Trovatore Succeeds in a Small Space

Michelle Johnson (Leonora) and Dominick Rodriguez (Manrico) - Photo by Davis Tucker
Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore is a classic opera in every respect.  Its soaring melodies (including Looney Tunes fan favorite “the Anvil Chorus,” which, to be honest, could have used a little less anvil) tell a tale of love, murder, revenge, and hidden identities.  It’s a big opera for Opera in the Heights’ little space, but the intimacy of the presentation gave the story a chance to stand on equal footing with the music.  The story was further served by the talented principal cast.  This in combination with a minimal set (risers and a column, lit by Kevin Taylor to look like flames) made for a very successful production.

Il Trovatore’s characters are not complex, but the cast imbued them with complexities not immediately apparent in the text.  Sarah Heltzel’s superb acting turned Azucena from a caricature of a gypsy villain to a sympathetic, multi-dimensional character.  Through little more than a tilted head or a narrowed eye (subtle movements that would not have carried in a larger house), she portrayed a woman barely clinging to sanity.  The first act begins with the tale of how Azucena’s mother was burned at the stake for bewitching a baby.  When Azucena retells the story from her perspective during act two, it becomes a tale of savages murdering a woman due to fear and superstition.  Ms. Heltzel made Azucena’s side of the story absolutely believable.  Acting this good, sometimes lacking in opera, elevated what was good singing on its own into a truly artistic portrayal.

Andrew Cummings (Conte di Luna) and Michelle Johnson (Leonora)  Il Trovatore  Opera in the Heights  Photo by Alyson ToupsSoprano Michelle Johnson was a captivating Leonora, with a shockingly large voice.  The role presented Ms. Johnson with a challenge, switching abruptly from a dramatic aria to light coloratura without giving the actress much time to switch gears.  Ms. Johnson handled the shift admirably, and while her coloratura was a bit breathy, the pitches were accurate and distinct.  Overall, her voice is rich and perfectly lovely.  As the young troubadour Manrico, tenor Dominick Rodriguez possesses a voice that never once sounded nasal or reedy.  Instead, he maintained a lushness throughout his register that seemed effortless.  He and Ms. Johnson were more commanding in their own arias rather than their duets, but that is more a fault of the libretto glossing over the development of their relationship than either of the actors.

Andrew Cummings was a commanding Conte di Luna, with the type of baritone voice that always seems a hair’s breadth away from a bellow.  He too gave his character a sympathetic edge, although the Conte’s actions made such sympathy difficult for the audience to maintain.

At first glance, Il Trovatore could seem like a challenge for an opera company working in a small space with a limited budget.  Opera in the Heights more than rose to the challenge, presenting a work that seems like it was always intended to be a chamber opera.

Photos by: Davis Tucker and Alyson Toups