Monday, February 27, 2017

A beautifully realised Il trovatore from Melbourne's CitiOpera: Herald Sun Review

Published online Monday, 27th February and in print Tuesday, 28th February.

AT Saturday night’s opening of Verdi’s thrilling middle-period 1853 opera, Il trovatore (The Troubadour), CitiOpera’s meritorious effort accompanied their first foot in the door of the Athenaeum Theatre.

Chorus of gypsies, Act 2,  CitiOpera's Il trovatore
With its story residing in a grim melting pot of infanticide, revenge and mystery on a background of civil war, a love triangle is blown apart in a tragic finale few might see coming.

From director Stella Axarlis, what began with shades of cardboard-cutout dramatisation later gave way to full-bodied character immersion. The numerous fighting scenes, however, demanded more fluidity and aggression.

Axarlis and her creative team open the work in a time that reflects the 1930s Spanish Civil War then, for no apparent reason, plants it comfortably back in its original 16th-century setting. Nevertheless, it is beautifully realised with sharp and vibrant aesthetics.

Designer Erika Kimpton-Etter’s spare use of furnishings and large background projections of scene-defining architectural images allow full use of the tight stage. With Silvia and Fred Scodellaro’s refined costumes and Daniel Jow’s brooding lighting, the total effect becomes deceivingly multidimensional.

Four punishingly demanding principal roles shape the plot in which Verdi’s score creates ongoing tension. As again, Italian conductor Gaetano Colajanni’s contribution was invaluable, demonstrating a hunger to elucidate every turn and giving all four acts a sensitive and potent reading. Not a nerve hindered the 23-member orchestra who delivered with excellence.

Fiona Jopson and Yoon Byung Kil
In a startling performance that signals a solid career ahead, 2015 Herald Sun Aria winner Fiona Jopson enchanted as the appropriately noble Leonora, holding the stage alone in a performance highlight in Act 4’s D’amor sull’ali rosee / “On the rosy wings of love”. Jopson inhabited her role with poise and ease, portraying her character’s complexities from little joys to anguish with a gleaming soprano ripe with elegance, dynamism and flexibility.

She gives her heart convincingly to titular troubadour Manrico, who sturdy Italianate Korean tenor Yoon Byung Kil imbued with fortitude alongside some overly battle-ready stoicism that eventually melts in Ah sì, ben mio, coll’essere / “Ah, yes, my love, in being yours”, Acts 3’s emotional assurance of his love for Leonora.

Mezzo-soprano Helen Hill served up a dark and rich brew as Manrico’s adopted mother, Azucena, but vocal and dramatic gaps in the taxing destructible force to avenge her mother’s death on the pyre tarnished the impact.

With the capacity to embody a range of Verdian baritone roles, emerging young artist Samuel Thomas-Holland impressed with savvy use of text and a vast range of vocal ammunition to characterise the odious Count di Luna’s frightening extremes. As his Captain of the Guard, Adam Jon cut a finely polished Ferrando and smaller roles down to the one-liners were also handled admirably.

Bar a few wobbles, the voluntary chorus didn’t miss their chance to shine either as soldiers and gypsies but, as nuns, the most radiant-voiced singing ascended. And, the popular Anvil Chorus? That, thankfully, came with sound hammering vitality.

Now it’s up to Citiopera to keep the momentum going, build its audience and unfurl their next project before the year’s out.

Athenaeum Theatre, until 4th March
Frankston Arts Centre, 12th March
Wyndham Cultural Centre, 25th March

Rating: three and a half stars

Production photos: Robin Halls

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