Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Il trovatore @ Royal Opera House, London

13, 17, 21, 25, 29 April, 2, 7 May 2009

Royal Opera House

Royal Opera House (Photo: Marc Eskenazi)

Verdi’s Il trovatore may be saddled with one of the most preposterous plots in all opera, but this strongly-cast revival shows that the art of singing Verdi is alive and kicking. Despite stiff competition, American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky steals the show with her thrilling performance as Leonora.

I have to say that I find it pretty hard to fathom why Il trovatore was once such a popular opera. Compared to nearly all Verdi’s other operas there’s little character delineation and much of the music is, and I hope I’m not burnt at the stake as a Verdi heretic for saying this, not that memorable. The plot is so creaky that it’s best not to begin trying to unravel it, so a performance of this work relies on the cast and production. Compared to the usual directorial insight Moshinsky brings to his operatic work this production is something of a letdown.

When there’s little drama happening on stage or there’s a distinct lack of personeregie the focus inevitably falls on the musical side of things. Fortunately for us the Royal Opera has engaged probably the best line-up of singers you could reasonably expect to hear in this opera these days, and that is no mean feat by any means.

Polish mezzo-soprano Malgorzata Walewska made an auspicious house debut as the confused baby-burning gypsy Azucena. Hers was no barnstorming performance in the Cossotto or Obraztsova vein but she used her chest voice to telling effect, never forced or made an ugly sound all night, yet still was able to deliver enough vocal heft when required without ever sacrificing tonal quality or the Verdian line, so with those attributes alone she is a welcome addition to the roster of dramatic mezzos.

Dmitry Hvorostovsky was the most accomplished singer on stage and was in possession of the most intrinsically beautiful voice out of all the principals. His rendition of ‘Il balen’ was exemplary as his breath control, colouring of words and mahogany shades of brown he brought out in his instrument contributed to as musically satisfying rendition of this aria as I’ve heard. If he tends to err on the side of blandness when it comes to characterisation then that’s a small price to pay to hear singing of this quality.

In the title role Roberto Alagna returned to the House after a five-year absence and despite a tendency to hog the limelight and play ‘the tenor’ rather than ‘the troubadour’ showed that he knows how to make this part work, although I’ve never thought that his voice was particularly individual, nor did it sound so here.

The most riveting performance, both vocally and dramatically came from American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora. Not only does she have a rock solid technique but she really knows how to sing Verdi. She scrupulously observed all his dynamic markings yet was never afraid to take risks. Her ability to hit a note and then produce a rapid diminuendo, whilst remaining on pitch, is not part of many sopranos armoury yet every time she attempted this she hit the bull’s eye. Outstanding and she was rightly awarded the biggest ovation of the night.

In the pit Carlo Rizzi delivered a pretty mundane first half, but after the interval put some fire into the proceedings, and the orchestra responded with polished playing. Worth a visit for some world-class singing if not its dramatic verisimilitude.

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Il trovatore @ Royal Opera House, London