A grim setting for a grim tale. This new production of Il trovatore by David Bösch places the action in modern times, a war zone in winter, portrayed in monochrome greys and shadows. It is an atmospheric setting, an effective and unobtrusive updating. Musically, this is a strong production, with a robust cast, including a few real standout performances, and excellent chorus contributions and orchestral playing, conducted with drive and focus by Gianandrea Noseda, here making his Covent Garden debut.
Bösch has worked with set and video designer Patrick Bannwart to create a simple but effective stage concept. Props are few and mobile – a full sized tank (with a slightly wobbly turret) for the army garrison, an old caravan for the gypsy camp – but much use is made of projections onto the backdrop, usually in silhouettes and shadows. Arias are given visual accompaniment according to a fairly straightforward symbolic scheme, crosses for fear, crows for menace, butterflies for hope. For all its narrative complexity, that is about the emotional range of the work, so the directness of the visual language works well.
The vocal prowess of the cast is evident from the opening scene, which is dominated by the army captain Ferrando sung by Maurizio Muraro. His job is to fill us in on the back story – a gypsy woman burnt at the stake for witchcraft, a baby also thrown into the flames – emotional fare, and presented with appropriate gravitas by Muraro, whose weighty, focussed bass tone is ideal here. The second scene introduces the heroine, Leonora (Lianna Haroutounian) and her confidante Ines (Jennifer Davis). Haroutounian has an impressively agile soprano, and was strong here. By the end of the opera, fatigue was creeping into her higher register, but no such complaints in these earlier appearances. Davis has a pleasant tone, though she sounded a little underpowered against the orchestra and was so close in tone to Haroutounian that the two were hard to tell apart.
Then we meet the Count di Luna, sung by Željko Lučić. A love triangle between him, Leonora and the romantic lead, Manrico (Francesco Meli) is the other main strand of the plot. Lučić has an attractive, round tone, elegant and lyrical, but not very menacing. That is a shame, because otherwise his is an excellent performance. He is likely to be upstaged though, by the Luna in the second cast (the run is alternating between the two), Christopher Maltman, who has form in roles like this. Meli holds his own in this strong cast. His tone is a little lacking in character, but his singing is precise, and his projection and support phenomenal.
And so to the gypsy camp to meet the last of the lead roles, Azucena (Ekaterina Semenchuk). Bösch is ambiguous in the details of his updating. The soldiers at the start appear to be in Second World War attire (if you suffer the common allergy to machine gun-toting choruses, stay away), while the gypsies are more contemporary, all leather caps, string vests and braces – shades of Guy Ritchie here. Azucena is the most complex of the leads, and clearly Bösch has gone to great lengths to make this an interesting portrayal. Having accidentally killed her own baby son, many years previously, she is now clearly in the throes of a neurosis. Baby dolls are strung up around her dishevelled caravan, and when we first meet here she is pushing around a decrepit pram. Semenchuk gives her all here, both dramatically and vocally, and hers is the defining performance of this production. Her tone is complex and dark, her delivery strident but suitably unpredictable.
Some inventive, if minimal, stagecraft is employed for the remaining scenes. Leonora, under the impression that Manrico has died in battle, takes the veil, but the convent here becomes a cemetery. Wooden crosses are lit low to project across the backdrop, an effective device. Through the second half, an increasingly hard winter sets in, with effective use of snow falling on the stage, the white flecks illuminated well and set in high contrast to the muted greys and blacks of the set. The final scene takes place at a prison, where Azucena and Manrico are both to meet a grizzly end. Barbed wire coils around the stage suffice for defences (a liability for curtain calls I’d have thought, but no mishaps on opening night), while the final set piece is a huge pyre on which Azucena is to be burned. But Verdi makes little of the final confrontation, and despite the best efforts of Bösch and Bannwart, the ending feels like an anti-climax. To consolidate the imagery, a large heart, in barbed wire, is lowered from above and set ablaze in the final bars. It didn’t fully light, which didn’t help, but even if it had, the close would have felt abrupt and messy.
But no matter, this is an impressive production of a difficult opera. Antonio Pappano tells us in his programme intro that David Bösch has resisted the temptation to make excuses for the outlandish story, and there certainly is a sense of realism here that lends emotional, if not necessarily narrative, credibility. He also says that casting the opera is a challenge, and that you need four great voices for the leads. They have managed that here, and the second cast (first appearing on 4 July) looks strong too. Pappano also introduces Gianandrea Noseda, describing his debut as ‘very overdue’, and indeed it is. Perhaps his absence from Covent Garden in recent years has been caused by the overlap between his musical strengths and Pappano’s. Although similar in temperament to Pappano, Noseda is more focussed and directed – it is easy to imagine Pappano giving a broader and more luxurious performance of this score. But Noseda proved ideal here, galvanising a slick and coherent reading. All the lead roles were covered well, and even if there were a few real standouts (Muraro, Semenchuk) the performance felt like a real ensemble piece. Another success, then, for the Royal Opera, a company that clearly knows how to play to its strengths.