The Review Is In

Opera in the Heights finds the magic touch: New maestro and a rising star lift Il Trovatore

Opera in the Heights finds the magic touch: New maestro and a rising star lift Il Trovatore

News_Opera in the Heights_Trovatore_March 2012_Michelle Johnson_Leonora_and Dominick Rodriguez_as Manrico
Michelle Johnson as Leonora and Dominick Rodriguez as Manrico in Opera in the Heights' production of Il Trovatore Photo by Davis Tucker
News_Opera in the Heights_Trovatore_March 2012_Andrew Cummings_Conte di Luna_Michelle Johnson_Leonora
From Opera in the Heights' production of Il Trovatore, Andrew Cummings as Conte di Luna and Michelle Johnson as Leonora Photo by Alyson Toups
News_Opera in the Heights_Trovatore_March 2012_Michelle Johnson_Leonora_and Dominick Rodriguez_as Manrico
News_Opera in the Heights_Trovatore_March 2012_Andrew Cummings_Conte di Luna_Michelle Johnson_Leonora

There might have been only two anvils, but at least they were authentic and hammered with unrelenting gusto. One of the most beloved scenes in all Italian opera, the rousing “anvil chorus” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore, was given a confident and exhilarating performance by Opera in the Heights.

The words, “so, to work now,” seem to be not only the motto of the current Coro di zingari (in Italian, “the gypsy chorus”) on Heights Boulevard, but for everyone involved this season with the “growing professional opera company,” as it is described at the group’s website.

Last season’s production of Verdi’s Don Carlo was my introduction to Opera in the Heights, and while I wasn’t quite taken with that staging, there was something about the conductor that sparked my curiosity. I made a mental note to watch for his name again, and was thrilled in September when CultureMap’s Joel Luks interviewed Enrique Carreón-Robledo in recognition of his appointment as OITH’s new artistic director. It’s turned out to be more than just good news.

 Verdi’s lengthy score was stored mostly in Carreón-Robledo’s head. He turned the pages of the full score before him mostly without looking at them, because he’d committed it all to memory 

At the time, maestro told Luks he was attracted to the company’s potential, adding that he thought patrons were interested in seeing emerging artists on the stage.

Yes, we are, and the opening performance of Il Trovatore Thursday night is striking evidence that this goal is easily being accomplished. It’s also safe to say that the ensemble’s obvious potential stands to be realized even further under Carreón-Robledo’s leadership and inspiring artistic zeal.

Opera in the Heights has more performances on Il Trovatore Saturday night and March 23, 24 and 25.

Dancingly expressive is one way to describe Carreón-Robledo’s engaged realization of a warhorse like Il Trovatore. I noticed early in the first act that Verdi’s lengthy score was stored mostly in Carreón-Robledo’s head. That is, he turned the pages of the full score before him mostly without looking at them, because he’d committed it all to memory. He mouthed the Italian arias of each and every character, his gaze intent on the singer of the moment, while he conducted.

He’s not a square little “box-in-the-air” type of conductor. When Carreón-Robledo wanted one of those typically schmaltzy Verdi phrases to stretch and bend so that listeners could hang on to it for just a bit longer, he’d raise his baton until he was standing tip-toe. There is something of the crazy Zen calligrapher in his approach, which is appealing, yet theatrical without ever becoming overwrought.

 As for those emerging singers Carreón-Robledo wishes to feature, the maestro found his rising star with none other than the elegant Michelle Johnson as Leonora. 

Performing grand opera in a small venue like Lambert Hall, with only a 22-member orchestra, raises distinct challenges for a conductor. The ensemble isn’t constantly trying to project. In fact, it often seems the opposite. How to avoid being continually too loud is the challenge.

And the balance between singer and orchestra in this setting is quite the reverse of a place like the Metropolitan Opera, for instance, where almost any singer could be in danger of being drowned out by the players. I’ve heard it happen to the best of them. At Lambert Hall, however, it’s more often the singers who drown out the orchestra. That happened on occasion Thursday night, with certain artists more than others, but not to the degree it had in last year’s Don Carlo.  

As for those emerging singers Carreón-Robledo wishes to feature, the maestro found his rising star with none other than the elegant Michelle Johnson as Leonora. She was consistently wonderful throughout, but the high point came in the fourth act.

From the first notes of the weird short, hopping overture that opens the scene, to her recitative and then stunning interpretation of “D'amor sull'ali rosee” (“on the rosy wings of love”), one felt in the presence of a great conductor and a deeply musical singer. Johnson showed a range here that I’d never quite considered in the context of the aria.

Generally considered a dramatic coloratura showpiece, Johnson’s middle C made me think she might be thrilling mezzo-soprano as well. There are soaring high notes (the D two octaves away, for example) and many great leaps in between. It is fiendishly difficult, and if it’s bad, the aria seems hours long. Johnson’s interpretation felt almost too short, and she gave one of the most precious things a singer can give: a haunting yet vivid sustained pianissimo, delivered with perfect intonation.

It should be noted that Opera in the Heights offers two casts for this production. Johnson is in the “Emerald” cast, and Lara Tillotson, in the “Ruby” cast, has a difficult act to follow.

Sets, costumes and lighting design are still lacking, especially in view of the elevated musicianship at OITH, so let’s hope that increasing attention will be give to this area. If the company is truly a “growing professional,” it can’t continue to be stunted visually. The company needs a creative designer who could streamline productions into something more sophisticated.

Opera in The Heights’ 2012-13 season is the first planned completely by Carreón-Robledo. In celebration of Verdi’s Bicentennial and honoring Shakespeare, it features some rarely-performed operas such as Rossini’s Otello and Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi.