My recent preview "A Director Tackles an Opera He Loves to Hate" (New York Times, February 15, 2009), prompted several readers to comment that if David McVicar has such a poor opinion of Il Trovatore, he should not have directed it, and that the Metropolitan Opera should never have given him the job. Let's think about that.
Some theater directors make it their business to demolish works they hate, and there are viewers (though seldom numerous and seldom American) who profess to find this approach highly tonic. But McVicar's stated agenda was to make Il Trovatore work on Verdi's terms. What's objectionable about that? A devil's advocate on the side of the angels.
In Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann's deep, dark meditation about the creative imagination, the chilly Adrian Leverkühn declares that he knows a passion greater than love: intellectual curiosity (Interesse). In a director, that passion can serve an audience very well.
Love is blind, as the world knows, but love is not catching. Put Il Trovatore (or any other opera, or any other play) into the hands of a director who loves it, and maybe all its flaws will stand out in high relief. An intellectually curious director may find ways to downplay them or, better still, to use them as clues to an interpretation that is more convincing. Either way, the outcome is unpredictable.
True enough, the action of Il Trovatore poses some challenges, chiefly with respect to the back story, which involves a kidnapped infant and death by fire. Swordplay by moonlight, an abduction from a convent, and suicide by poison make for moments of white-hot melodrama that cool heads may find ridiculous. Along the way, there is the stumbling block of the Anvil Chorus, with noisy gypsies clattering away, which almost everyone finds ridiculous. Yet Il Trovatore remains one of the glories of Italian opera: swift, violent, and drenched in some of the most ravishing melodies Verdi ever wrote. All the more embarrassing, then, that the Met's last two productions—Fabrizio Melano's in 1987 and Graham Vick's in 2000—were unqualified fiascos.
The McVicar Trovatore, originally mounted two seasons ago at Lyric Opera of Chicago, had its Met premiere on Monday. (It was his house debut.) If the welcome from the public fell short of a 21-gun salute, it certainly registered as cordial. (No boos!) The action was updated from medieval 1409 to Goya's 19th century, which worked. The prima donna, Sondra Radvanovsky, might have spent less time on the floor, I thought. And the mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, in the pivotal role of vengeful gypsy Azucena, might have been discouraged from trotting to the footlights at every opportunity. (Her knowing, satanic snickers were equally ill-judged.) But these were details.
And the Big Picture? McVicar's show actually looked like Il Trovatore and played like Il Trovatore. Wonder of wonders, it even delivered a sensational Anvil Chorus. To one side of the bustling gypsy camp, bathed in firelight, bare-chested smiths struck hammers to steel with a will, setting the whole house ringing. Here was the marriage of music and spectacle for which we call opera grand.