The Fort Worth Opera gave a powerful demonstration on Saturday night of why Il Trovatore has remained one of the most popular operas down through the years. Verdi's Gothic horror story has lost some of its punch through familiarity, but with the right ingredients -- especially four topnotch singers in the leading roles -- it can send a shiver down the spine once more.
The Fort Worth Opera has those ingredients and mixed them well on Saturday night. The Fearsome Four were soprano Marjorie Owens as Leonora, alto Victoria Livengood as Azucena, tenor Dongwon Shin as Manrico and baritone Malcolm MacKenzie as Di Luna.
They were not precisely equals -- I thought that Owens edged slightly out front with her superb Leonora -- but they all sang their taxing roles with strength and ear-pleasing vocalism. Their acting was Verdi-capable. If Azucena skirted close to camp at times -- well, that's the nature of the part.
As icing on the cake, the lesser roles were pleasingly done. These included mezzo Laura Mercado-Wright as Inez, bass-baritone Tyler Simpson as Ferrando and tenor Logan Rucker as Ruiz.
The playing of the Fort Worth Symphony under Joe Illick's leadership was powerful -- sometimes a little too powerful when the orchestral sound covered that of the singers, who were not a weak-voiced group. Still, the orchestra certainly contributed to the performance's dramatic punch.
The chorus contributed its share as well, overcoming a little raggedness of ensemble, especially early on.
A strong plus are Dejan Miladinovic's scenic designs, which are simple but bold. Fortress-looking elements in the background, seen from various angles with numerous scene changes, provide strength, while ominously large suspended objects punctuate the sense of drama. These include, at various times, giant wagon wheels (suggesting, I suppose, the gypsies' mode of transportation), a huge and gorgeously colored hemispheric stained-glass window, a beautiful tapestry, a massive chain, and a night sky filled with stars. Dramatic lighting by Chad R. Jung enhances the overall sense of oppression.
The one deficit in the physical production is the chorus's costumes (Milanka Berverovic is credited as designer). It's a motley set that gives the impression of being gathered from a variety of sources. That's OK for the gypsies, not so much for the soldiers.
David Lefkowich's stage direction is effective without calling undue attention to itself. The one miscue, I felt, is a scene in which Azucena demonstrates supernatural powers by freezing everybody onstage with a gesture. If she can do that, why doesn't she save herself and Manrico at the end?
Il Trovatore continues the 2011 Fort Worth Opera Festival, joining Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado, Handel's Julius Caesar and Philip Glass' Hydrogen Jukebox. Incidentally, there's an amusing link between Il Trovatore and G&S: The most famous number in Verdi's opera is the Anvil Chorus; Sullivan parodies the chorus in The Pirates of Penzance.