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 Verdi, Il trovatore: Soloists, orchestra and chorus of San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 19.9.2009 (HS)

Manrico: Marco Berti
Leonora: Sondra Radvanovsky
Azucena: Stephanie Blythe
Count di Luna: Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Ferrando: Burak Bilgili
Inez: Renée Tatum
Ruiz: Andrew Bidlack
A Messenger: Dale Tracy
A Gypsy: Bojan Knezevic

Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
Director: David McVicar
Revival Director: Walter Sutcliffe
Set Designer: Charles Edwards
Costume Designer: Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton
Choreographer: Leah Hausman

There’s nothing quite like a Verdi opera with big, dramatic voices, and the cast in San Francisco Opera’s initial offering for the 2009 fall season unleashed something like a hurricane with Verdi’s familiar Il trovatore. Heard Friday, both soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonara and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe as Azucena filled the 3,000-seat War Memorial Opera House with thrilling sound, and more importantly they delivered incisively dramatic singing to go along with their big volume.

In the title role, Manrico, tenor Marco Berti held his own with them, singing with clarity and power if not quite the individual distinction of the great tenors. Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky lacked their heft, which made him the odd man out. Come to think of it, his character is the one Leonora rejects in favor of Manrico, who was raised by the Gypsy Azucena, so maybe that’s appropriate. On second thought, no. Di Luna should hold his own vocally, and he didn’t quite.

The staging, by David McVicar, used a unit set that rumbled around on a noisy turntable. A high gray wall separated the scenes, but it served the purpose and did not get in the way. That’s fine, as the plot is much less important in Il trovatore than the music, which reflects the emotional connections of the characters. McVicar understood this, and he did not impose any directorial flourishes. He just created relatively realistic situations, and let the singers sing.

That left it to the voices and the orchestra, whipped into a controlled frenzy by Nicola Luisotti, conducting his first performances as the company’s new music director. He might have pushed the climaxes higher, but the wealth of detail he drew from the score and the impeccable balances he created with the singers satisfied immensely.

In the end, the engine that drove this production musically was Radvanovsky. Hers is not a conventionally beautiful soprano voice but like Maria Callas did so memorably, she can make it beautiful when she needs to. I invoke Callas deliberately. There were times when the incisiveness of her interpretation, the way she used her voice for telling dramatic effect, called Callas to mind. Her Act IV aria, “D'amor sull'ali rosee,” was spellbinding for its emotional twists and turns, dramatic singing of the highest order. In duets, especially “Mira, d'acerbe lagrime,” the one that followed with Count di Luna, she conjured situations so vividly that it was impossible to pay attention to anyone else.

Stephanie Blythe deployed a mezzo-soprano that descended into the lower register with astonishing power. Verdi gives Azucena that music for contrast and terrorizing power, and she delivered. She also has the impeccable fioratura to make “Stride la vampa” into a complete musical statement. The chorus followed with as rousing an “Anvil Chorus” as you’re likely to hear.

Berti’s bright tenor cut through the score like a laser. If he lacked the finesse to get all the musical turns in “Di quella pira,” he had the ringing high C to bring it home. It’s comforting to hear a tenor sing the role that doesn’t make one cringe waiting for that note.

That brings us to Hvorostovsky, who presented a suave figure, even finding opportunities to bare his chest. Musically, however, he was outclassed by this trio. And not just on power. He can usually make up for that with legato phrasing, sweet high notes and impressive breath control. This time he seemed to be struggling to keep his voice on track. In “Il balen,” his legato extended through single phrases but he didn’t quite link them together.

Bulgarian bass-baritone Burak Bilgili as Ferrando, sounded very much like an Eastern European singer, with covered tone,  making him another odd man out.

This performance was broadcast live to AT&T Park, the stadium that is home to the San Francisco Giants baseball team. This was the fourth in a series of semi-annual free transmissions, and it drew an estimated 25,000 opera fans to watch the performance on the giant high-definition screen and hear it on a state-of-the-art stadium audio system. That gave the singers permission to ham it up in their curtain calls, bounding on stage with large orange foam fingers, caps and baseball bats. One hopes it played well on the big screen.

Harvey Steiman

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