Sailing the stormy Cs
Enrico Caruso once said that all it takes for a successful performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, is the four greatest singers in the world. He was exaggerating a little, but it’s true that casting Trovatore – a powerhouse of instantly recognisable tunes, heart-rending arias and rousing chorus pieces – has long made artistic directors scratch their heads. Opera Australia’s current production, which led to a world-wide search for four big Verdi voices capable of performing in perfect harmony, is no exception.
Trovatore’s casting issues stem from the extraordinary demands of Verdi’s score. All his tenors effectively live in the upper registers of their voices, but the role of Manrico presents the added complication of requiring lyrical as well as weighty dramatic singing. Similarly, the ‘Verdi baritone’, which the composer called the ‘mezzo tenore’, sings in his upper register all night, which is exhausting, and even more so when combined with the jagged lines and inflected syllables in which Trovatore’s angry Count di Luna expresses himself.
The role of Azucena calls for a low, deep mezzo – a rarity – yet Verdi also writes high notes for her. Very few mezzo-sopranos command such a wide range. And in Leonora, Verdi created a role that demands a soprano capable of carrying off the drama of her early scenes, then float the high notes in her final, lyrical aria.
OA Associate Music Director Anthony Legge sums up the dilemma of casting these roles when he says: “You need four excellent, experienced singers who can walk on stage and just do it. Because the singing is very exposed – you can’t bluff a top note.”
To add to the challenge, the cast has to be vocally balanced and visually credible: a short tenor romantically linked to a very tall soprano, for example, will detract from the drama, and if one voice is significantly bigger than the others, the ensembles that are Verdi’s trademark, will jar. For experienced opera audiences, Legge points out, Trovatore offers unusual and delightful voice combinations: “The biggest sings of the night are the duets between the mezzo and the tenor, which is completely unheard of because usually the tenor sings with the soprano.”
Given all these demands, and given that very few tenors can sing the high Cs in “Di quella pira”, most opera houses looking to cast Trovatore would find their tenor first. In Arnold Rawls, “the king of the high Cs”, Opera Australia found a tenor who could not only perform the role, but perform the famous aria in its original key. “Most tenors transpose it – you think they’re singing a top C at the end, but they’re not because no tenor can afford the risk of that note going wrong. Hearing the aria performed in its original key – live – is pretty rare,” Legge says.
Of course, for the audience it’s great fun when the tenor hits those stirring high notes, which is why OA Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini, who was present when Rawls made his Manrico debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera a couple of years ago, knew that he wanted the singer for OA’s production. “He had the high Cs as well as the dramatic qualities demanded by the role, and we were very lucky that he was available because tenors who can sing this repertoire are often booked years in advance,” he says.
Speaking to Allerta! on the morning after opening night, Rawls carefully weighs up his words when describing what makes the role of Manrico so demanding. “It’s high, it’s long and it’s loud,” he finally says. “And dramatically it’s very challenging – Manrico is hero, lover and son, and for the character to come to life, you have to play all these angles convincingly.”
With the tenor in place, for most opera companies the next step would be to find a baritone capable of performing the role of Count di Luna, considered one of the most difficult in the repertoire. In operatic terms Michael Honeyman is young for the role, yet when he came to audition for OA, Terracini knew that he could do it. “He has a big, fat baritone voice with high notes, which is exactly what you need to sing Di Luna.”
But an opera company that has found its tenor and baritone, still has to cast Trovatore’s pivotal role: that of Azucena, whose quest for revenge fuels the plot. Unearthing a singer with the stamina to perform this massive role, the solemnity to sustain the drama, and the vocal range to sing Verdi’s score, is an almost impossible task. Yet in this case OA did not have to look far – the perfect voice for the role was right here in Australia. Terracini says: “Milijana Nikolic’s voice has recently taken on a new gravitas, and in Azucena she gives the performance of her life.”
Daria Masiero, beloved by OA audiences after her 2012 performances as Liù in Turandot, self-selected as Trovatore’s fourth principal. Her soprano voice is capable of carrying off the drama of her first scenes as well as the lyricism of her final aria. “It’s gorgeous to hear and watch her sing those beautiful arias,” Terracini says.
Less gorgeous are the demands that Trovatore makes on its poor conductor, who has to hold together four big Verdi voices performing some of the most challenging music in the repertoire. Legge says: “This is a piece in which the conductor can’t insist on anything; the music is so tough on the singers, the conductor really just has to follow the way they sing it.”
Sounds like fun.