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October 9, 2007

Taking a ride on the roller-Verdi

Il Trovatore: Photo by John Fitzgerald; courtesy of Kentucky Opera Bringing a modicum of order to the notoriously complicated plot of the Verdi opera “Il Trovatore” is the job of director Pat Diamond (center). It’s no easy task.It has everything a Verdi opera should have: love, death, murder, suicide, mistaken identities, a baby burned at the stake, the hero beheaded and, in the end, revenge.Well, sort of revenge. The only person left standing after all the carnage is the Count di Luna, who has just had his own brother beheaded — not realizing that the troubadour he knows as Manrico, who has been romancing Leonore, the beautiful princess, whom the count, himself, lusts for, is actually the count’s own long lost brother. (Oh, and this brother had not actually been the baby thrown into the fire, after all.)And so the Count di Luna has fallen into a two-generation trap put over on him by a mother-daughter team of gypsies (and don’t those gypsies always get the blame?). Now, he must live with the horror of killing his own brother. It would be enough to send the count off on an additional murder and re-revenge spree — except that, as previously mentioned, he is this opera’s only principal left standing. No one else is left to continue the beautiful singing, which is the real point of the whole thing.Yes, opera buffs, you are correct: The opera is “Il Trovatore,” by Giuseppe Verdi, which will be presented by Kentucky Opera this weekend at the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall.Verdi penned “Il Trovatore” in 1857, when he ruled the world of opera. And despite efforts of hack reviewers like us to laugh the whole thing away as too ridiculous for words, this opera has instead become a venerable “Old Warhorse” of the operatic stage. That is, of course, because of one thing: The songs are terrific.And if the songs do just kind of pop up, that’s no problem.“I don’t worry that there is no continuous musical exposition,” conductor Joseph Mechavich told a WUOL-FM audience during last month’s live concert, part of the station’s Lunchtime Classics program. “It’s a string of great ‘numbers,’ which means there (are) plenty of places for clapping.”Which is also no problem for the producer.“It is typical Verdi,” Kentucky Opera general director David Roth cheerily agreed. “Every time you turn a page, there’s another hit.”Soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams: Photo by Elizabeth Kramer Soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams sings the role of the lovely Leonora in Kentucky Opera’s presentation of “Il Trovatore.”And, indeed, that is so, from the tenor farewell “Ah! Si ben mio” to the famous “Anvil Chorus.”Which is all fine for the music. But you would think that the plate-full-of-spaghetti plot would be a nightmare for stage director Pat Diamond. To start with, the story is set in a mythical kingdom in 15th century Spain — and begins with a back-story told in flashbacks.Not to worry, Diamond said.“It’s not really so much about the story as the emotions of the characters,” he said. “You let the music take you on the highs and lows of human emotion.”And don’t worry about the plot?“I think you’ve got to let yourself go on the roller coaster ride, embracing the extremes,” Diamond said. “On a roller coaster you have no choice but to go up ... then down, on those hills. Then into the corkscrew. You just go where the ride takes you.”Which is also the advice of music historian Milton Cross.“It is, indeed, a cause for wonder that so unreal and stilted a libretto could stimulate a composer’s creative processes,” Cross wrote. “Yet by some mysterious power, Verdi was able to produce one of his most jewel-studded scores, as well as one of his most telling characterizations in the gypsy woman, Azucena. The alchemy of genius that can turn brass into gold is surely nowhere at work with greater success than in this opera.”Diamond said a good example of the Verdi-coaster is the emotional mother-son relationship between Azucena and Manrico.“One moment, Azucena is trying to get her son to defend himself, then the next moment, he is dead.”Certainly, staging “Il Trovatore” is difficult.“There’s the whole rebellion and civil war going on, with the count on one side and Manrico on the other,” Diamond said. “There is a struggle between the establishment and the working classes that was going on all the time in that part of the world — the struggles between earls and counts for their rights of succession. I think all of it makes for these complicated ceilings, of feelings and emotions that are constantly in conflict. Things Goya was painting, and later reflected in the time of Napoleon: enormous upheaval and the need for revenge.”Diamond said his goal is to embrace the essence of the opera, calling it “a sprawling tale with a lot of emotional extremes. Light and dark moments that can turn on a dime.” Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.comKentucky Opera’s ‘Il Trovatore’Oct. 12 & 14Whitney Hall, Kentucky Center584-7777www.kyopera.org$40-$125; 8 p.m. (Oct. 12), 2 p.m. (Oct. 14)  (Sung in Italian with English translations    projected above the stage.)