Il Trovatore

Reviewer's Rating

‘Il Trovatore’ (‘The Troubadour’) is a work of extremes, in striking contrast to ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘Traviata’ with which it is naturally grouped at the central turning point in Verdi’s career. Unlike their modernist naturalism, here the composer positively wraps himself up in the full panoply of traditional operatic convention and absurdly convoluted plotting before unveiling music of a unique power, energy and virtuosity. It is as though he deliberately handicaps himself as a challenge before disarming us with the full astonishing repertory of compositional skills he had acquired to this point. Wagner does something similar in his contemporaneous ‘Lohengrin.’

To make this opera work today requires very considerable skill. Not only do you need, as Caruso said, ‘the four best singers in the world’, but you also require more than capable acting to ground the dazzling musical numbers and a choice of setting by the director that places a plausible framework around the improbabilities, while retaining the high seriousness of the drama. Not all these criteria are met by the new production at Covent Garden.

If you cut through the many layers of the plot (much of which has already taken place before the curtain rises!), then this is essentially a four-hander revolving around revenge and obsessive passion. The gypsy Azucena seeks revenge for the execution of her mother and as expiation for her own guilt in sacrificing her own child. Manrico, the troubadour, who thinks she is his mother, was in fact kidnapped and is in reality the brother of the Count di Luna, with whom he is at odds over their shared love for Leonora. Their rivalry spills over into conflict between their followers which result in various set-piece confrontations, including the kidnap of Leonora from a convent when she is on the verge of taking the veil. Suffice to say that revenge prevails over love and redemption does not get a look in.

There are several high points in the vocal and choral performances, and Antonio Pappano in the pit guides the orchestra as usual with finesse, careful to unleash his forces only when the singers are fully supported. The famous ‘anvil’ chorus is delivered with flair and appropriately tuned anvils, and the chorus of soldiers and gypsies act plausibly within their scenes. However, they are not helped by the overall tenor of the production where director Adele Thomas has chosen to take inspiration from the medieval fantasies of Hieronymus Bosch and the period of the original tale from which the plot is derived, the early nineteenth century. In other words a double layer of the fantastical – Gothic and Romantic – is imposed on an opera that already teeters on the edge of melodrama; and at points this pushes the final product into unintended comedy or exaggerated gestures that get in the way of the music.

For example a trio of devils tumble and crawl all around and over the action. While this is diverting, and illuminating in the first scene, where the back story is introduced, it becomes increasingly distracting and tiresome when repeated for the duration. Similarly the grotesque costumes for the chorus get in the way of their performance rather than illuminating it. There is quite enough monstrosity in the opera already without overegging it in visual delivery and extraneous performance.

Happily the soloists deliver some stalwart performances amidst all this over-busy activity. Manrico is a hard role to bring off, as over-written vocally as it is underwritten in character; but Riccardo Massi rises to its challenges well and is always convincing as a hero torn between mother and lover. He is paired with Ludovic Tézier as the Count di Luna. His rich and sonorous baritone is well matched to this role, and manages to make much more of the Count than the stage villain we often see portrayed. Marina Rebeka enacted the dilemmas of Leonora with realistic skill, while singing her set-piece arias with fine characterisation and embodiment of the dramatic moment. Jamie Barton delivered an Azucena of visceral, damaged intensity, surely as Vedi intended. You get the impression she has studied Marilyn Horne’s portrayal of this role with care and attention.

Anyone coming to this opera for the first time will find a lot to enjoy here; but when the piece is already so heavily freighted with Romantic rhetoric and self-conscious exploration of extremes, it is perhaps wiser to play it straight rather than seeking to add extra levels of intensity and gothic invention to what is already such an unstable cocktail.