continue to sing. One of George Bernard Shaw’s most engaging pieces of music criticism is a review of Il Trovatore from around 1890 that discusses in detail the deportment of the Count di Luna. He discusses at length why the count should never sit down. The necessity for his upright posture stems from the agitation that envelops him from the start of the opera to its end. He is a prisoner of sexual desire that controls his entire being. He is incapable of repose. Not only did Tómasson sit down, he sang most of ‘Il balen’ in a chair.

Dolora Zajick Has been the reigning Verdi mezzo-soprano for almost 25 years. Her voice is a force of nature. Though she is past 60 she has not lost a step. Her sound is majestic, full, effortless, and brilliantly projected. She is to Verdi mezzos what Birgit Nilsson was to Wagner sopranos.

Chinese bass Peixin Chen has a powerful voice and made a fine impression in the two scenes in which his character, Ferrando, appears. Ferrando is usually overshadowed by the other four principals, but Mr. Chen more than held his own.

Benoît Dugardyn’s sets were simple and effective. He made great use of swords stuck into the stage. In fact, the swords were used instead of anvils to make the clanging noises associated with the famous chorus. I’d have preferred the production to have stuck with anvils. There was a lot of sword fighting, even Leonora got into the act. Operatic swordplay always looks silly. Opera directors should leave this business to Errol Flynn. Otherwise, Stephen Lawless’ direction was as effective as can be in an opera where the soprano swallows poison from a secret compartment in her ring rather than marry the baritone. There are also a lot of flashes of fire in several scenes. I’ve been leery of Verdi and fire ever since I saw a performance of Aida at the Met more than 20 years ago (in fact Ms Zajick was in that cast) in which the scenery caught fire in the first act. The singers kept on singing as a stagehand crawled on stage and put out the blaze with a fire extinguisher.

All of Verdi’s operas need an outstanding conductor; this is no more so than in Il Trovatore. Patrick Summers is a fine conductor, but he does not always have the pace that Verdi demands. The great chords that release the tension built at the end of the second act did not have the thunder that Verdi intended. Similarly, the brass figures of the ‘Miserere’ did not convey the dramatic intensity that the scene demands. I don’t know if there’s a conductor living who can realize everything that’s in this score. I must concede that Summers did a good job.

In summary, this is an excellent reading of Verdi’s masterpiece. The highlights of the show were provided by Berti and Zajick. This performance gave ample proof to the dictum that if you don’t like Il Trovatore opera is not for you. Chorus Master Richard Bado, whose charges were superb, was presented with the company’s Silver Rose Award in a ceremony after the show was over. In tribute the entire cast sang the first verse of the Anvil Chorus.

Houston Il Trovatore cast copy