The mob of horrified faces on the curtain (by set designer Charles Edwards) that rises on Lyric Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore sets the mood for the story to come. It's grim—a tale of such flamboyant vengeance, it became grist for Marx Brothers mayhem in A Night at the Opera.
Its most memorable character—and the one it ought to be named for—is Azucena, a conflicted gypsy compelled to avenge her mother's fiery scapegoat death at the stake. She botched a revenge infanticide years earlier, by throwing the wrong kid into the fire, but eventually succeeds, bringing the opera to its spectacularly abrupt and diabolical conclusion. The switched babies plot includes a standard love triangle, pitting a pure young maiden and her (wink-wink) gypsy lover against a villainous aristocrat. As written, it all transpires in 15th century Spain.
Unfortunately, this otherwise traditional production, originally directed by Sir David McVicar and last seen at Lyric four years ago, moves the action up to the 19th century, losing the height-of-the-Inquisition context, when burning at the stake was a common public ritual. But Verdi's greatest-hits score (including the familiar and famously bare-chested "Anvil Chorus")—which has been enough to keep this warhorse on the stages of major opera companies ever since its debut in 1853—prevails. Among the mostly young cast successfully navigating demanding vocal roles, tenor Russell Thomas as the gypsy's supposed son, Manrico, is a standout. Soprano Tamara Wilson is the ingenue Leonora; mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is Azucena. Bass Roberto Tagliavini, as a soldier whose storytelling launches it all, makes an impressive Lyric debut. v