MUNICH, Germany – Parodied by everyone from Gilbert and Sullivan to the Marx Brothers, Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” is often dismissed as an absurd story about ridiculous characters redeemed by its glorious music.
Jonas Kaufmann doesn’t see it that way.
The Munich-born tenor, who made his role debut as Manrico at the Bavarian State Opera last week, said he found the troubadour to have surprising depth.
“I’m not so much attracted to one-dimensional characters like ‘the romantic lover’ or ‘the hero who rescues the maiden in distress,’ ” Kaufmann said in an email response to questions. “Compared to those typical Italian tenor parts, Manrico is different. He is a lover, he is a fighter and he is a victim of a difficult mother-son relationship and of a tragic family story.”
All those qualities and more are certainly brought to the fore in the wild new production by Olivier Py that opened the company’s annual Munich Opera Festival. It’s a nonstop barrage of nightmarish images mixing styles and periods that assault the audience at lightning speed on a multi-tiered revolving set.
For starters, there’s a blind heroine, a burning cross, a baby plucked from its mother’s womb, clergy wearing conical white hats suggesting the Inquisition, a stage-within-the-stage, spinning mechanical gears and doubles who enact their own back stories in pantomime.
Most striking is the glowering presence of a character (naked but for a flesh-colored body stocking) who is only mentioned in the libretto: the ghost of a gypsy burned at the stake years earlier. It’s her daughter, Azucena, whose obsession with revenge drives the plot.
“I’d say the overall theme of the production is that none of the four principals could escape their family history,” Kaufmann said. “Everything they say, they do and they feel is a result of those awful things which happened in the past, therefore they don’t have a chance to live their own lives.”
Py’s crazy-quilt approach is guaranteed to horrify traditionalists, but Munich audiences are used to unconventional productions, so when the French director bounded out with an impish grin for his curtain call, he was greeted with as many cheers as boos.
For the singers, there were repeated foot-stomping ovations, the loudest being reserved for Kaufmann’s co-star, the sublime German soprano Anja Harteros as Leonora.
Kaufmann himself took a while to come into his own in his first outing as Manrico. In the ensembles of the first two acts, the dark quality of his voice made it sometimes hard to distinguish his timbre from that of Russian baritone Alexey Markov, singing the role of the Count di Luna, his deadly rival.
After intermission, things improved dramatically, starting with the extended aria in which Manrico looks forward to his wedding to Leonora, then shifts gears and rushes off to try to rescue Azucena (sung by the Russian mezzo-soprano Elina Manistina).
His elegant phrasing and ardent tone in “Ah! Si, ben mio” – complete with delicate trills – were ravishing. And he brought fire and clarion sound to the rousing cabaletta, “Di quella pira,” singing both verses and interpolating the traditional high notes, though he took them down a half-tone to B natural.
“Of course the audience is waiting for ‘Di quella pira,’ ” Kaufmann said. “I recorded a version with two stanzas and two high Cs and it worked very well. But to do this on stage in my first production would mean to take a too-high risk, so the team in Munich and I decided to do the transposed version.”
Kaufmann, at 43 possibly the most-in-demand tenor in the world today, is notable for the wide range of his repertoire: Wagner, French opera, and increasingly the heavier Verdi and Puccini roles. And he clearly intends to keep it that way.
“It may be my voice is darker than that of many tenors in the Italian repertoire,” Kaufmann said. “But I don’t see that means I should stick to Wagner.”
“I’m glad that I could sing Faust after Siegmund, and Manrico after Lohengrin and Parsifal,” he added. “And I will go on with that – not only because it would be a bore for me if I would sing always the same five, six parts, but also for vocal health. I’m convinced that singing Verdi is very good for singing Wagner and vice versa.”
Now that he’s tackled Manrico, his next new Verdi role is Don Alvaro in “La Forza del Destino,” which he’s singing in Munich this fall. After that, inevitably, is a pinnacle of the repertory, the title role of “Otello.”
“It’s one of the most exciting, most complex, most interesting and most beautiful parts you can imagine,” Kaufmann said. “And it’s one of the most demanding and most dangerous as well, mostly because of the emotional impact. You can easily hurt yourself vocally if you lose control. That’s the reason why I haven’t sung the part yet. Conductors and directors keep asking me, but we will have to wait another couple of years.”
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