Opera Holland Park opens its summer season with a muddled production of Verdi’s Il trovatore. Driving drain and bitterly cold winds didn’t help concentrate the mind on John Lloyd Davies’ often bewildering production. The good burghers of Kensington and Chelsea are made of hardy stuff and at the opening of OHP’s season they needed to be, as the elements were more akin to a production of Macbeth than Il trovatore.
It was quite disconcerting being able to see the singers’ breath – that’s how cold it was, but we shivering souls in the auditorium were grateful for extra side panelling which kept the rain, if not the arctic winds, at bay. Having to produce an opera which has several specific locations on OHP’s stage must be every director’s nightmare. There is no fly tower and no wings, so necessity really does have to be the mother of invention. Director John Lloyd Davies took on the design responsibilities as well and divided the stage in two – one half for Azucena, Manrico and the gypsies and the other for di Luna and the Roman patricians.
Soldiers were tin-hatted trench coat-wearing thugs, who also donned balaclavas for the abduction of Leonora, whilst the gypsies wore traditional garb from the 19th century. The effect was like watching a David Alden and a Zeffirelli production simultaneously. The result was muddled and schizophrenic. Poor Katarina Jovanovic as Leonora had one of the most unflattering costumes imaginable. It did nothing for her, so why she was made to tiptoe across the stage in time to her Act One cabaletta is anyone’s business. It looked silly in the extreme.
Similarly, I felt for Rafael Rojas who elicited giggles on his entrance. He doesn’t cut an heroic figure either, so his waist-length cape and Zorro eye-mask made him look far from swashbuckling. Much of the ‘acting’ was from the school of operatic cliché that I thought was dead and buried a long time ago, which was a shame as most of the cast gave decent performances under the circumstances.
Il trovatore is hard enough to cast to an International level, so getting three of the four main roles right was an achievement in itself. Despite his stage persona, Rojas acquitted him self well in the role of Manrico. His voice has plenty of ‘ping’ where required although some of his phrasing was bumpy; yet I’ve seen far more celebrated tenors come a cropper with ‘Di quella pira’.
Stephen Gadd may be more of a bass than baritone to my ears but he sang di Luna with warmth and flexibility – his ‘Il Balen’ was a highlight of the evening. I wish I could have warmed to Jovanovic’s Leonora but her voice was far too shrill for my taste and her high notes became something of an endurance. The ever-reliable Anne Mason was a barnstorming Azucena who produced the best singing of the evening –never vulgar, always at the service of Verdi, and scoring another personal triumph. Brad Cohen energised his orchestra to produce a thoroughly authentic sound in the pit.