In the run-up to her company's winning new production of Verdi's "Il Trovatore," Opera San Jose general director Irene Dalis has been singing the praises of young mezzo-soprano Nicole Birkland. A resident artist this season, Birkland sings the signature role of Azucena, the wronged and vengeful Gypsy woman -- a role Dalis made her own when she was a mezzo at the Metropolitan Opera half a century ago.
"I've been waiting for this kind of voice," Dalis said in an interview, describing Birkland's portrayal as "exactly what I would want to be able to do." That's high praise, and one wondered if some hyperbole was involved. But, after watching Birkland's hair-raising performance Saturday -- opening night for "Trovatore" at the California Theatre -- one understands the buildup. Birkland was a tour de force. It was as if the valve had been opened on a fire hydrant, releasing a torrent of glorious and passionate singing.
From the pulsing pace of its opening scenes (credits to director Brad Dalton) to its colorful Renaissance costumes (designed by Elizabeth Poindexter) and appealing performances by other key singers in the opening night cast, Saturday's "Trovatore" was a strong one. (The production has two casts performing in rotation; I haven't seen the other, which includes mezzo-soprano Rebecca Krouner as Azucena.) Conducted by David Rohrbaugh, the orchestra flowed flexibly and expressively through the many moods of the drama -- a convoluted tale of murder, memory, love, lust and revenge in 15th century Spain.
Birkland rose above the rest of the cast, most notably in Act II's famous Gypsy camp scene, where Azucena sings two celebrated numbers: "Stride la vampa" ("The blaze is crackling") and "Condotta ell'era in ceppi" ("She was led in chains"). Here, Azucena recalls seeing her mother burned at the stake by an evil count -- and the revenge she later sought by tossing one of the count's sons into a fire. Or so she thought: Accidentally, she explains, she grabbed the wrong child, sending her own little boy to his death.
The plot has its absurdities, but the music is spectacular: Verdi in flight. As was Birkland, arriving on stage with clenched fists and contorted face, a vision of pent-up fury. Her voice was richly and darkly colored throughout its considerable range, from rock-solid bottom to flutelike top. Immersed in the role, she didn't project her voice so much as propel it, building to this climax: "My son, my son, I burned my son" (sung in Italian, of course). This was a true, dramatic mezzo performance by Birkland, an emerging singer who deserves to be widely heard.
The cast's other standout was soprano Cecilia Violetta López, as Leonora, lady-in-waiting and love interest to the story's rivals, the vicious Count di Luna and the troubadour Manrico. López's sumptuous gowns were mirrored in her voice: plush and supple, exquisitely colored. She wasn't quite consistent, losing fullness in her low range and occasionally becoming shrill when reaching for high notes. Still, hers mostly was a compelling performance: lyric and legato, with shapely Italianate phrasing in "D'amor sull'ali rosee" ("On the rosy wings of love"), sung at the gates of the prison where Manrico, her soul mate, is to be executed by di Luna.
As Manrico, tenor Alexander Boyer sang with throbbing warmth, lovely to hear, though he didn't inhabit the role; the fiery lover was a little bland. Baritone Zachary Altman, as Count di Luna, threw himself into his numbers, sometimes appealingly, sometimes harshly. Problematically, there was a hitch in his voice moving into the upper register; it seemed to impede easy motion and full-on volume, though his pianissimo notes were floaty and sweet.
As Ferrando, Luna's chief officer, bass Silas Elash sang with confidence and steely tone, another excellent performance by this company stalwart (but without enough limberness in low-lying phrases). Two cast members sang mellifluously in smaller roles: mezzo-soprano Tori Grayum as Ines, Leonora's confidante, and tenor Michael Jankosky, as Ruiz, Manrico's henchman. The chorus turned in some fine ensemble acting -- neatly choreographed by Dalton -- while singing with lusty commitment. (The clank of hammer on steel, however, overwhelmed the voices in the Gypsies' "Anvil Chorus.")
One last observation: In an age of budget trimming, the company clearly is watching its dollars with the sets, designed by Steven C. Kemp. The same faux stone walls and stairway were moved here and there throughout the production. Yet from scene to scene, the sets proved to be versatile, handsome and evocative.
Thanks to David Lee Cuthbert's creative lighting and the use of accouterments -- a spooky backdrop of moon and clouds, or Renaissance banners unfurled from the rafters -- we felt the menacing chill of the castle, the rosy glow of a love scene in a private chamber. The functional was made artful.
Opera San Jose
Presenting Giuseppe Verdi's 'Il Trovatore'
With two rotating casts, directed by Brad Dalton, and orchestra conducted by David Rohrbaugh.
Through: Feb. 24
Where: California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose
Tickets: $51-$101, 408-437-4450, www.operasj.org
Also: Subscriptions for the company's 30th season (opening Sept. 7 with Verdi's "Falstaff") go on sale Feb. 11; $120-$380 for four productions