Gala opening nights that live up to their promise seldom come around, but the one put on by San Diego Opera in Civic Theatre on Saturday, when the company began its 35th season with a new production of "Il Trovatore," arrived a winner--a major accomplishment.
Conducted in a masterly fashion by Edoardo Muller, with effective stage direction by company general director Ian Campbell and handsome, uncluttered new sets by John David Peters, this revival of Verdi's most maligned masterpiece--great music overlying a one-dimensional plot--restores the work's artistic integrity with serious music-making and full-out performances.
Most important--all-important--is the singing, here situated on a high vocal plateau one might not think possible in a world recently lacking the kinds of Verdi voices the composer requires. The five principals and two secondary singers all occupy their roles with appropriate sound, technical resources and dramatic integration.
To put them in some kind of order, one must note first a major discovery in the soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, an American who has gone through the Metropolitan Opera's young artists program, has sung at the Met and is only now making her first professional Southern California appearances.
Radvanovsky's voice is voluminous, effortlessly resonant and beauteous; Saturday, she sang Leonora's challenging arias with aplomb. With care and further development--one feels, for instance, that her already strong top notes have not yet fully blossomed--her career should grow beyond the promise of many of her peers.
The poised soprano interacted particularly well with her male colleagues, Richard Margison as Manrico and Richard Zeller as Di Luna, a pair of musical heroes for once well matched in dramatic intensity and vocal accomplishment.
Margison delivered all aspects of this demanding role with ease and confidence, from the early peaks of the part through the stentorian heights of an impressive "Di quella pira" and then in the equally exposing lyric demands of the prison scene. Zeller's Di Luna emerged rich-voiced and three-dimensional; he sang with ardor and became a credible force in the drama--no hissing villain, he. One can imagine a Macbeth in Zeller's future--perhaps even with Radvanovsky as his Lady.
Consistent and handsome of voice, Kathryn Day's serviceable Azucena seemed held in check, both as a character and as a vocal presence; for a former soprano, she disappointed in particular at the top of the staff.
Strong support came from Brian Matthews' impetuous, well-sung Ferrando, and from Peter Blanchet's resonant Ruiz and Patricia McAfee's sympathetic Inez.
Trained by Timothy Todd Simmons, the choruses--the men especially--sang lustily but with impressive articulation and clarity.
Muller's leadership in the pit cannot be overpraised--for musical rightness, consistent instrumental balances and stylish playing.
John Conklin's costumes, originally for Seattle Opera, proved elegant, regal and varied, and looked especially rich under Marie Barrett's effective and versatile lighting design. Peters' airy and spacious sets are admirable for the way they avoid gimmickry yet set an appropriate tone for the drama, aided by Barrett's lighting.
Rather than fill the stage with swords and candles and endless campfires--as did another Southern California "Trovatore" recently--Peters uses the stage as a repository of feelings, not props. It works.
* San Diego Opera presents Verdi's "Il Trovatore" in Civic Theatre, 202 C Street, San Diego, Tuesday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. and Feb. 2 at 7 p.m. $31-$98. (619) 570-1100.