The Il trovatore on offer at the Lyric this month would make a fine CD. Which is to say that its strengths are primarily vocal (and they are plenty), to be found equally among the leading foursome consisting of Amber Wagner, Quinn Kelsey, Yonghoon Lee and Stephanie Blythe. But its weaknesses are visual and dramaturgical, and these are plenty too. Trovatore purists who come armed with a score will have a wonderful time.

Yonghoon Lee (Manrico) © Michael Brosilow
Yonghoon Lee (Manrico)
© Michael Brosilow

Let’s begin with the good: Amber Wagner’s sound, which has an effortless plenitude that marries exquisitely with a Verdian orchestra. It has simply never occurred to her voice that it might have to fight through anything; rather, she finds a bandwidth left vacant by Asher Fisch’s orchestra and unfolds it, taking all the space she needs. Her Leonora is paired with a Manrico played by Yonghoon Lee, tall and whiplike and handsome as a Disney prince. I found myself hoping that Lee would fall in love with Chicago deep dish and gain a hundred pounds, because his dazzling, steady, heartbreakingly sweet tenor could be, with a little more roundness and age, the closest thing we have to a Pavarotti.

But vocal production, at least for these two singers, overshadows everything else. When Leonora confesses her love for the troubadour in the first act, Wagner delivers the lines in such unruffled equipoise that her maid’s anguished gyrations (J’nai Bridges, displaying a sophisticated musical sense) seem weirdly unmotivated and out of proportion. Lee, meanwhile, tries a lot harder to get something going, but his assorted gestures never really crystallize into a character. The one exception for both comes in their final, parting number, where a real sense of internalized feeling shines through, and Lee delivers some amazing faces.

Quinn Kelsey as the Count di Luna and Stephanie Blythe as the gypsy mother Azucena are much more successful at projecting character from the inside. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their style vocally is less aria-perfect than Lee or Wagner, interpolating instead speech-like effects that free up the vocal line and pledge its energy to the action. The number in which Azucena relates the horrifying primal scene underlying the opera’s events is chilling in Blythe’s treatment; here Fisch could have helped a little more from the pit by making the initial string staccati shorter, going for eeriness of effect rather than maintaining a plush sound.

Fisch's conception and direction, in fact, tends to get bogged down in the little units. He tends to take his meter from the repeated, propulsive cells that litter the opera's hit parade, not often enough trying for the longer phrase, the bigger gesture, that would bring a dynamic and gestural liveness to the little units. In big ensemble numbers his baton-stroke sometimes follows the singer with the quickest, most ornamental figure, prioritizing its clarity over the elucidation of the longer harmonic arc.

The Anvil Chorus © Michael Brosilow
The Anvil Chorus
© Michael Brosilow

The set, designed by Charles Edwards, and the directing, originally from David McVicar and revived by Leah Hausman, evoke a vague gloominess livened only infrequently by something worth looking at – most memorably the refreshingly noisy anvil chorus, staged with a bouquet of beefcake metalsmiths. Otherwise the giant bisecting wall constructed as a dynamic delineator of stage space swings back and forth, occasionally producing nice effects, such as when a male chorus is faded off-stage as a female chorus is faded on. 

But the most accomplished aspect of this Trovatore is the ensemble singing, and particularly the duets, which are frequently perfect. No matter the pair, it's consistently in these moments that the opera delivers its biggest jolts, when musical polish reaches such a height that intricate counterpoints become a conduit to raw energy. Caruso reportedly said that all you need for a performance of Il trovatore is the best four singers in the world. Indulging his singer's bias, we might report that this production comes pretty close to his ideal - for better and for worse.