Everything that's right about romantic Italian opera, and everything that's wrong, comes into focus in Verdi's Il Trovatore. The plotline cries out for parody, and has been handsomely treated in that regard by the Brothers Marx in A Night at the Opera and by Gilbert and Sullivan with their theme of baby-switching in both HMS Pinafore and The Gondoliers. The music takes a few direct hits, too, as it deserves, including a Jelly Roll Morton improv on what he called “The Misery” – a.k.a. “Miserere.”
Sitting ducks for ridicule that both music and story may seem today, there are moments in Verdi's opera that nobody should be obliged to live without. My favorite comes at the end of Act 2. Leonora, believing Manrico dead at the hands of his rival the Count di Luna, comes to join a convent. Di Luna and his men mean to kidnap Leonora at the convent gates; he sings of his being smitten with love, and the men do a “hurry up” number – “Andiam, andiam” in an urgent staccato while the action, of course, completely stops. Then comes magic; from inside the convent a chorus of nuns creates a ravishing melodic line; it becomes a descant over the onstage “andiams,” demonstrating at once the sublime power of opera to meld simultaneous but conflicting actions and emotions into a single musical structure, and Verdi's equally sublime power to turn an audience into butter by the sheer beauty of melody. Simple in substance – perhaps also simple-minded and simplistic – Il Trovatore is basic opera.
That makes it all the more unfathomable that Stephen Lawless, who directs the Los Angeles Opera's first-ever Trovatore, has gone to so much misguided effort to invest the opera with a burden of symbolism, interior meanings and, yes, even s-e-x, whose only result is to bury everything pure and elemental in the work. The set of Benoit Dugardyn is basically a box, floor to ceiling, made up of separate panels that can move around on the stage and even, at times, come between the audience and the action. They are ugly on their own, and will be badly lit even when the crew gets the cues in order, as they weren't on opening night. Swords are everywhere: stuck in the ground, hanging from above. Gusts of flame burst out of the stage floor; Manrico delivers his “Di quella pira” into what looks like a very pleasant fireplace. During the “Miserere,” Leonora picks her way across a stage littered with corpses, pausing to fondle one. The witch-burning only described in the opera is re-enacted onstage, twice. Some of Verdi's ballet music for the opera, justly neglected, has been revived to accompany the gang rape of a Gypsy maiden by six soldiers in Andrew George's choreography.
It has taken the Los Angeles Opera 12 seasons to get around to Il Trovatore. The work demands (and deserves) the world's most expensive voices, to deploy their luxurious high C's – B's this time, since the Manrico sings his big aria transposed down – as weapons in this battle against dramatic verities. (I cannot separate my love of this opera from the sound of Leontyne Price's Leonora, live or on disc.) Reports from beyond the mountains tell me that operatic singing on a grand – and, thus, expensive – scale still flourishes here and there. You wouldn't have learned it at the Music Center last Saturday.
Carol Vaness is a strong, intelligent singer in killer Mozart roles, but her Leonora, to put it succinctly, lacked balls; she delivered her extraordinary music cleanly, accurately, but with no conception of Verdian heat. As I did after her Tosca last year, I think she is miscast in Italian opera. (Next season: La Traviata.) The same goes for Jorma Hynninen's di Luna: a fine classical artist with a juiceless voice. As Manrico, Vladimir Bogachov manfully covered the dynamic range from fortissimo upward but also let loose a few ill-advised, strangulated attempts at pianissimo. As Azucena, Nina Terentieva stole the show; she, of them all, had what you could have taken as a genuine Verdian throb, along with some non-Verdian pitch wanderings early on that she later overcame. Of credible stage acting there was none, but nobody goes to Trovatore for great theater. On the podium Gabriele Ferro lit fires of his own with some blatant exaggerations of Verdi's red-hot brass scoring. He kept things moving, all right; but nobody goes to Trovatore for the conducting, either.
The giants pass on; Mel Powell, who died of cancer last week at 75, was one. What a Count di Luna he might have made, with that rich, booming baritone of his wrapped around a gorgeous, invented rhetoric that could turn “What time is it?” into high lyric art. So far as I know, Mel never sang outside the shower, but that's one of the few of life's possibilities that he did leave unexplored. In my college years, when the true classical aficionado risked ostracism by listening to anything on the “other” side, I heard a couple of Commodore 78s by a swing band led by a teenage pianist named Mel Powell – with Benny Goodman sitting in on clarinet under the name of Shoeless Joe Jackson – and suddenly realized that great minds could exist on that side as well.
Fifty years' worth of history since that time records Powell's defection to the classical side; the onset of muscular dystrophy made touring with a band unthinkable. Then came studies with Paul Hindemith at Yale; founding that school's experimental center for electronic music (one of this country's first); coming West in 1969 to help found the California Institute of the Arts; settling in at CalArts for the next three decades as teacher and morale officer to generations of hopeful young composers. The great thing about Mel's teaching, former students tell me, was his refusal to impose his own stylistic earmarks onto other people's music. The great thing about Mel himself was . . . well, Mel.
There aren't nearly enough recordings. Several of the early Benny Goodman Band reissues have him on piano; he first played with Goodman in 1937, at 14 (as Melvin Epstein). I defy anyone not to fall in love with the fellow who plays (and also composed) the rippling, tickling piece called “The Earl,” which comes on a Goodman disc on Sony called Clarinet a la King, Volume 2. A smattering of Mel's chamber music – tight little flickering pieces like intricately carved, iridescent stones – is available, but not, alas, his vocal works, the Haiku Settings and the Little Companion Pieces. His 30-minute, Pulitzer-winning two-piano concerto called Duplicates (available on Harmonia Mundi with several valuable shorter works) accurately measures the wit, the endearing tenderness and the awesome imagination of this man. They won't be easy to replace.