Expectations have a lot to do with how I respond to a particular performance, especially when it comes to opera. Only big companies can hire the best singers in the business, who can cost $10,000 and up per performance.
Not that the big companies always hire the best, and not that hiring the best invariably results in a good or great performance. San Francisco Opera's last run of Verdi's Il Trovatore was a thoroughly dispiriting affair, with a dreadful production (a giant horsehead on stage, the first of many), an underpowered Leonora, a dull Manrico, a scattershot di Luna, and a conductor who was asleep the night I attended. Only the Azucena of Dolora Zajick, sung with great spirit and voice to spare, began to meet the requirements of the score.
So it's with quite a bit of pleasure that I can report that Festival Opera's current production of the opera is in many ways more satisfactory than what I saw five years ago in San Francisco. It's by no means perfect, and I have plenty of nits to pick, one of them quite a sizable nit. The four principals sing with energy and enthusiasm; they've all got healthy, young, well-matched voices; the production doesn't have any inexplicable stupidities. The direction is unfussy and unpretentious, if not particularly illuminating or urgent; the unit set does well enough in representing palace, fortress, prison, and monastery. (Okay - the tree in scene two, which looked as though it was going to fall on the singers, is ridiculous and has got to go.) The orchestra plays well, balances between the orchestra and singers were fine (though at times the coordination was not); the conductor moved the music along. The chorus sang accurately and with a nicely-blended sound, though they need more coaching in Italian.
The large theater at the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts is a grand venue, one of my favorites in the area. It seats around 900 or 1000, so you are never very far from the stage. Singers don't have to force or bellow, and their movements and expressions don't have to be exaggerated to make an impact on audience members sitting 250 feet away. The pit is big enough for a full orchestra, but positioned partially under the stage, so that the instrumentalists never overwhelm the singers.
You could do worse than this. A lot worse.
At the same time, there are plenty of problems with the individual singers, each of whom is to some degree unsatisfactory for dramatic or vocal reasons or both. I'm surprised that more of these issues weren't worked out during the rehearsal period; perhaps some of them will be mitigated past the opening performance.
I missed last year's Un ballo in maschera, which starred both soprano Hope Briggs and baritone Scott Bearden. I'd heard Briggs before, in an impressive debut as the Duchess of Parma in Busoni's Doktor Faust at San Francisco Opera. That role suited her well, and she has the right kind of voice for a middle-Verdi heroine: a warm, vibrant, sound without register breaks and with reasonable flexibility. She sang the cabaletta "Di tale amor" with good trills and clean runs, though at a moderate tempo. She sounded lovely for most of the evening, excepting some soft high notes, which seemed thin and artificially produced. She ran into more serious trouble in "Tacea la notte," where she finished her cadenza in the wrong key. And "D'amor sull'ali rosee" lacked repose, at least in part because the soprano overacted and overdramatized the music. Moreover, she didn't have a good feel for how to fit the trills into the rhythmic line, or for the line of the cadenza.
Scott Bearden, who sang di Luna, presents a conundrum: he has won a couple of vocal prizes, and yet what I heard was by no means exemplary. Oddly, my initial reaction was to wonder whether he might be a heldentenor in disguise, considering the bright timbre and size of his baritone. The color is all wrong for a Verdi baritone, and so was the all-too-frequent forcing. He sang coarsely and inexpressively throughout the performance, with blurry Italian pronunciation. "Il balen" sounded as if Bearden was complaining about Leonora rather than meditating on her radiant beauty, and something very bad happened, pitchwise, to the first verse.
Much less problematic were both Noah Stewart's Manrico and Patrice Houston's Azucena. Houston sang with consistent beauty of tone, and she has the range and power for Verdi's mad gypsy; the high notes came easily, though, like Bearden's baritone, her voice seems too brightly colored to pass for the classic dark tone of an Italian dramatic mezzo. And, alas, she has no trill.
Stewart has a beautiful, full-bodied voice, but is he really a spinto? He sounded perfectly lovely in the more lyrical passages (the offstage serenade; "Ah, si, ben mio"); nonetheless, I heard forcing and tightness at the top of his range, a worrisome thing in a young singer. But Festival Opera should find him a new costume: Stewart looked like something out of The Court Jester, and I expected him to ask about the pellet with the poison at any minute.
For all these complaints, in the end the performance was quite a bit greater than the sum of its parts. Hearing Trovatore in a small theater performed by singers with some guts and vocal heft is a treat, so take yourself to Walnut Creek. The remaining performances are on July 15 and 18 at 8 p.m. and on July 20 at 2 p.m.