(photo credit: MAYA ILTUS)

Il Trovatore: Israeli Opera shows depths of human anguish during wartime - review


Verdi’s Il Trovatore The Israeli Opera, Tel AvivJune 23

A hooded Romani woman (Shay Bloch as Azucena) slowly pulls an empty wooden cart as she passes a Spanish captain (Leonard Bernad as Ferrando) who boasts he will capture her. A rejected lover (Sebastian Catana as Di Luna) descends a staircase to see his valet turning away from him, carrying his drink. A fearful mob pushes back the unseen soul of an allegedly evil witch with chair legs held high – these are some of the details which make the Israeli Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore (“The Troubadour”) a flawless adaptation of a popular opera.

Director Daniele Abbado sets the characters against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Combatants execute captured foes with pistol shots to the temple and are led in battle by an army chaplain holding a golden crucifix. They do so without knowing who they are and whom they face.

Portraying the horrors of the Spanish Civil War

The Troubadour, Manrico (Leonardo Caimi) takes part in a jousting tournament without a crest, so Leonora (Marta Torbidoni) does not know his identity. Neither does she know he was the son of the Romani woman Azucena. Manrico did not know he is the brother of his rival Di Luna, and so on.

Set designer Graziano Gregori and costume designer Carla Teti create a fierce, romantic vision equal to the 1819 painting “The Raft of the Medusa” by Théodore Géricault. Like that painting, the performers are frozen mid-act when Ferrando enters and urges them to open their eyes (“All’erta! all’erta!”).

He then informs them about the “horrid gypsy, a dark, wrinkled woman” who was burned alive for bewitching the lost brother of Di Luna (“Di due figli vivea padre beato”). Like a great key being turned, this aria gives momentum to the entire opera.

‘IL TROVATORE’ (credit: Courtesy)
‘IL TROVATORE’ (credit: Courtesy)

The horror of public burnings is referred to repeatedly. A fiery furnace is revealed in the background and later, during the third act, a wall of flames separates the audience from Azucena when she is captured by Di Luna and forced to imagine she will share the fate of her dead mother (“Deh! rallentate, o barbari!”).  

The sad lives of the Romani, who lack even chairs to be able to use their legs with which to fend off spirits – or houses with stairs to ascend and descend – are examined in the Israeli Opera’s brilliant performance of “Rise Flames” during which Azucena describes horrible events while gazing into a caravan camp fire.

The cartwheel that Azucena pulls in the first act is used to hoist a cannon during the anvil chorus. This is a clever visual cue as a depiction of a cartwheel on their own flag represents the traveling Romani people. This might be understood as a sly reference to how they, as other minorities, are assimilated into the workings of a state without getting much out of it in return.

As the barrel is blessed by the church, the crowd chants “La zingarella!”. Israel Ouval opted to translate the Italian to English as “Gypsy Power” instead of the standard “Romani Girl.” This heightens the conflict between those who are “just playing now, but will soon spill blood” (“Or co’dadi ma fra poco”) and those who confront the soldiers saying “Put out the fire, or I will douse it with your blood” as Manrico did when he attempted to rescue his mother from the flames.

Torbidoni gives such a stellar performance as Leonora the audience refused to let it go unnoticed. The ovations after her “D’amor sull’ali rosee” were so warm and so long that she paused and placed her hand close to her heart in gratitude. Similar appreciation was shown to Caimi for a fantastic performance.

It seems the opera season is approaching its end with this practically perfect production. Those eager to expand their understanding of how much hard work is required to attain such artistic heights might consider signing up for a special Opera Behind the Scenes Tour offered this Thursday.

Verdi’s Il Trovatore is conducted by Giuliano Carella; sung in Italian with English and Hebrew subtitles. Upcoming shows: June 28 (8 p.m.) and June 29 (6 p.m);  Tickets are NIS 195-NIS 445; the Behind the Scenes Tour is on Thursday, June 29, at 10 p.m. and 10:15 p.m. (NIS 20 per person). Call (03) 692777 for bookings. The Israel Opera is at 19 Shaul Hamelech St., Tel Aviv.

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