April 2, 2016
“That Dolora Zajick is an absolute force of nature,” remarked a friend as we exited the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts last Friday night after a collaborative performance between the San Antonio Symphony and Opera San Antonio. The famed mezzo-soprano had just appeared in a concert version of Verdi’s Il trovatore, in which she sang one of her signature roles – the tortured gypsy Azucena. Proof of Ms. Zajick's 30-year ownership of the role was clear with her potent, vividly nuanced portrayal of the woman who had witnessed her mother being burned at the stake and was forever tormented by her dying cries for vengeance.
The setup involved music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing presiding over the orchestra in the pit and the 125-plus Mastersingers chorus on risers at stage rear beneath a narrow screen on which supertitles were projected. Several microphones (for an archive recording, not amplification) were positioned near the lip of the stage, allowing room for the cast of singers to engage in minimal stage business and to make entrances and exits.
Thus, the tangled plot (complicated relationships, a horrific secret, destructive obsessions, et al.) was surprisingly easy to follow, thanks in large part to a musically strong cast that generally was able to project convincing theater despite wearing concert dress.
From the overture's first measures, Mr. Lang-lessing and his responsive forces created a sense of urgency and sublimely detailed purpose that continued throughout the evening. Verdi's genius for rhythmic propulsion came through in the abundance of triple meter accompaniments or crisp, repeated patterns. In his hands, much of the familiar score seemed almost new.
Soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, who has sung the role of Leonora in several major international opera houses including the Metropolitan Opera, brought crystalline tone and secure, graceful ornamentation to her work, especially in the last act cabaletta. Dramatic tenor Issachah Savage as Leonora's beloved troubadour Manrico – and son of Azucena – revealed a bronze-flecked, well-trained instrument that was ideally showcased in the brief but challenging aria “Di Quella Pira.”
As Count de Luna – who is revealed to be Manrico's brother – the rich mahogany-voiced baritone Lester Lynch was especially impressive, conveying a range of emotions from ardor towards Leonora to fury directed at Manrico and Azucena as the story unwinds.
As Ferrando, Chinese bass Peixin Chen, a recent graduate of Houston Opera Studio, set the plot in motion with his sturdy, stentorian recounting of the story of the gypsy woman who was burned at the stake for putting a curse on the infant son of the elder Count di Luna.
Making his professional operatic debut, San Antonio native Thomas Soto as Ruiz revealed a glossy, well-focused tenor voice and promising dramatic chops. Rounding out the excellent cast was silken-voiced soprano Kara Smoot as Leonora's companion, Ines.
But at its center is the incomparable Ms. Zajik, who – deploying an amazing low register that never sounded chesty – wove a frightening, hauntingly beautiful spell with her “Stride la vampa,” telling her side of the story about her mother's death. The sound was warm and tender when, after being capured, she sang of her homeland, and became positively black at the end when she furiously shouted the awful truth to the Count and finally avenged her mother.
The Mastersingers, well-prepared by John Silantien, were in fine form. They provided an energetic, well balanced sonic backdrop featuring clearly enunciated Italian diction. Their highlight was, of course, the “Anvil Chorus,” but another was the compelling last act work by the men's chorus (which includes a woman).
There is a repeat performance tonight at 8 p.m. For info call 210 223-8624.
Dolora ZajickPhoto: David Sauer
The sweet sound of vengeance
San Antonio Symphony, Opera San Antonio: Il trovatore