The performance Il Trovatore at the Royal Opera House, directed by David Bösch, starts with a teenager’s graffiti. While listening to the overture, emotionally performed by the orchestra, conducted by Richard Farnes, we can see on the curtain that at this point hides the stage the letters L+M in a heart pierced by Cupid’s arrow, as well as another heart with the letters L+L, a scribble “love, love, love” and the names of the main characters. Did the director and set designer try to scribble a kind of equation of the extraordinary story behind Verdi’s opera? Or did they hint that the intensity of the emotions we are about to witness is mostly associated with the age of teenagers?
Whatever is the answer to this question, this idea and style are not followed through, as the opening scene of the opera transports us into a greyish world of people on the edge of war: the first thing that visually strikes us is a big grey tank with “Luna” scribbled on it, placed among a few leafless trees with pale blossoms. The soldiers are listening to Ferrando (Alexander Tsymbalyuk) narrating a story of Count di Luna’s unfortunate baby brother. The singer fills the narration with vivid emotion in his deep voice as he falls to his knees, recalling the young count’s illness and the realisation that he was under a spell. A few moments later he warms his hands in the flames of a fire at the front of the stage, as he tells us about the gypsy, who was responsible for the child’s illness, being burned alive. Tsymbalyuk skillfully articulates the aria and we can hear true horror and tremor in his voice as he grabs a soldier and pretends that he wants to throw him into the flames, when he tells us that the daughter of the gypsy had stolen the baby and thrown him into the fire in revenge.
The libretto of Il Trovatore astonishes one by the intensity of the plot, which at times seems very improbable even by the standards of medieval brutality; it’s almost impossible to believe that a mother can throw her own baby into a fire by mistake instead of the baby of her enemy and then raise the remaining child as her own. However, this act, which becomes almost an allegory of blind revenge, triggers the tragedy that unfolds in Verdi’s powerful music, full of passion and human suffering. The fact that the librettist died while working on it gave the opera an even more tragic aura and it soon became one of Verdi’s best loved operas. The main challenge for every director is to give justice to this music of genius while creating a coherent production.
The director and set designer clearly want to reflect the conflicts of our time. This is evident in the barbed wire scattered around the stage and in the burned down trees. Throughout the performance we can see a hint of flames on the grey background, which turn scarlet towards the tragic finale. The work of the set and video designer Patrick Banwart and lighting designer Meentje Nielsen is quite detailed; we can see scary crows gradually filling the air and frightening the soldiers, or the full moon slowly moving from one side of the stage to the other in the next scene, that between Leonora (Lianna Haroutounian) and Ines (Melissa Alder). However, on the whole the set and lighting seem illogical and eclectic: we can see a huge moon in the background but at the same time the long shadows of the characters are falling in the reverse direction. We learn that Leonora mistakes Count di Luna for Manrico in the darkness while most of the stage is brightly lit, so that the audience laughs at her remark. The main weakness of the set is the tank on stage that never gets used in any coherent way and runs totally counter to the famous theatrical rule formulated by Chekhov in one of his letters, “You can’t place a loaded rifle on stage if nobody is going to fire from it.”
There is also a serious problem with the interpretation of the main character, Manrico, sung by Gregory Kunde. His love rival, Count di Luna, is sung by Vitaliy Bilyy with confidence, ease and an impressive vocal technique; he also demonstrates great stage presence and is dressed appropriately in a long dark coat. Lianna Haroutounian, dressed in a traditional nineteenth century white dress, sings Leonora with passion and conviction, and we can hear truly dramatic notes in her voice, especially when her character faces her tragic end. Gregory Kunde’s Manrico, who has untidy long grey hair and is dressed in a short leather jacket and loose trousers, looks at best like a version of Canio from Pagliacci and not an officer in the army of Count di Luna’s opponent. We know that his mother is a gypsy, and we are shown a kind of street circus with a bear and a man with angel’s wings, but Manrico should not look and act erratically as if he were part of that circus. Kunde’s singing is velvety, yet at times patchy and generally too light. It seems as if the singer applies the style of belcanto to the part meant for a dramatic tenor and as a result his character does not display the tragic quality that one can hear in Verdi’s music.
The true gem of the production is the gypsy Azucena, sung by Anita Rachvelishvili, who gives her character a distinctive shape: we can see in her movements that she is burdened by the crime she had committed and by her grief, as she keeps cradling a doll while singing about the tragedy that is still before her eyes. We can sense her pain in her striking voice throughout the performance, with true agony at the end, when she finally gets her revenge at the cost of her beloved adopted son. At this point a huge heart made of barbed wire descends in the air above the stage and blazes with real flames, as if demonstrating the destructive power of love. The performance would have been more consistent and meaningful if the director could have followed this theme throughout the production, instead of starting it with a child’s scribbles.