“Slow down,” I huff, the clatter of my heels echoing in the empty stairway. Anton glances over this shoulder, a look that means: Well, that’s what happens when you wear impractical shoes. First of all, these are my most practical of impractical shoes. And second of all, there is no such thing as a practical pair of heels.
Ticket reservations to the LA Opera, made in the distant safety of a completely different season, often sneak up on us. It has been a little less than two years since we’ve been to a performance here, but somehow, we’ve managed to fall into the same rhythm. We always make it a point to leave early (“Let’s not make this a repeat of last time!” one of us typically says), end up bolting out the door five minutes later than planned, breathing a sigh of relief when arriving somewhat on time — only to be sabotaged by a long parking wait time. It happens. Every time.
As we exit the stairway, we make a dash for the Jerry Moss Plaza, a beautiful 35,000 square foot outdoor space that plays host to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a few eateries and coffee shops and fountains. We check in with our vaccination cards and earn a yellow wristband before we’re let into the plaza. Anton runs inside; he forgot our tickets, so he’ll have to get them reprinted. Meanwhile, I linger in the plaza, soaking it all in.
The space is abuzz with activity. Opera night is one of those occasions where you’re encouraged — if not directed to — wear your most sparkly, most black-tie outfits. I watch the guests, all smiles and full with anticipation, sail by confidently in their long gowns and dinner jackets. One guest is even sporting a head-to-toe Highland dress, with a kilt, a waistcoat, a jacket and even a sgian-dubh. In case you don’t know what that is: A sgian-dubh is a small, single-edged knife that’s often tucked into knee-high socks. Yes, a knife! I can’t look away.
There’s even a red carpet set up for the event, and a small crowd of well-dressed guests are waiting in line for their moment under the heavy, bright lights. I’m standing in line now, too. A different one, one that lets me pre-order a glass of wine and pick it up during the intermission. I usually detest standing in lines … but today, I don’t seem to mind. The weather is perfect. Just warm enough, with a little bit of a cooling breeze that lifts my hair ever so slightly. It’s an ideal evening, and with the LA Opera’s performance of Il trovatore just about to start, it’s about to get even better.
“Welcome to the LA Opera,” a woman’s voice blares through the speakers. “It’s good to be back, isn’t it?” A loud applause erupts, followed by mask-muffled cheers. Yes, after such a long, pandemic-induced hiatus, it’s so good to be back in this theater. The five-story space, with its honey-toned onyx walls and crystal chandeliers, is where we used to go to escape the mundane, to shapeshift into much more elegant and well-coiffed versions of ourselves and get lost in the music and melodrama.
The lights dim. My heart is fat with excitement. A deep voice wends its way through the opening lines of the opera. It’s throat-deep, muscular and fills every atom of the air around us. To keep his troops awake, Ferrando, the captain of the guards (played by Morris Robinson), starts telling us a story of a Romani woman, who was burned at the stake for bewitching one of the count’s two children. (The Romani woman was originally described as a “gypsy,” but the LA Opera decided to drop the word given its pejorative nature.) Immediately, we’re taken on a journey, one of Giuseppe Verdi’s most outlandish, grotesque and dramatic stories.
Il trovatore isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The vibe is unsettling and dark, bordering on nightmarish. It’s also not as easy to grasp as, say, La traviata, one of the most popular operas of all time. But it does feature some complex and unique characters, particularly that of Azucena, the daughter of the Romani woman, who deals with racism, grief and post-traumatic stress disorder her whole life following the death of her mother. Simultaneously, we follow the story of her son (or is he, though? If you know, you know) and Count di Luna, commander of the Royalist Aragon troops, as they fight for the love of the same woman (Leonara). There’s jealousy, desire, sacrifice, witchcraft — and lots of twists and turns.
All of this is performed by an incredible, wonderfully diverse cast, four of whom occupy almost-main roles — Raehann Bryce-Davis as Azucena, Limmie Pulliam as her son Manrico, Guangun Yu as Leonara and Vladimir Stoyanov as Count di Luna. “What an incredible voice,” I whisper in my smallest, mousiest voice to Anton when we first hear Pulliam’s rolling, irresistibly imperious voice. In fact, this might be the opera’s best casting yet. Everyone pulls an exceptional performance — in my humble opinion, of course.
And I’d be remiss not to mention the set. Despite the fact that the design is sparse, sharp and contemporary, I can’t help but be drawn in by the eeriness of it all. In one of the first scenes of the opera, the chorus crawl slowly from the back of the stage and then gather behind a rectangular cutout in the wall. You can only see their faces, cruel stage lighting manipulating their features to look even more ghastly. There are fires that shoot up during dramatic moments of the play (like the immolation), a rising and falling stage floor, and towers that glow and glide side to side.
The most surprising part? The set was built in 10 days. With the original set stuck at sea and unable to make it in time for opening night, the company worked tirelessly on an alternative: a 45-person crew worked 14-hour days to make this night happen. It’s incredible. In true pandemic fashion, the LA Opera pivoted, pushed through and brought us a magical night we likely won’t soon forget. Indeed, it was just so good to be back.