Quality opera just round the corner

Typically seating 200 to 600, offering reduced
seasons of just a few popular titles, hosting strolling companies and partly
drawing from semiprofessional forces as to orchestras and choirs, they worked
as an efficient low-entry circuit nationwide, so that young talents might be
discovered and acquire stage experience, while mature professionals could age
gracefully while waiting for retirement.

That pattern went nearly lost during the following decades, as growing
travel opportunities on one side, and multimedia diffusion of grand opera
productions on the other, compelled many a minor house to shut up shop.
However, part of it is resurfacing in a more sophisticated form. Aware of
unavoidable competition from opera DVDs and cheap live beaming in neighborhood
cinemas, provincial opera theaters now reopen under the aegis of local
Councilors for Culture and Education, putting a premium on artistic quality
rather than on business, albeit within the constraint of limited public

Padua’s Teatro Comunale, named for Giuseppe Verdi, is one such
example. “Less is more” is the motto for this small but savvy house
that offers two productions a season, with fashionable directors, elegant but
essential sets and emerging musical talents from the world over. Coproductions
with its peers in the area, Rovigo and Bassano del Grappa, multiply the impact
and grant Padua denizens the experience of live opera just round the corner
— for ludicrous investments. This lovely production of
Trovatore, for example, did cost the local taxpayer a mere Euro
105,134.06 — all included.

Trovatore_Padua_02.gifAnna Smirnova as Azucena

It updates the action from Medieval Spain to some unspecified episode of
modern class warfare, or, according to the director’s notes, to the days
of Resistenza, the anti-Nazi guerrilla in Italy during the 1940s.
While the consistency of this metamorphosis remains questionable under several
viewpoints, it allows director Denis Krief — in charge of costume design
as well as of sets and lighting — to contrast the rival parties by
outfitting Count di Luna and his troopers in military uniforms resembling an
early version of today’s Italian Polizia di Stato and
Manrico’s forces (including the hard-working Gypsies) in casual civilian
clothing. Simple, clear and low-budget enough. Both Leonora and her
lady-in-waiting Ines wear elegant evening gowns befitting their social rank; as
to Azucena, she stands midway between a punk star and the German diva Brigitte
Helm featuring the Whore of Babylon in the 1927 cult movie

Even though the stage is rather large, Krief uses the space well and moves
his people within the framework of a gigantic book, whose wooden pages, around
5.50 meters tall, are meant to remind that Verdi’s gloomy narration is
both historic and a fairy tale. Their diversely carved surfaces, turned by the
stagehands after each scene, also provide an ever-changing enhancement to the
hall’s acoustic. Sound wizardry through a frugal technology not involving
any electronic equipment.

Trovatore_Padua_04.gif Vitaliy Biliy as Conte di Luna, Walter Fraccaro as Manrico and Kristin Lewis as Leonora

Conductor Omer Meir Wellber clearly appreciates how fine an orchestrator
Verdi was, as I heard many woodwind colors that often go overlooked, while the
strategic role of the offstage choir and band was given due prominence. The
young Israeli maestro, still in his late twenties, is a wonderful talent. His
debut at Padua, in late 2008 with Aida, got him no less than the
Toscanini Award from the Italian association of music critics. A similar story
to Kristin Lewis’, a budding soprano from Little Rock, Arkansas, whose
appearance as Aida on said production won her a row of international
invitations for the same role. From her first phrase as Leonora she gave the
impression of an almost ideal Verdian performer — indeed her ample,
soft-grained lyrical tone and generous chest notes made her singing the delight
of the evening.

As Azucena, the Russian mezzo Anna Smirnova impressed with her vast range of
vocal color and dramatic accents of uncommon intensity. Ferrando, a somewhat
perfunctory character who opens the opera by explaining the background that
sets the plot in motion, then practically disappears, was impersonated by
Roberto Tagliavini. With his big, solid voice and strong stage presence, he
offered a preview of the vocal treasures he has in store, leaving me with the
desire to hear more.

The two leading men, tenor Walter Fraccaro as Manrico and Ukraine’s
baritone Vitaliy Biliy as Count di Luna, are both good singers who interpret
their roles with much ardor. Both have some dramatic shortcomings, though. In
Biliy’s case the problem lies in acting. Even though he’s tall and
commands the stage as a military leader should, his gestures are stock, failing
to convey the character’s moments of doubt, brief repentance, and final

Carlo Vitali

image_description=Kristin Lewis as Leonora and Walter Fraccaro as Manrico [Photo by Michele Crosera courtesy of Teatro Comunale, Padua]
product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Il trovatore
product_by=Conte di Luna: Vitaliy Biliy; Leonora: Kristin Lewis; Azucena: Anna Smirnova; Manrico: Walter Fraccaro; Ferrando: Roberto Tagliavini; Ines: Natalia Roman; Ruiz: Luca Casalin; Old Gipsy: Antonio Marani; A Messenger: Antonio Feltracco. Orchestra Filarmonia Veneta “G.F. Malipiero”, Coro Lirico Li. Ve. Denis Krief, director. Omer Meir Wellber, conductor. Teatro Comunale, Padua, Italy. Performance of 27 December 2009.
product_id=Above: Kristin Lewis as Leonora and Walter Fraccaro as Manrico

All photos by Michele Crosera courtesy of Teatro Comunale, Padua