Review: “Il Trovatore” Pulls Out All the Stops at L.A. Opera

Raehann Bryce-Davis as Azucena. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Verdi’s Il Trovatore proves there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing.

After a painful hiatus of almost two years, LA Opera returned in lavish style with the Gala Opening of Verdi’s ever-popular Il Trovatore. An audience favorite and timeless classic, the opera demonstrates why revenge is a timeless theme that never fails to satisfy. Along with Rigoletto (1851) and La Traviata (1853), it’s often called an essential component of the “Verdi Trilogy,” a trio of operas that marked a breakout for the composer and a shift towards a communion between the drama of the characters through a new musical language. The libretto was adapted from Antonio García Gutiérrez’s 1836 Spanish play, El Trovador by the always reliable Salvatore Cammarano, in what would be his last collaboration with Verdi.

Guanqun Yu as Leonora and Limmie Pulliam as Manrico. Photo: Cory Weaver, LA Opera.

The plot of the opera has long been ridiculed by critics and audiences alike — fiery Gypsy curses, babies switched at birth, ghosts, and revenge from beyond the grave, Even The Marx Brothers made Verdi’s work the target of their fun in A Night at the Opera, their 1935 MGM film that had Groucho, Chico and Harpo making mayhem out of melodrama. But lest we forget, it has inspired four of Verdi’s most unforgettable characters. Every opera has its challenges, and for Il Trovatore, it’s trying to stage scenes in which almost all of the action takes place elsewhere. A war is fought between scenes, a duel occurs offstage, a pyre is built, but then the scene shifts.

Vladimir Stoyanov as Count di Luna. Photo: Cory Weaver, LA Opera.

The story is so intricate, even considered convoluted by some, that to attempt to explain it would only cause more confusion. If we look at only the action in the present, we find that the Conte Di Luna (Vladimir Stoyanov) is madly in love with Princess Leonora (Guanqun Yu), who does not return his affections. Instead, she loves an unknown Troubadour named Manrico (Limmie Pulliam). This love is enough to make Manrico the Conte’s mortal enemy. Meanwhile, Manrico’s mother, the gypsy Azucena (Raehann Bryce-Davis) has raised Manrico to wreak vengeance on the house of the Conte Di Luna for a horrific wrong committed in the past. Manrico and the Conte find themselves on opposite sides of a civil war, but Manrico has strangely found it impossible to kill the Conte even when he’s had the chance. Eventually, the Conte captures and imprisons Manrico and his mother and condemns both to death, but Leonora has come up with a desperate plan to save Manrico’s life. She makes a deal with the Count: “Take me, but let Manrico go free.”

Vladimir Stoyanov as Count di Luna, Christian Scott as the ghost of Azucena’s mother, and Raehann Bryce-Davis as Azucena

As Azucena, mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce–Davis (Eurydice, Roberto Devereux) commands the stage with strength and sensibility. Her vocal talents are only amplified by her excellent portrayal of a schizophrenic mother being constantly driven by strong feelings of revenge and the presence of the ghosts of her dead mother and son. Bryce-Davis embraced the wickedly complex character of the gypsy Azucena with gusto as she scaled the wild vocal demands and swept the audience into the gypsy’s dark mindset. A formidable performer, she is only too well aware that in reality, the opera is truly about her, and not her son, the namesake troubadour.

Limmie Pulliam as Manrico and Vladimir Stoyanov as Count di Luna. Photo: Cory Weaver, LA Opera.

The role of Trovatore (Manrico) is brought to life by the gifted tenor Limmie Pulliam (Othello, Pagliacci). His tone was remarkably broad and powerful, conveying Manrico’s urgency and desperation. In his two most tender love songs, Pulliam expressed his torment of being torn between romantic passion and family duty flawlessly. Bulgarian baritone, Vladimir Stoyanov (Rigoletto, Tosca) portrays a dashing Count Di Luna who creates conflicting feelings among the audience as the villain who is also in love with our heroine Leonora, swinging between blind vengeance and romantic obsession. Verdi composed the most beautiful baritone aria for Count Di Luna with Il Balen Del Suo Sorriso. Stoyanov did not disappoint, giving a delicate and profound rendition which was celebrated by the audience during the opening night performance. Soprano Guanqun Yu (The Marriage of Figaro, The Ghosts of Versailles) was stunning as princess Leonora. Torn from her beloved Manrico, now sentenced to death, Yu masterfully captured the tragedy of Le pene del mio cor (The pain in my heart), hitting the most elaborate notes of the evening with poignance and power. The stark scenery and monochromatic costumes by Louis Désiré may feel a tad too derivative of The Matrix, but with all that explosive drama unfolding, the contemporization serves the opera well.

— Victor Riobo

Verdi’s Il Trovatore is playing at the LA Opera through October 10th. More information and tickets HERE.