Opera fans familiar with the standard performing edition of “Il Trovatore” were treated to a change of pace on Saturday night, when Caramoor Festival’s resident bel canto expert, Will Crutchfield, led a concert performance of Verdi’s warhorse, steeped in the traditions of the composer’s era. Lively conducting and a generally strong cast gave the work the kind of freshness that sweeps away a lot of accumulated cobwebs.
A diligent, determined archivist, Crutchfield prepared a version drawing on sources from Verdi’s time, including embellishments and cadenzas written by hand into copies of the score by famous 19th century singers, as well as early 78 RPM recordings by such legendary stars as Lillian Nordica and Fernando de Lucia.
“Il Trovatore’s” faintly absurd libretto — about a seething feud between gypsies and their oppressors in 15th century Spain — was thoroughly trashed by the Marx Brothers in “A Night at the Opera.” A concert performance like this one, relieved of any attempts at directorial improvement, allows audiences just to sit back and appreciate Verdi’s musical genius. And no matter how difficult or demanding the music, these singers delivered it with guts, passion and temperament.
In the title role of the gypsy troubadour who, it turns out, was actually born into royalty, tenor Francisco Casanova sang with ringing power reined in by elegance and taste. He colored his voice skillfully and used varying dynamics — even the occasional spoken or shouted syllable — to strong effect.
The role of his mother, the demented gypsy hag Azucena, was sung by renowned Polish contralto Ewa Podles, who boasts a devoted following of New York fans. As always, she created a full, sensitive character, exploiting both extremes of her wide range with a rich, warm voice, always alive to the dramatic moment.
Soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, still young but a real star on the rise, was entirely winning as Leonora. Her sweet, even girlish timbre could swell effortlessly from a whisper to a huge, thrilling bloom, and she tossed off the difficult trills and roulades with full-throated authority. All that was lacking was clarity of diction and crisper Italian consonants.
Daniel Sutin proved the weak link in the cast, with a baritone wanting in aural appeal and a stiff vocal production ill suited to Crutchfield’s bel canto approach. In smaller roles, Daniel Mobbs used his firm bass-baritone and appealing stage presence to make much of the thankless part of Ferrando, and Anya Fidelia invested the few lines allotted Inez with sympathy and a dark, urgent tone.
Caramoor’s annual explorations into the 19th century Italian repertory are always a high point of the summer for New York opera buffs, who readily make the hour’s journey north and fill the Venetian Theater to capacity. Despite the occasional sonic intrusions — a croaking frog last year during “Tancredi,” a shrieking car alarm from the parking lot Saturday night during Di Giacomo’s sublime fourth-act aria — this remains an ideal, intimate venue for concert opera, with musical standards of a very high level. An additional performance is scheduled for July 20.