NEW YORK—Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) originally thought of calling his 1853 opera “The Gypsy,” but instead kept the title of the play on which it was based, “Il Trovatore” (“The Troubadour”). While the troubadour is the romantic hero of the work, it is the gypsy Azucena, in her obsessive quest for vengeance, who pushes the action forward. If Verdi had seen the current revival at the Metropolitan Opera, he might have reverted to his impulse for the original title because of the powerful portrayal of Azucena by the Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili.
“Il Trovatore” is one of those operas where great music prevails over a ridiculous plot. The Marx Brothers highlighted and heightened the absurdity in their film “A Night at the Opera.”
As originally written, the action takes place during the Spanish Civil War of the 15th century. Sir David McVicar, who staged the Met production in 2009, moved the events to the 19th century, during the Napoleonic Wars.
Charles Edwards’s set design and Jennifer Tipton’s lighting reflect the influence of Spanish artist Francisco de Goya, who memorably depicted the savagery of war during that era.
Count di Luna (leader of the royalist troops) and the leader of the rebels, Manrico, are both in love with Leonora. The two rivals and enemies are unaware that they are brothers.
Years earlier, their father had burned a gypsy woman at the stake. Her daughter Azucena vowed revenge and kidnapped one of the nobleman’s sons. She intended to throw him into the fire, but in the confusion tossed in her own baby instead. (Gilbert and Sullivan made fun of this plot device of a baby mixup in “The Gondoliers.”) Azucena raised Manrico without revealing the secret of his birth.
Manrico successfully woos Leonora, posing as a troubadour. The brothers cross swords, but they both survive. Leonora later learns that Manrico has been injured in battle and, thinking him dead, decides to enter a convent.
Di Luna attacks the convent to take Leonora by force, but Manrico manages to escape with her. However, di Luna’s men capture Azucena, and the count orders a pyre for her execution. When Manrico learns of this, he postpones plans of marriage to rush to the defense of the woman who raised him. The rebels lose the battle, and the count orders Manrico put to death along with Azucena.
Leonora offers herself to the count in exchange for Manrico’s life and secretly takes slow-acting poison. She dies in her lover’s arms, and di Luna sends him to be executed. When he is, Azucena announces that her mother’s death has been avenged since the count has taken the life of his brother.
“Il Trovatore” is filled with memorable arias as well as the famous “Anvil Chorus.”
Maria Agresta was originally scheduled to play Leonora, but when she canceled for health reasons, American soprano Jennifer Rowley took over the run. She makes clear why she is considered a rising star. From “Tacea la notte placida” in the first act to the “Miserere” in Act 3 and the final trio, her voice is bright and filled with emotion.
Another American, baritone Quinn Kelsey, is a full-toned Count di Luna. His “Il balen” is one of the evening’s highlights.
South Korean tenor, dashing Yonghoon Lee, has made a specialty of the role of Manrico, the fighting troubadour. He has the looks of a romantic hero and even sounds heroic. His “Di quella pira” is sung with the requisite power and high notes, while “Ah, sì, ben mio” is done with sensitivity and even a bit of the trills that most tenors omit.
Stefan Kocan brings his dark bass to Ferrando, making his narrative “Di due figli vivea padre beato” at the beginning of the opera unusually compelling.
The surprise of the production is the powerful Azucena by Rachvelishvili. She had distinguished herself previously at the Met in the title role of “Carmen” and in “Prince Igor.” However, she has only recently started singing Verdi roles, and “Il Trovatore” is her first by the composer at the Met.
She gives a go-for-broke performance as the unhinged character that repeatedly brings the house down. Hopefully, the Met will cast her in future seasons: as Eboli in “Don Carlo” and Amneris in “Aida.”
The chorus and orchestra perform with gusto under the baton of Marco Armiliato.
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.