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Damn. And things were looking so good just a few weeks ago. The Washington National Opera’s supremely effortful revival of Il Trovatore will likely send most opera fans shuffling home despondently—especially those who, only last month, had reason to believe a new era of cogent music-drama had dawned in the nation’s capital. The first two offerings of the WNO season showed what the right cast, right director, and right designers can do to turn both a melodramatic potboiler such as Andrea Chénier or a challengingly gray modern work such as Billy Budd into gripping theater. The current go-round of Trovatore, last seen in 2000, suggests that even a masterfully crafted, mainstream work should be shelved until a proper artistic team is found to make it live and breathe.

That’s not to say Verdi’s 1853 four-acter isn’t a challenge: Its jumble of baby-killing Gypsies, brothers separated at birth, burnings at the stake, and women saved from unwanted sex by poison conceals a potent drama of familial loss and romantic obsession. And it’s not as if stage director Stephen Lawless doesn’t have some fresh takes on the story. Turning the mustache-twirling baddie, Count di Luna, into a self-loathing alcoholic and replacing the rhythmic clanking of anvils in the famous “Anvil Chorus” with the clash of swords as Gypsies slaughter the Count’s soldiers are both really good ideas. Lawless is skillful, too, at establishing a tone of inescapable unhappiness and applying it consistently over the course of the opera. He sees the principal characters as walking wounded—whether the wounds were inflicted by a blade or by the sharp sting of unattainable love, they never seem to heal, sending these miserable people staggering around the stage clutching their chests in pain.

Makes sense, really. Unfortunately, all that staggering is of the silent-movie variety, and it’s punctuated either by crushingly dull tableaux or by cheerleader formations of the soldiers’ chorus that look like outtakes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Worse still, moments of genuine emotion—between, say, the troubadour of the title, Manrico, and his Gypsy stepmom, Azucena—are undercut continually by singers striding to the lip of the stage to belt out their juiciest music. In an attempt to create a hybrid of naturalism and abstraction, Lawless tends to assemble stage pictures that not only prevent his performers from interacting with each other but also fail to make any sort of resonant visual statement. This is a seasoned director with a mighty impressive list of credits, but whatever his intentions were with his staging of Trovatore, they resolutely refuse to gel.

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It would be a special shame if the direction undermined the work of a superlative cast of singing actors, but that’s not the case here. The bon mot permanently attached to Trovatore is that it’s an easy opera to do: All you need are the four greatest singers in the world. As Ferrando—not one of the Fab Four but nonetheless significant, given that his aria revealing Trovatore’s backstory opens the opera—bass Mikhail Kazakov barks out his music as if the mikes had gone dead at the MCI Center. Tenor Mikhail Davidoff’s Manrico is a wee bit more sensitive: He at least has two volume settings—Loud and Very Loud—both of which would be bearable if his voice had any Italianate warmth or ring. As it is, his hefty, slightly unwieldy Slavic sound might convince in, say, Wozzeck, or even in Jenu° fa, but its muscularity and wide vibrato are of the wrong latitude for this inescapably Mediterranean music.

Krassimira Stoyanova is far better. In fact, in an auditorium half the size of the Kennedy Center Opera House, she’d likely be a knockout as Verdi’s heroine, Leonora. She invests the character of this lovelorn lady-in-waiting with a sense of genuine desperation and grim stoicism, singing with a glowingly beautiful voice and the kind of edge that carries the tone forward without sounding harsh. If only her tone carried a little farther. High notes aren’t a problem, but her middle and lower registers lack presence, disappearing almost completely when she expressively pulls back her volume. Baritone Carlos Archuleta is in even worse trouble as di Luna: A good 50 percent of the time he’s simply inaudible—a shame, given his handsome timbre and elegant (if sometimes short-breathed) phrasing. He replaced an indisposed Wolfgang Brendel rather late in the game—which probably explains his less-than-robust emotional engagement with the character. But shouldn’t understudies possess at least the basic vocal equipment to carry their roles?

D.C.’s homegrown mezzo, Denyce Graves, by contrast, both looks imposing and acts with mesmerizing conviction as Azucena, never playing the psychotic-witch card that often passes for an interpretation of the role. But the upper-register hollowness, vinegary tone, and spreading top notes that started becoming evident several years back have, sad to say, slowly advanced. Her voice is never unlistenable—indeed, the plush velvet in her lower range is as seductive as ever—but what was once a unified and commanding instrument is showing signs of wear. (In an odd turn of events, the second cast—at least on paper—looks far more promising than the first. Nov. 11 and 13 are the performances to shoot for: The young, much-heralded American tenor Carl Tanner takes over for Davidoff; baritone Roberto Servile should make a more positive—not to mention audible—impression than Archuleta; and Elena Manistina seems a good wild card to replace Graves.)

The irony here is that whereas the singing—customarily a WNO strength—is a great disappointment, the usually four-square work that company music director Heinz Fricke brings to Italian opera has relaxed into a more pliant and affectionate style that gives his singers ample expressive freedom. Neither rushed off its feet nor forced to dragging them, the score moves with passion and drama under his baton without losing any of its poise or strength. On opening night, there were moments of iffy coordination between the pit and the chorus, true, but given the latter’s poorly executed fight choreography and load-in-the-pants lumbering about the stage, this probably represents too little rehearsal rather than a failure on the podium. Indeed, this is surely Fricke’s finest work for the company in the Italian repertoire—imagine if he had singers who could take advantage of it.

As in the production’s first airing four years ago, Benoit Dugardyn’s sets alternate between the inspired (the rain-soaked opening image of bodies strewn among gleaming swords planted like grave markers) and the stultifying (much of the rest of the opera, in which panels of wood, charred to a light-sucking black, trundle distractingly into place, to glum effect). It certainly doesn’t look like a staging that took the combined forces of the WNO, Los Angeles Opera, and GöteborgsOperan to produce.

Rather, it resembles those stagings from the bad old days when practically every Verdi opera produced by the WNO was a liability. The company has begun to present some moving and intelligent Verdi productions in recent years—2002’s Un Ballo in Maschera, for example, or 2000’s Otello—meeting the high standards it’s set for itself in other repertoire. Let’s hope this sorry Trovatore is the soon-to-be-forgotten nadir of a season that began with such lofty promise. I hope it doesn’t take another four years for something better to come along.CP