To adopt sporting jargon, Il trovatore comes in for a ‘bit of stick’ in operatic circles. Its plot is frequently held up as an example of how ridiculous opera plots can be and it has been both parodied (Gilbert and Sullivan) and the butt of jokes (The Marx Brothers’ uproarious A Night at the Opera). Directors seem reluctant to play the opera ‘with a straight bat’ these days, as ably demonstrated by these two European examples. In Berlin, Philipp Stölzl presents a freakish circus – all top hats and ruffs – while in Brussels, directorial enfant terrible Dmitri Tcherniakov offers a weird, but weirdly compelling, modern-dress deconstruction.
Recorded at the Staatsoper im Schiller Theater last December, Stölzl’s production refuses to take the opera too seriously. The action takes place in an open white box of a set, riddled with trapdoors, while on the walls are projected various flashbacks or crumbling brickwork at points during the drama. The Count’s men fire a cannon during the Soldiers’ Chorus and the video wizardry allows us to see Castellor struck by the explosion, while in the Miserere, these same walls run with blood. Giant shadows dominate in Olaf Freese’s lighting effects.
Ursula Kudrna’s costumes place us in a fantasy circus setting with Vélazquez-type references. Ferrando and the rest of di Luna’s guards wear black rubber armour, white ruffs and cuffs and black top hats, wielding their halberds merrily in time to the music during Ferrando’s narration.
Manrico is saddled with the worst side-parting known to man, his lute slung over his back at least a reference to his troubadour skills. Marina Prudenskaya’s Azucena wears a wild orange wig and clown-like make-up, while her fellow gypsies are all circus act types, including a dancing bear. Sporting peroxide tresses, Anna Netrebko’s Leonora is dressed like Barbie crossed with Columbina, and her movements, and those of Ines, are appropriately doll-like. It’s difficult to emotionally engage with any of the characters in this grotesque puppet show but, despite myself, I rather enjoyed all he fun of the fair. If only the musical performances weren’t quite so uneven
Daniel Barenboim is not exactly renowned for his Verdi, but shows he means business with a pacy start, which rapidly develops into a characterful account – if occasionally too slow – of Verdi’s great score. The Staatskapelle Berlin plays beautifully; just listen to the introduction to Act IV to hear inky black clarinet tone and silky strings.
Most people will be interested in this release because of the casting of Anna Netrebko and Plácido Domingo, both making role debuts. Domingo sang Manrico many times since his 1968 role debut, but his twilight career as a moonlighting baritone has provoked much controversy. He has the dramatic ability to carry off a statesmanlike Simon Boccanegra, for example, but he isn’t a baritone and cannot encompass the vocal range required in Verdi’s baritone roles. His performance here isn’t as alarmingly poor as that in Salzburg’s Trovatore this summer, streamed around the globe, but his voice has understandably weathered. He’s audibly out of puff after the first phrases of “Di gelosa amor”, while an effortful ‘Il balen del suo sorriso’ finds him uneven of tone and clipping phrases short. Domingo’s at his best in the Part IV duet with Netrebko where he is fired up by her incendiary performance.
Netrebko demonstrates fine Verdian credentials here. “Tacea la notte placida” illustrates how her soprano has darkened, with creamy, luscious lower notes at her disposal, although the cabaletta “Di tale amor” finds her curiously pecking at the vocal line. Despite Barenboim’s sluggish tempo for “D’amor sull’ali rosee”, Netebko holds it together with well shaded dynamics and gorgeous timbre to give an outstanding account. This is crowned by a stonking “Tu vedrai” as she is encircled by a hooded executioner, who turns out to be di Luna.
Marina Prudenskaya’s hyperactive clown of an Azucena is very well sung – lightweight, but plucky – but the Manrico is disappointing. Aleksandrs Antonenko had cancelled at the last minute – perhaps he objected to the daft wig? – and Gaston Rivero was cast instead. At least he’s not a baritonal tenor, but he produces a sound which is frequently pinched and unattractive. A husky “Ah, sì ben mio” comes off reasonably well, but “Di quella pira” shows that he lacks the weight this role requires. Domingo looks twice Rivero’s age, which rather destroys his dramatic credibility as Manrico’s brother. Similarly, Adrian Sâmpetrean‘s decently sung Ferrando is far too young to have known the back story. Perhaps his grandfather told him.
So much of Trovatore is back story, with narrations substituting for stage action. Tcherniakov leaps upon this in his controversial production for La Monnaie. The setting is a ramshackle hotel, with burgundy walls and ebony panelling. As most key events happen off-stage, he creates a bizarre deconstruction in which the five main characters meet, gathered together by Azucena – like Hercule Poirot calling together the suspects in a murder plot – to “figure out the past”. The door is locked and Azucena guards the key. Could it be possible to make Trovatore’s plot even more complicated?!
The characters act out a series of “role plays” which eventually unravel so that, after the Count’s failed abduction of Leonora from the convent, we’re back in the present day. Scott Hendricks’ di Luna starts out as a cynical businessman, who clearly thinks Azucena is deranged and that the whole enterprise is laughable. He flips, however, holding the other four hostage on the sofa at gunpoint, shooting Ferrando in the forehead at the climax of “Di quella pira”. The chorus is confined to the pit, while smaller roles are doubled by the main characters. It’s as mad as it sounds… yet it very nearly works, thanks to some committed performances.
Marina Poplavskaya’s Leonora initially hides behind sunglasses and a brunette wig before releasing her trademark long blonde hair as events ‘get real’. Her performance is not without vocal flaws – like Netrebko, she has trouble around the coloratura of “Di tale amor”, while she is seriously strained at the top in “D’amor sull’ali rosee”, which Tcherniakov has her sing facing the wall, like a naughty schoolgirl. However, there is a wonderful dark quality to “Tacea la notte placida” which make me half wonder if she couldn’t tackle some mezzo-soprano roles at some point. There are times when she sounds incredibly similar in tone to the Azucena, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, who is a splendid actress and a terrific singer to boot. Hendricks’ di Luna holds the performance together; even if his “Il balen” is aggressive and choppy, his acting is gripping.
Unfortunately, in Misha Didyk we have another Manrico not entirely up to the role. It’s way too big a sing for him, and his snakeskin-jacketed ‘troubadour’ is the dramatic weak link too. Giovanni Furlanetto’s doddery old Ferrando fits Tcherniakov’s concept nicely. This was Marc Minkowski’s first Verdi and he conducts very well, drawing energetic playing from the Orchestre symphonique de la Monnaie.
Neither of these productions is going to be a prime recommendation for Il trovatore on DVD, especially because of their vocal flaws, but both – in their own way – are worth seeing at least once.
Il trovatore: (DG 00440 073 5133) ***
Il trovatore (BelAir BAC408) ***
Photographs (c) Bernd Uhlig (La Monnaie), Matthias Baus (Berlin)