Giuseppe Verdi always hits home.
Verdi wrote “Il Trovatore” (“The Troubadour”) 160 years ago, but its themes and central message still ring as true as hammer on steel.
It was a perfect vehicle for where director Rob Tannenbaum wanted to take audiences and the combined forces of the Sacramento Opera and Philharmonic. In its first major collaboration, the alliance presents “Il Trovatore” Friday night and Sunday afternoon at the Sacramento Community Center Theater.
“I pulled out all the stops and called in my cards to get the people here to make this happen,” Tannenbaum said. “They’re coming here to help me make an important statement. My plan was from the beginning to show this is what opera can be like in Sacramento if the community supports us.”
That “if” has loomed large over the fledgling alliance. Last week, after less than eight months in his role as executive director, Tannenbaum announced his resignation, effective April 6, to return to Southern California. Forged out of fiscal challenges for both the opera and orchestra, the alliance has been cash-strapped since its birth last summer. A $500,000 gift from the Teel Foundation saved this season.
With an estimated price tag of $400,000, this is a new production of a familiar but rarely performed favorite featuring sought-after international stars, all making their Sacramento debuts.
“If this was the San Francisco Opera, the cost would have been close to $2 million,” Tannenbaum said. “We were able to do it for a fraction of that due to a lot of goodwill. People were willing to lower their fees. They want to help.”
Soprano Kristen Lewis sings Leonora, a role that has earned her accolades in some of Italy’s celebrated opera companies. Well-known to San Francisco and Los Angeles Opera audiences, mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn portrays the gypsy, Azucena, a part she has sung to acclaim on several of Europe’s major stages. Tenor Arnold Rawls plays Manrico, a role he sang with the Metropolitan Opera (as a mid-performance replacement) as well as several other American companies.
“This is among Verdi’s most popular operas, but it needs very, very specialized soloists,” Tannenbaum said. “That’s why you don’t see ‘Il Trovatore’ very often.”
Sacramento Opera has not tackled it since the 1980s, Tannenbaum said. Sixty-two performers will be on stage, 65 musicians in the orchestra pit, plus many more workers backstage.
Tannenbaum persuaded longtime friend Neil Peter Jampolis, a Tony Award-winner and regular lighting designer for the Metropolitan Opera and other major companies, to create his lighting magic.
With the help of Rancho Cordova-based digital design company Barco and state-of-the-art technology, a minimalist set will be brought to life with high-definition projections instead of traditional scenery.
“Il Trovatore” doesn’t have to knock audiences over the head with its famous “Anvil Chorus” to make a lasting impact. Verdi already did that.
“When this opera was written, it was very revolutionary,” Tannenbaum noted. “Every opera composer wanted to make a special, meaningful statement. But over generations, we’ve softened that message.
“In a modern staging, I try to re-create that (original) impact. It doesn’t always please people; some people want to go to an opera and not think – just be entertained. But opera can be one of the most psychologically complex forms of entertainment you can experience.”
A complicated tale set in 1850s Spain, “Il Trovatore” centers on the persecution of gypsies.
“Europe is still fighting over gypsies,” Tannenbaum said. “Verdi wrote this in the 19th century, but it could be 2014.”
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.