Royal Opera @ Covent Garden, London, 3, 6, 11, 14, 19, 22 May 2004
As operatic plots go, Verdi's Il Trovatore has to be amongst the most stupid.
The tale of "a gypsy who throws her baby on the fire by mistake" does not sound like the most promising of departure points for a composer, yet in 1853 Verdi managed to set it to one of his greatest scores.
It's brimming with memorable arias, set pieces such as the "Anvil" chorus, and a brilliantly conceived final scene.
Il Trovatore's one fatal flaw is that it requires four extremely competent singers to carry the performance along, otherwise it can seem like the most tedious of operas.
Luckily, The Royal Opera has managed to assemble three very good lead singers for the first revival of Elijah Moshinsky's 2002 production, and a fourth who wasn't bad enough to spoil the show.
As Azucena, the fore-mentioned gypsy who sparks off the whole ridiculous story, Irina Mishura made a sparkling house debut. She was clearly the star of the evening, combining a sense for the music's melodrama with a feel for the rhythmic bounce of Verdi's atmospheric score. As her supposed son, Manrico (the eponymous troubadour), Marco Berti was vocally impressive throughout the evening, scaling the high Cs of Di quella pira with Pavarottian panache. A shame he was dramatically uncommitted, not least in the duel of Part I, where it was totally unbelievable that he could overcome the far more dynamic Count di Luna of Lado Ataneli.
The latter was impressive in Pagliacci here last year and did not disappoint as the Count (who turns out at the end to be Manrico's brother...) His dark tone intensified his evil portrayal of the character, who is jealous of Manrico's returned affection for Leonora, a lady-in-waiting.
In the role of Leonora, Fiorenza Cedolins was the weak link. Despite never sinking to the depths of her unbearable rendition of the opening aria, Tacea la notte, Cedolins struggled to inhabit one of opera's most taxing roles. I thought she had warmed up by the denouement, but no, the voice started to wobble randomly again and almost ruined the otherwise poignantly sung final scene.
Edward Downes, one of the most authoritative Verdi conductors for over five decades now, ensured that pit and stage interacted sensitively throughout. Perhaps more dramatic thrust and energy would have been welcome, but given the sheer boredom provided by Elijah Moshinsky's production, one cannot entirely blame Downes for the evening's low points.
Moshinsky returned to direct the new cast, but one wondered why. Had the singers been left to themselves they would probably have done what they did, which wasn't very much: I have seen better acting in concert performances. That said, at least his bland, "traditional" take on the work allowed Dante Ferretti to design grand, beautifully conceived sets for the production, and if Anne Tilby's costumes are a little overdone, at least that fits in with the general concept.
In all, it was an evening of vintage Verdi, with (mostly) excellent vocal performances and an undemanding but inoffensive production.