I went to the opera on Saturday night. It was a completely enjoyable evening and not just because half bottles of bubbly are available at the intermission.
It was the Opéra de Montréal’s production of Il Trovatore (The Troubadour) by Giuseppe Verdi, directed by 35-year-old Quebecer Oriol Tomas. It was first performed in 1853 and is considered to be one of the three Verdi masterpieces, along with Rigoletto (1851) and La Traviata (also 1853).
There was a variety of people at the performance that I found surprising. Young and old, trendy and not so much, and even a sprinkling of quite young kids. Some were very elegantly turned out, and others dressed informally.
The hall was full when the opulent three-storey red velvet curtain rose in Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier at Place des Arts. For those who do not speak Italian, there are subtitles in French and English above the stage, which tell you what is being sung. It’s a great language exercise and great fun to get all the nuances.
The show starts with a creepy scene: a group of soldiers in armour, gathered around a fire listening to the captain of Count di Luna’s guards tell a horrible tale. The Count’s baby brother was kidnapped and killed by a Gypsy witch. The mysterious character of Azucena, played by Laura Brioli, foreshadows the drama. Brioli is dramatic and beautiful. She is completely credible with her mane of grey hair and graceful performance. She also has an absolutely incredible, supple and shiny voice. In fact, the way the singers use their voices is a shock at first. They don’t just have voices, they have instruments. For those raised on magnified pop music voices it’s really a shock. The use of the human voice in this way is an amazing thing.
The sexism and racism of the story are obvious. In the 1840s and 1850s Italy was going though a political transformation. Verdi was a Senator, and some of his work was musical and artistic propaganda, inciting the Italian people to rise up and seize control of the new nation. With Il Trovatore we are in the Middle Ages in Spain, as interpreted by Verdi. Star-crossed lovers, a chivalrous hero, feudalism, sorcery, burnings at the stake, witch hunts, religious obscurantism – it’s all good fun until someone gets hurt. In the end it is a parable about the futility of revenge.
Montreal is one of the few cities in Canada that has an expanding public for opera. Pierre Vachon, musicologist with the Opéra de Montréal, says the average age of the opera-going public here is 55, substantially lower than that of most North American opera companies.
In the U.S., opera companies in smaller centres are closing down -since the recession of 2008, three or four have been shuttered. In Ottawa, Opera Lyra has suspended operations.
Here in Montreal you might hear opera in the metro (singers in jeans regale passers-by), you can go to free dress rehearsals, and for people between 18 and 30 there are vastly reduced tickets. Twelve hundred people have signed on to a special subscription for the younger crowd. There are HD screenings of opera at local cinemas, which are often sold out.
Vachon says opera has gone from being the "délice des princes," as it was in the late 1500s, to "le grand spectacle du peuple." "Il faut redonner au peuple son art," says Vachon.
In the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera (1935), the opera in the background is Il Trovatore. The Marx Brothers mercilessly mock the pretensions of the opera-going crowd. The contract scene is a legend in comedy:
Driftwood: Say, I just remembered – I came back here looking for somebody. You don’t know who it is, do ya?
Fiorello: It’s a funny thing – it just slipped my mind.
Driftwood: Oh – I know, I know… the greatest tenor in the world. That’s what I’m after.
Fiorello: Why, I’m his manager!
Driftwood: Whose manager?
Fiorello: The greatest tenor in the world.
Driftwood: The fella that sings at the opera here?
Driftwood: What’s his name?
Fiorello: What do you care? Besides I can’t pronounce it. What do you want with him?
Driftwood: Well, I uh, I want to sign him up for the New York Opera Company. Do you know America is waiting to hear him sing?
Fiorello: Well, he can sing loud, but he can’t sing that loud.
Looney Tunes also did some very funny work sending up opera. Most of us first heard the most memorable melodies of opera in cartoons.
Maybe it’s time to see a real one for yourself.
Il Trovatore by Verdi
At Place des Arts’ Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier
January 26, 28