"To work, to work -- the hammers hurl!" sing the gypsies as they shape steel into swords for the ongoing war. "Life is but a shadow, a fleeting dream," chant the nuns as they begin the nighttime rites that divest another woman of her womanhood. And in the midst of this clash between holy and hale, three lovers spin to their doomed destinies, hastened toward oblivion by a gypsy woman thirsting for revenge.
Renounce the world with convent bells or strike the unyielding anvils. For Il trovatore director Ken Cazan, the choice is clear: He is a man of hammers and steel. He stages opera with muscular honesty and merciless passion. No merry martyrs or loving lechers inhabit his productions. Cazan believes violence should look violent, sex should look sexy, and love is not love in the absence of its furies.
His approach has not always been well-received in Atlanta, particularly among the tuxedo-and-champagne dilettantes for whom opera is merely a blue-blood bacchanal. Cazan's 1997 staging of Verdi's Nabucco -- the story of Nebuchadnezzar's attack on Jerusalem -- dressed soldiers in modern military uniforms, suggesting a comparison to current religious conflicts in the Middle East. Removed from the safety of the Temple of Solomon, the production upset many and enraged quite a few. The Dayton, Ohio, director received death threats. All over a costuming decision.
Then, in 1998, Cazan perpetrated the infamous "Giovanni Incident," still spoken of in hushed tones in the Atlanta Opera Center. The title character of Mozart's Don Giovanni is often portrayed as a charming, if intemperate, seducer, with the story staged as a comedy of poetic justice rather than a study of evil. But Cazan doesn't believe the libretto supports that interpretation. "Giovanni is not about a nice guy," he says. "He's a sleaze. He's a shit. He's the worst excess of every sexual predator you've ever seen." So in Cazan's staging, a particularly explicit rape scene dampened the powder of some of the opera's more proper patrons.
Despite his unconventional choices, Cazan does not intend to be the shock jock of the opera world. He doesn't look for whatever revisionism a libretto might permit, but for what he believes the text demands. "What I always, always try to do is look at something and say, 'What's the reality of this situation and how can I make that happen?'"
So why has a little textual faithfulness caused such a commotion? "It hits people too close to home," says Cazan. "A lot of people think theater is escapist. Well it's not. Theater started with Shamanism. Why did the Shamans tell stories? To make people think." Though Cazan believes it is important that opera entertain, he refuses to drape veils over unpleasant truths in the name of an agreeable night out.
Cazan's staging of Il trovatore, set in 15th century Spain, is no exception. Though nothing in this production is likely to cause quite the controversy of the Giovanni incident, the capture and imprisonment of the gypsy Azucena (Marianne Cornetti) is likely to raise a few eyebrows. Like most women in Cazan's productions, Azucena is a powerful woman. Even when surrounded by the soldiers of the Count di Luna (William Stone), she attempts to disembowel him with her dagger. But being both a woman and a gypsy in a world ruled by men and the Inquisition Church, Azucena is treated with sickening brutality.
It's hard to watch, but necessary. The Count is a cruel and demented man. "The minute he's thwarted, he goes totally berserk," says Cazan, "which is why he lets the guys torture her." It would be a lie to handle Azucena as a houseguest wearing silken ropes to decorate her wrist. Treat the women kindly, and the opera is reduced to adolescent melodrama in the Aaron Spelling mode.
Leonora (Pamela South), who is loved by two men -- unknowingly brothers -- does not suffer the abuse that Azucena must endure, but she is just as much a prisoner of the Count and the powers behind him. Unwilling to marry the Count, Leonora must choose between joining a convent to escape the too-cruel world or engaging a mismatched battle to save Manrico (Eduardo Villa), the troubadour she loves but can never have.
After the Count's army denies her the convent bells (and we learn what happens when nuns get pissed), Leonora chooses the way of the anvil: She sacrifices her own life in a failed attempt to secure Manrico's freedom.
So what will it be? Sweet little dances where everyone is grateful for the burdens they bear? Pretty scenes for eyes adverse to the world's severe truths? Or can opera risk the forge fires of war in all its horrors and honors, of love in all its rages and joys, of women in strength and bondage? Ring the anvil or the convent bell.
The Atlanta Opera presents Verdi's Il trovatore at the Fox Theatre Thurs., Nov. 1, at 8 p.m., Sat., Nov. 3, at 7:30 p.m. and Sun., Nov. 4, at 3 p.m. $18-$126. 404-817-8700. Pre-opera lectures will be held one hour prior to each performance at The Georgia Terrace Hotel, Case Study Room, across the street from the Fox. www.atlantaopera.org.
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