It's often said that opera is the best of all art forms because it incorporates so many of the others: music, theater and visual art. But, really, it all comes down to the singing.
A case in point is Utah Opera's current production of Verdi's "Il Trovatore." There is singing galore, some of it stunning, but other aspects are less dramatically satisfying. At times it seems almost like concert opera, despite a juicy plot that involves Gypsy curses, a love triangle, swapped babies, swordfighting and burnings at the stake.
"Trovatore" is a textbook example of the "number opera" a string of arias, duets and ensemble numbers, as opposed to the kind of continuously flowing music drama created by the likes of Wagner and Puccini. The sparse set used in Utah Opera's production, designed by Allen Moyer for Minnesota Opera, is dominated by two hulking walls that jut rather ominously into the performance space; a giant gilded frame around the stage adds another layer of confinement.
Kevin Newbury's stage direction seems to embrace rather than fight those limitations. Many of the arias are delivered in old-fashioned "stand and sing" mode, and the singers tend to play their roles with understatement. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, since Verdi's music tells us everything we need to know about the characters. But the static staging makes many of the scenes feel more like paintings than opera scenes.
The lighting, designed by D.M. Wood, lacks the subtle artistry that characterizes longtime Utah Opera lighting designer Nicholas Cavallaro's work. At times, the singers are lighted from the floor grates for no clear reason. Occasional appearances by the ghost of Azucena's mother, sometimes holding a baby (her grandson?), likewise provide more puzzlement than illumination.
But, after all, opera comes down to singing. And if you like good singing, stick with this one. The opera contains a staggering number of memorable tunes. (The "Anvil Chorus," one of the most famous numbers in this or any opera, isn't even the best tune in its scene.) Those tunes burst forth one after another, and the singers appear to increase in confidence and enjoyment with each one.
Utah Opera has assembled a strong and well-matched quartet of principals. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop, who portrays the Gypsy woman Azucena, was arguably the standout on opening night Saturday, singing with power and finesse all evening. Soprano Jennifer Check, as the stalwart noblewoman Leonora, took a little longer to hit her stride, but her declaration of love for the Gypsy troubadour Manrico in the last act was a knockout. Tenor Scott Piper, as Manrico, was understated at times, but gave a thrilling performance of the opera's best-known aria, "Di quella pira." Baritone Michael Chioldi sang with power and menace, making Count di Luna a love-to-hate-him villain.
Excellent support came from bass Mark Schnaible, as the soldier Ferrando; the Utah Symphony, conducted by Robert Tweten; and the Utah Opera Chorus (particularly the men), prepared by Susanne Sheston.
Utah Opera opens its season with Verdi's "Il Trovatore."
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
When • Reviewed Saturday, Oct. 13; continues Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Oct. 15, 17 and 19, at 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday, Oct. 21.
Running time • About 2 1/2 hours,including two intermissions.
Tickets • $13-$78.
Learn more • Carol Anderson will give preview lectures one hour before curtain; company boss Christopher McBeth will conduct a Q&A after each performance.