Maybe Verdi might have imagined the madness of America 2021 when he wrote Il trovatore, his opera about a troubadour who – flash forward – went rushing around to rescue its sane citizens and tamp down the nation’s rampant racism/white nationalism. After all, even a stranger to the US could view Francisco Negrin’s new production for LA Opera, whose largely non-white cast was, in part, a picture of rectitude for what a horrified world saw in May 2020: the videotaped 9-minute, slow-motion murder of a black man, George Floyd, under the knee of a white police officer. The blowback from that incident has given us talent that otherwise might not have had an open door. It’s called diversity. We’re seeing it on stages and screens and in newsprint everywhere — including New York's Metropolitan Opera, which opened for the first time with a black composer’s work, Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones.

Limmie Pulliam (Manrico) and Morris Robinson (Ferrando)
© Cory Weaver | LA Opera

But even if Verdi couldn’t possibly conceive of a Trovatore that lays out these socially explosive issues, it took a mountain of imagination for LA Opera to open its stage at the Music Center Pavilion after little notice and an 18-month hiatus, before a throng of masked/vaccinated celebrants, the usual crew of gowned/bejeweled gala attendees, and all sorts of characters among the regulars.They loved every minute of their opening night welcome back, exploding in one powerful, ear-deafening roar at the final curtain.

What they saw onstage, though – with that diversity personified here – somewhat belied the frantic, piecemeal, last-minute building of sets and costumes owing to delayed supplies, shipments gone awry and every nightmare that could prey on an impresario. Miraculously, the show went on, without much refinement in lighting, or design or even stage direction. But you can’t deny Verdi, nor his glorious music, not with singers (many of them unknown) who bring the master to bear. And so it was.

Vladimir Stoyanov (Conte di Luna) and Guanqun Yu (Leonora)
© Cory Weaver | LA Opera

We had, in Limmie Pulliam, a Manrico who sang with elegant dispatch and a telescopic kind of tenor that had refinement and nuance and a nice heroic ping in “Di quella pira.” What beautiful singing. What a great opportunity for him with a major company. But I worried when he lumbered across the stage and drew his sword – so  effortfully – or lowered his body to the floor next to his beloved Leonora – so carefully – in stages. No visual help came from designer Louis Désiré who put him in a short smock and blousy pants with fitted ankles.

The final moments of Il trovatore
© Cory Weaver | LA Opera

Luckily, the rest of the cast made for believable characters. Guanqun Yu not only looked like a longed-for Leonora and could portray a highly romantic heroine, but she boasted a voice of Verdian calibre, silver-toned, agile up and down the scale, soaring and coloratura-capable. So did Raehann Bryce-Davis excel as an Azucena who defied the Gypsy hag cliché we often see, but became a truly sorrowful mother dredged in memories of her dead son, singing with a velvet voice that supports the characterization. Another standout was Morris Robinson, a robust Ferrando with a shining basso, fluidity to spare and clear intonation.

Raehann Bryce-Davis (Azucena) and Limmie Pulliam (Manrico)
© Cory Weaver | LA Opera

The only weak spot, if you discount Désiré’s relentlessly dark and boxy set for one of opera’s least engaging and mixed-up librettos, was found in Vladimir Stoyanov’s Conte di Luna, neither a stalwart spoiler nor a baritonal bonanza. But the ever-reliable James Conlon had his way with the orchestra, bringing Verdi’s score to colorful, deliriously gorgeous life and lending terrific support to the stage.