The nature of evil was a subject that composer Giuseppe Verdi visited over and over throughout his operatic career of over 50 years. However, Verdi’s attraction was not to the absolute evil of horror stories or genocidal tyrants but rather the tragic and inevitable consequences that result when superstition and ignorance spawn vengeance, jealousy, and blind hatred. In fact, it is revenge in all its aspects that defines the action of a number of his operas, including Otello, Rigoletto, La Forza del Destino, and this season’s Knoxville Opera Rossini Festival production, Il Trovatore.
Despite the opera’s tale of gruesome executions, sworn revenge, and bloody vengeance, Keturah Stickann, stage director for Il Trovatore, feels that staging operatic evil must reflect the truth behind a character’s motivations, even if it is not immediately obvious. In the case of Il Trovatore, Stickann insists that none of the opera’s characters are truly evil.
“People like to think of Count di Luna as evil or Azucena as evil because they’ve done these atrocities, these terrible things,” Stickann says. “This is not the case. You’re looking at a woman who lost her mother at a very young age, and who killed her own son. … You have Manrico, who is living in the shadow of this woman who is touched and has gone a little crazy. You have Count di Luna, who lost his baby brother when he was a child. If you really look at that side of the story, you don’t really see any evil people here. You see people who are trying to live up to what their ancestors have brought upon them. That makes for some very interesting psychological moments on stage.”
Finding psychological moments and allowing them to define what the audience sees and feels appears to be Stickann’s approach to much of her work. Il Trovatore is the fourth production for Stickann with Knoxville Opera—in 2011, she directed both Manon and La Traviata. In the latter, audiences were challenged by an intriguing haunted-dream approach in which the character of Violetta on her deathbed remained on stage throughout. More recently, Stickann’s 2013 helming of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann for KO wove a complex relationship between Hoffmann and the Nicklausse/Muse character.
However, just as no two operas are the same, each production offers its own unique challenges. The director must not only create relevant and credible action and environment for the singers but also find a way to explain to the audience what may be unseen and unheard.
“The biggest problem for directors of Il Trovatore is that all the action takes place off stage,” explains Stickann. “All the fights take place off stage, all the death, destruction, and burnt babies take place before we even start the show. Most of the other things that we discuss on stage during Il Trovatore either happened just before the scene or are about to happen after the scene. And we don’t get to see any of it. There’s a more tangible way to explore these emotions—I try to get whatever is in Azucena’s head out and make it manifest for the audience, allow them to actually live inside what Azucena is dealing with, because I think that is the key to the story.”
Another challenge for Stickann, or any director of Il Trovatore, is the hurdle of making an implausible plot seem believable for the audience. But opera is theater, after all, where psychological impact often trumps reality.
“People want to find the plot ridiculous because they see it as melodramatic,” Stickann says. “The notion of throwing the wrong baby in a fire has become sort of an operatic joke that we like to laugh about. But when you really think about what is happening here, when you think about a woman who has a child whose mother is dragged through a crowd of screaming people, tied to a post, and burned to death in front of her, it splits something in her brain. … And why play it if it’s not fantastic? It’s what makes it cathartic for us.”
Another aspect of a stage director’s job is to create a workable environment that contains the opera’s action and leads the audience through the story. In mid-sized opera companies like Knoxville Opera, budget usually dictates the set—often rented rather than constructed from scratch. But that’s not necessarily a negative if one is comfortable with a bit of abstraction, as Stickann has demonstrated in her previous Knoxville productions.
“This was a difficult one to put together,” she says. “There are eight scenes. The locations have to change. We go from a palace to a convent to a fortress to a cave in the mountains, so we’ve got some drops, some hard sets, some platforming. I tend toward more abstract, more spare, and that’s where I am going with this one, too.”
Although the story of ll Trovatore is fictional, it’s set among the actual historical events of the Spanish civil war of 1412. The palace and its prison, which figure prominently in the opera, are based on the existing Aljaferia Palace in Zaragoza.
“The prison is actually not in a dungeon—it’s in the top of a tower,” Stickann explains. “And so everything has giant archways, but when you look out, you’re looking out at the sky. Behind you, there is nothingness.”
Of course, even nothingness in opera is something—just ask a stage director.
Alan Sherrod has been writing about Knoxville’s vibrant classical music scene since 2007. In 2010, he won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts—the Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera—under the auspices of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also operates his own blogs, Classical Journal and Arts Knoxville.
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