In the ten years since Opera New Jersey’s founding, the company has grown from a vehicle for student performance to a mentoring program incorporated into high quality operatic production. In these tough economic times, Opera New Jersey has managed to expand in quality if not quantity (this season sees a marked increase in number of productions and venues) while somehow keeping the wolves away from the door. Like its sister summer musical celebration The Princeton Festival, Opera New Jersey is branching out into educational initiatives, as well as venues in other parts of the state, but its core programming remains operatic production at McCarter Theatre — and nothing says opera more than Giuseppe Verdi.
Opera New Jersey opened its 10th anniversary season with Il Trovatore, one of Verdi’s most successful operas and one which can pack audiences in. Just about three hours long and cast for little more than a handful of principals, Il Trovatore is not for the faint-hearted opera company, but Opera New Jersey cast its net to the highest musical levels to find singers who could stand up to the demanding and dramatic score.
Refreshing to see onstage again was baritone Young-Bok Kim, who has performed with Opera New Jersey in past seasons. Mr. Kim remains a phenomenal singer and is spreading his wings a bit with other companies in the country. As the officer Ferrando, Mr. Kim sang solidly with a voice full of color, ringing out the lyricism of the narrative “Di due figli vivea padre beato” aria and singing cleanly against the orchestra’s gypsy rhythms.
Verdi incorporated many different styles of music into this opera to match the characters, and the heroine Leonora was well accompanied by strings in her opening scene. Joined onstage by her confidante Ines (sung by JoAna Rusche), soprano Erica Strauss brought a tremendous amount of vocal stamina to the role of Leonora, soaring with ease into the coloratura stratosphere for which Verdi is known. Ms. Rusche is a member of Opera New Jersey’s “Emerging Artists Program,” yet she impressively complemented the voice of Ms. Strauss, completing her phrasing and vocal color as the two singers carried on a musical dialogue. Ms. Strauss demonstrated great control in the cavatina and cabaletta of her opening scene (Verdi was experimenting with forms other than arias) handling the quick coloratura of the show-stopping cabaletta well. Particularly as the opera progressed into more dramatic and theatrical territory, Ms. Strauss proved that she is a soprano who can sing forever, never losing strength, even as Verdi saved the most difficult singing for the final scene.
Leonora’s beloved Manrico does appear, lightly accompanied by harp to replicate his lute (he is the trovatore, or troubadour of the title), and tenor Rafael Dávila brought passion and vocal strength to the role. Whatever vocal overpowering he may have started with quickly dissipated as the opera went along (it would be impossible to oversing for that amount of time) and Mr. Dávila found the “serenade” quality and innocent passion of his arias. Baritone Marco Nisticò provided a suave contrast in the Count di Luna, pouring his heart into “Per me ora fatale” as he also vies for the love of Leonora.
All of these vocal roles were demanding in stamina and energy, but the role of Azucena combined these requirements with the nastiness of a witch’s character. Mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa, fresh off of a performance of Beethoven’s equally demanding ninth symphony with The Philadelphia Orchestra, proved that McCarter’s Matthews Theatre was a great space for her — easily heard with just a shade of the demonic. Ms. Mezzacappa showed her lyrical and sensitive side with the trio with Leonora and Manrico in the final prison scene, singing expressively and with control while lying on the floor. Opera New Jersey cast some of its “Emerging Artists” in the smaller roles of this opera, and these young artists showed no difficulty keeping up with the very experienced principals.
Conductor Victor DeRenzi (artistic director of the Sarasota Opera) led the New Jersey Symphony in the orchestra pit, keeping a good balance between voices and instruments even as the opera went into its third hour (a tough haul for any orchestra). The orchestra opened the opera with clean brass and handled Verdi’s martial passages well. There were disconnects between singer and orchestra at times in rhythmic clarity, but when the two came together with precision the effect was very clean. The chorus of “Studio Artists of the Emerging Artists Program” provided solid singing in the well-known choruses from this opera.
Scenic Designer Boyd Ostroff (for the Syracuse Opera) made the most of simplicity, keeping a minimum of structure onstage with a backdrop of changing hues to depict the sky. There were many costume changes in this opera, and costume designer Howard Tsvi Kaplan emphasized the Spanish flavor of the storyline, incorporating a wide range of costumes for the principals and chorus members.
So where does Opera New Jersey go from here? With a wide array of musical offerings this summer (conducted and directed by a variety of people and accompanied by different ensembles) one wonders if the next decade will include an artistic director to pull these factions together with one resident artistic thread. Whatever the next decade brings, Opera New Jersey seems to be on solid footing going forward.