SAN JOSÉ, Calif. – It’s February, and that means the second half of Opera San Jose’s 2019-2020 season is upon us. This year, the Giuseppe Verdi’s tragedy Il trovatore kicks off part two of the current season. No one portrays human tragedy as deeply and riveting as Verdi. If you are a fan of La traviata, Il trovatore is perfect for you. It is an emotional roller coaster ride full of love, hate, betrayal and revenge as only Verdi can deliver.
Based on the play El trovador by Spanish playwright Antonio García Gutiérrez, Il trovatore (The troubadour) was adapted for the composer by librettist Salvatore Cammarano. The opera is well-known for its powerful score full of beautiful arias. Il trovatore also boasts one of the most famous choral melodies ever written, the “Anvil Chorus.”
Mixing personal vendetta, a tragic love triangle, and a gypsy’s lifelong obsession for revenge into one melodramatic love story, this classic Italian opera has become a beloved favorite of audiences around the world. And Saturday evening’s performance of Il trovatore definitely earned fans in San José.
The backstory of Il trovatore
Verdi introduces us to two arch-rivals, Count di Luna (a nobleman in the service of the Prince of Aragon) and Manrico (an officer in the army of the Prince of Urgel, also the opera’s troubadour). Both, unfortunately, love the same woman, the noble Leonora. Leonora, in fact, is madly in love with Manrico, even as she is aggressively courted by the Count.
We also learn the tragic story of a gypsy woman. Wrongly accused of being a witch, she was burned alive. Her dying wish was for her daughter, Azucena, to avenge her. Crazed with fury and sorrow, Azucena abducted one of two noble brothers. Now presumed dead – but possibly still alive – brother No. 2 was said to have been burned to death by Azucena. The remaining brother is Count di Luna, who is out to seek out Azucena and find his brother. Spoiler alert: As we soon discover, the dead or missing brother is none other than Manrico, which gives us the conflict. And the opera.
Leonora confesses her love for the troubadour, Manrico, to her confident while in her palace garden. Both our love-stricken rivals materialize at about the same time, with the count appearing as Leonora rushes to the arms of Manrico. The count challenges his rival to a duel over their common love. Leonora tries to stop them, but boys will be boys. Manrico wins the battle, but does not kill the count. Both vocalists put on powerful performances in this scene in particular, keeping Saturday’s audience on the edge of their seats.
A tragic deception
Next, we are introduced to Azucena, the gypsy woman described in the opera’s first scene. We discover she has long posed as Manrico’s mother, a fact that leads to the final tragedy of Il trovatore. She tells the story of how her mother was burned at the stake in one of the most emotional arias in the opera. Azucena confesses to Manrico that she intended to push a royal count’s brother into the fire. But in her emotional confusion, she pushed her own son in the fire instead. Manrico, realizing that his mother is not really his mother, comforts her nonetheless, relating to her personal tragedy. It’s at this point the audience realizes Manrico must be the long lost brother to the count. No one else seems aware of this.
di Luna’s army later discovers Azucena wandering near their camp and captures her, as the guards and Ferrando recognize her as the murderer of the count’s brother. The guard orders her execution by burning. When news of her capture and imminent death reach Manrico, he summons his men and prepares for battle.
The worst is yet to come
Manrico is captured and soon awaits execution with Azucena. Meanwhile Leonora attempts to free Manrico the only way she knows how, by herself. (Aria: D’amor sull’ali rosee / “On the rosy wings of love”; Chorus & Duet: Miserere / “Lord, thy mercy on this soul”) She begs di Luna for mercy and offers herself in place of her lover, promising to give herself to the count. But she secretly swallows poison from her ring, planning to die before di Luna can possess her (Duet: Mira, d’acerbe lagrime / “See the bitter tears I shed”). The singing here was extraordinary, pulling the audience into the final, tragic moments of the opera.
Leonora comes to Manrico, tells him that he is saved and begging him to escape. But when he discovers she cannot accompany him, he refuses to leave his prison. Worse, he believes Leonora has betrayed him. That is, until he realizes she has taken poison to remain true to him. As she dies in agony in Manrico’s arms, she confesses that she prefers to die with him than to marry another (Trio: Prima che d’altri vivere / “Rather than live as another’s”).
The count has heard Leonora’s last words and orders Manrico’s execution. Azucena awakens and tries to stop di Luna. Once Manrico is dead, she cries: Egli era tuo fratello! Sei vendicata, o madre. / “He was your brother … You are avenged, oh mother!”
Many in the audience were teary-eyed. Hearts pounding in our chests as the opera concluded with cries of “Brava!” and “Bravo!” bursting forth from the crowd.
A superb cast of singers
Opera San José (OSJ) recruited a cast of superbly accomplished vocal artists for this production. American soprano Kerriann Otaño stars as Leonora, a noble lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Aragon. Mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman fills the second female lead role as Azucena, the gypsy with a secret. Both vocalists sang with power and authority.
Tenors Mackenzie Gotcher and Alexander Boyer alternate as Manrico, while Baritones SeungHyeon Baek and Eugene Brancoveanu alternate as Count di Luna, a nobleman who serves the Prince of Aragon.
Returning to OSJ as a guest artist this season, American bass Nathan Stark sings the role of Count di Luna’s officer, Ferrando. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Sanchez stars as Ines, Leonora’s confidante. And Mason Gates returns as an associate member of OSJ’s resident company this season, appearing as Ruiz.
The Opera San José company always impresses, and this production of Il trovatore is no exception. The production embodied the grace, emotion, and passion you might expect from a larger company like the Chicago Lyric Opera or New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
Sung in Italian, OSJ’s Il trovatore features English supertitles. Run time: approximately three hours, including intermission. The creative team includes Joseph Marcheso (Conductor), Brad Dalton (Stage Director); Steven Kemp (Set Designer); Elizabeth Poindexter (Costume Design); Alyssa Oania (Costume Director); Michael Palumbo (Lighting Designer); Christina Martin (Wigs/Makeup); and Christopher James Ray (Chorus Master). Christopher Ray, Opera San José’s current Resident Conductor, will conducting performances on February 28 and March 1.
Food and lodging
For those looking to grab a bite prior to the show, a of few San José’s favorite restaurants are within walking distance of the opera:
- Paper Plane: good for finger food bites and killer cocktails
- 71 Saint Peter: Cali-Euro dinning with good wine
- District: good wine list with light bar bites
- Picasso’s Tapas: authentic Spanish dishes and tasty paellas
If you’re overnighting in town, these hotels are walking distance to the California Theatre, and are excellent options.
- The Westin San José
- Fairmont San José
- Four Points by Sheraton
- San José Marriott
Tickets and information
OSJ’s Il trovatore runs through March 1, 2020 at the California Theatre.
For tickets ($55-$195), visit operasj.org or call (408) 437-4450.
— Headline image: L-R: Manrico (Mackenzie Gotcher) attackx Count di Luna (Eugene Brancoveanu) as Leonora (Kerriann Otaño) tries to intervene. Photo Credit: David Allen