Royal Opera House, London, 22, 25, 27 April, 1, 3, 6, 11, 14 May 2002
Il Trovatore ('The Troubadour') is a tale of civil war in which two long lost brothers, sworn enemies, fight for the love of a woman. First produced in 1853, it is normally set in the middle ages and is a melodramatic piece with one-dimensional characters. However it has gloriously tuneful music and four superb singing roles and needs, as Enrico Caruso famously remarked, 'only the four best singers in the world' to do it justice. We do not look for subtlety in Trovatore but the music, if given its head, has an irresistible momentum interspersed with arias of great beauty for the soprano, Leonora.
The new production at the Royal Opera House is shared with the Teatro Real, Madrid, where it first appeared in December 2000. The sets (designed by Dante Ferretti) are handsome and on an epic scale, admirably framing the action which producer Elijah Moshinsky has brought forward to the 1850s.
This period in post-Napoleonic Europe was rife with civil unrest, the nationalist movement called the Risorgimento striving for the independence and unification of Italy. The two brothers represent the two sides of the contest: Manrico the gypsy troubadour is the revolutionary while the Count di Luna stands for the state. They vie for the love of Leonora, a lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Aragon, without realising that they are blood brothers.
Manrico's 'mother', the gypsy Azucena, has a pivotal role in the opera and is the narrator for the melodramatic (and unlikely) story. She must come over as a passionate woman, crazed for vengeance by the death of her own mother, burned at the stake. The mystery of Manrico's birth raises its head from time to time but is not resolved until the last moments of the opera, when it transpires that in her overwrought attempt to avenge the murder of her mother she threw her own son, rather than that of her mother's murderer, the Count di Luna's father, into the fire. She knows the truth and it haunts her throughout the action.
Yvonne Naef, making her Royal Opera debut, looked too young for the part of Azucena but has a fine, strong and vibrant mezzo voice that easily rose above the chorus and orchestra. She conveyed the drama but did not chill or thrill me as she should. However she received a well-deserved ovation and will, one hopes, return in a role more appropriate to her age and style. Dmitri Hvorostovsky as di Luna sang elegantly and looked handsome in his smart uniform, but he was too self-contained to convince me of his passionate desire to Leonora. José Cura as Manrico was frankly disappointing, conveying a rather detached manner. He has a fine ringing tenor, which has impressed on previous occasions but here he did not appear to have his heart in the job. In his famous Act III cabaletta clutches he failed to stop the show as he should. He treated us to only one verse and I, for one, felt cheated.
Verónica Villarroel, a Chilean soprano, looked lovely and acted and moved well as Leonora. She has an interesting voice with an attractively dark timbre to her lower register. Unfortunately the long floating phrases which characterise her music sounded tentative and did not soar, while the high notes could sound tight and insecure. Tómas Tómasson as Ferrando, a captain in di Luna's army, failed to impress.
Carlo Rizzi coaxed some beautiful sounds from the orchestra but failed to deliver the great climaxes with enough vigour. This is music that needs to blaze, not smoulder, and it does not respond to a refined approach. The Royal Opera House chorus as always sang magnificently but Rizzi did not inspire them to the heights of which they are capable.
However this was an enjoyable evening, especially as Trovatore is no longer a staple part of the opera repertoire. The performance was beautiful to look at, evoking the grandeur of the great Spanish painters. It was directly fairly traditionally by Moshinsky with an occasional flair for detail, though I could have done without the scene in which Azucena is graphically raped by a group of di Luna's soldiers. Such actions only divert one's attention away from the drama and the music, to the detriment of both. I love this opera for its melody and visceral excitement but in this performance I longed for a Bergonzi, a Gobbi or best of all a Callas to light up the occasion.