LA Opera - "Il trovatore"
Guanqun Yu as Leonora and Limmie Pulliam as Manrico in LA Opera’s production of Verdi’s Il trovatore | Credit: Cory Weaver/LA Opera

Of all the Trovatores in all the world, why, oh, why, did Los Angeles Opera opt for Francisco Negrin’s 2017 joint production (with Madrid’s Teatro Real and the Monte Carlo Opera, but new to LAO), to open its 35th season? Running Sept. 17 — Oct. 10, virtual screenings will also be made available Oct. 3 and 6.

Indeed, it was fantastic to be back in person at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which last presented Verdi’s middle-period masterpiece in 2004 in a Stephen Lawless production, but with the opera’s convoluted plot (Romani curses, babies switched at birth, brothers coming to blows over the same gal, demise by poison and stake-burning thrown in for bad measure — and all set against a backdrop of civil war), Il trovatore (The troubadour) has been a beast to mount in the best of times.

Yes, overcoming this chronically clichéd work begins with fine singers, which this production has, not quite in spades, but enough to offer several heart-stoppingly beautiful moments stemming from Verdi’s blood-and-fire score. Thanks to a rich tapestry of meaty arias and stunning cabalettas Trovatore, has been a staple of operatic repertory since its 1853 premiere.

LA Opera - "Il trovatore"
A scene from LA Opera’s production of Verdi’s Il trovatore | Credit: Cory Weaver/LA Opera

Unfortunately, the singers were often eclipsed by Louis Désiré’s raked, box-like set, which is mostly gray to boot. With a wraparound balcony and two movable illuminated beams, awkwardly pushed at times by the singers, as well as elements forming a cross (yes, there is a nunnery), there’s also a semblance of an eternal flame shining throughout. Nor was the Ikea-esque construction served well by Bruno Poet’s dreary lighting. Where is Robert Wilson when you need him?

Music Director James Conlon, marking his 16th season in the pit — and having recently re-upped his contract through the end of 2024–2025 — brought vigor and precision to the work, with the orchestra sounding in midseason form.

Onstage, the opera that Caruso once said required nothing but the four greatest singers in the world benefitted from mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis’s angst-ridden Azucena — she of the infant-tossing act to avenge her own mother’s death-by-fire. She gave a semi-scorching performance, her low notes a near-growl, her highs colored with dramatic heft, notably in “Stride la vampa” (The fire roars).

LA Opera - "Il trovatore"
Raehann Bryce-Davis as Azucena in LA Opera’s production of Verdi’s Il trovatore | Credit: Cory Weaver/LA Opera

Soprano Guanqun Yu’s doomed Leonora was able and willing to do much of her singing seated or lying down, as if as if she were a curious pawn on this blank chessboard. (And to think that, because of COVID-19 disruptions, four shipping containers transporting the opera’s sets from Monaco were forced to circle the Port of Los Angeles, causing LAO to scramble to construct its own set from scratch, at an estimated cost of — gulp — $300,000.) Ah, will the drama never cease? Not for Yu, who nevertheless managed to navigate the difficult role, producing lyricism and splendor in the process. 

As the titular troubadour Manrico, son of Azucena but in truth, brother to Count Di Luna, tenor Limmie Pulliam, making his LAO debut, sang with a somewhat blunted fervor, his upper reaches not always there. And, once again, by dint of Negrin’s awkward staging, he inexplicably warbled his love for Leonora in sunken mode, his large presence confined to a small, depressed area of the stage in Act III before being confined to a cigar-box-shaped tower where he awaited execution. (Gregory Kunde is Manrico Oct. 6–10.)

LA Opera - "Il trovatore"
Limmie Pulliam as Manrico in LA Opera’s production of Verdi’s Il trovatore | Credit: Cory Weaver/LA Opera

Completing the quartet was baritone Vladimir Stoyanov, also a newcomer to LAO. As the villainous, leather-clad, brother-killing Count di Luna, who is also in love with Leonora, he made good use of his acting chops as well as his strong singing, including stretched-to-the-max legato. In a small, but crucial role, Morris Robinson was an adept Ferrando, captain of the Count’s guard, who began telling the story at the opera’s start, albeit to several nonspeaking, wraith-like children.

The LAO chorus, under Grant Gershon’s always stellar direction, was in fine form — if only we could have seen the singers. Shrouded in yet more grey and opening Trovatore by literally crawling across the stage, these vocalists were again parts of Negrin’s directorial concept that contributed to the overall feeling of misery and missed opportunities.

LA Opera - "Il trovatore"
Vladimir Stoyanov as Count di Luna in LA Opera’s production of Verdi’s Il trovatore | Credit: Cory Weaver/LA Opera

Of course, one can understand why a director would choose to accentuate the ghastly/ghostly aspects of this dark drama. But throwing in a scene in which Leonora and Azucena are leashed together and engaged in a literal tug-of-war near the opera’s end was a further distraction from becoming emotionally involved with these characters.

Manrico and Leonora do, of course, die and Azucena’s moment of vengeance in telling the Count that he has committed fratricide is a dénouement, though not a substantial one in this production that amped up the bizarre, what with dead bodies, a flaccid swordfight, and silent children all part of the motley mix. Negrin’s obsession with the crone factor and rampant madness felt fragmented at best, lost in a sea of ambiguous confusion at worst.

LA Opera - "Il trovatore"
Vladimir Stoyanov (left) as Count di Luna and Guanqun Yu (right) as Leonora in LA Opera’s production of Verdi’s Il trovatore | Credit: Cory Weaver/LA Opera

After a 19-month pause, merely to be allowed to sit in the theater again should be reason to celebrate. Alas, we’re offered a wrong-headed production where the audience is meant to bear the curse. As Negrin, perhaps a fatalist, wrote in his notes: “Il trovatore is the weight of the past. That past that haunts us, that past that destroys all possibility of living in the present, the future or love.”

With COVID on the wane and, with any luck, soon to be in the rearview mirror (masks are still required indoors), here’s hoping we can move on and once again find the unmitigated joy and satisfaction Los Angeles Opera has so often provided the cultural community over the decades. Onward, please.