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The Metropolitan Opera
Vassallo and Yu in the Met’s Trovatore
© Beth Bergman 2012
Il Trovatore, famous in equal parts for its improbable plot and terrific tunes, returned to the Metropolitan Opera in a revival of David McVicar's well-received 2009 production. Italian soprano Carmen Giannattasio was scheduled to make her Met debut as Leonora, but illness forced her to withdraw from the dress rehearsal and the opening of the run, at the September 29 matinée. Guanqun Yu, who was already scheduled to sing the role in three subsequent performances, made her Met debut that afternoon in Giannattasio's place.
Yu, a native of Shandong, China, who won second prize last June in the Operalia competition, revealed a flexible, beautifully marbled soprano that trembled with emotion, along with a naturalistic acting style that was fully integrated into her singing. She turned the soaring phrases of "Tacea la notte placida" into a luscious treat, pouring her heart out about the man she loves and letting us know right out of the gate that the action would be based on authentically grand passion.
This is essential, since some of the plot is rather unconvincing. How, for example, is one to believe that the Gypsy woman Azucena spends the entire opera showering maternal affection onto a man she has raised as her son, only to rejoice at the end when that same man's death becomes a vessel for her own revenge on the Count whose father killed her mother? All this becomes not only plausible but maximally gripping, thanks to the force of nature that is Dolora Zajick, who has been singing Azucena in Met Trovatores since 1988. Zajick, who inhabits this character so thoroughly that it barely seems as if she is playing a role, commands the stage fully with her splendid vocal authority, including great chesty low notes and vibrant, richly infused highs. One could hear a pin drop at the end of her magnificent "Stride la vampa," which was only a warmup for her riveting "Condotta ell'era in ceppi," the account of Azucena's mother's death at the stake. Zajick even made the potentially bewildering final moments of the opera seem not just credible but inevitable.
Gwyn Hughes Jones, whose brawny, heroic tenor voice has baritonal colorings, brought excitement to the proceedings even in the first sound of his offstage singing, which revealed enough passion to make it clear that his Manrico would be able to match the standard of gripping drama already laid down by Yu's Leonora. His "Di quella pira" rang with vibrant excitement; the Met Chorus and Orchestra roaring full throttle at the end of that number paved the way thrillingly for Hughes Jones's fully confident concluding high C. He and Yu did a very impressive job of matching tone color, phrasing and dynamics in their Act II duet.
Baritone Franco Vassallo as Count di Luna was gratifyingly menacing in both his stage presence and his intense, dark tone color. His ode to Leonora outside the cloister was phrased with convincing ardor, but his best moments were in his faceoffs with Hughes Jones's Manrico; the two gave off genuine sparks of hostility and egged each other on to great vocal and theatrical effect.
Bass Morris Robinson, as Ferrando, launched the proceedings with welcome, steely-voiced strength in "Abietta zingara," and Maria Zifchak, with her enveloping mezzo, proved a worthy scene partner for Yu as Leonora's attendant Ines. Daniele Callegari is not the flashiest of conductors, but he was very good at following the singers (even when they rushed), and he was able to provide considerable nuance while keeping the pulse driving forward — a winning combination in an exciting afternoon at the opera.
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