Now, this is opera. Il Trovatore is one of the major works by Verdi, a smash hit from the get go – within the first three years of its 1853 premiere, it had been performed thousands of times, in over two hundred different productions. I have heard it being described as a hit parade in which nothing happens, and that’s certainly partly true – it certainly has one big “number” after another. It also is true that the big turns of the plot happen off stage, and we get to see the characters’ reaction to the events, rather than the events themselves, all of which are a bit silly, to be honest.
The opera opens with some scene setting – or, as I call it, “something happened thirty years ago (accounts vary), and they are still talking about it”. Count di Luna is in love with with Leonora, a lady-in-waiting to the Princess; he’s hanging outside the palace hoping to catch a glimpse of her, and to pass the time, tells a tale of a gypsy woman, who was accused of bewitching the baby son of the old Count (our present di Luna’s father) and burnt as a witch. The gypsy woman called her daughter Azucena to avenge her death, which she did by abducting the baby. When the stake had burnt out, bones of a little child were found in the ashes along with the bones of the gypsy woman, leading people to think that Azucena had killed the boy. The old count, who never believed that his child was really dead, made his eldest son to swear to find Azucena and to find out what really happened. This isn’t Luna’s only problem – Leonora is in love with a mysterious troubadour rather than with him, and she comes to meet the troubadour in the palace garden. Only, she mistakes Luna to him in the darkness, igniting jealousy in both men; they duel. Leonora faints.
In the beginning of the Act 2, we discover that not only is Azucena alive, but also the mother of Manrico, our mystery troubadour. Only, she isn’t really – she tells a gruesome story of how in the chaos of the events she mistakenly threw her own son in the fire, and then brought up the di Luna baby as her own. Manrico loves his mother, and this revelation doesn’t change that. Between Act 1 and Act 2, Manrico and his troops lost a battle, but he now receives news that – off stage – his men have defeated di Luna in another, and also that Leonora thinks him dead and is preparing to take vows. Luna plans to stop her, and Manrico goes off to stop Luna from stopping Leonora, so that he can stop her himself.
Between Act 2 and Act 3, Manrico and Leonora have taken refuge in Castellor fortress, and Azucena has been captured by Luna’s troops. She has been recognised as the missing daughter of the dead gypsy woman. She calls Manrico for help, and Luna sees his moment has come; he tells his men to build a pyre for Azucena outside Castellor to lure Manrico out. He learns about his mother’s impending doom, busts out a cracking tune (actually, I hate Di quella pira), goes to battle to free her… and Leonora faints.
Between Act 3 and Act 4, Manrico has failed to free Azucena and has been taken prisoner himself. Leonora pleads with Luna, even promising to give herself to him in exchange of Manrico’s life. Well, sort of. Luna agrees. Also, sort of. Leonora comes to meet Manrico and Azucena, pleading that he escape. After initially doubting her, he discovers that she has taken poison – she will die rather than give herself to Luna. Luna overhears this, and as Leonora dies, charges forward to kill Manrico. Azucena tries to stop him, but fails, and as Manrico dies, she reveals to Luna that he has killed his own brother – triumphant that she has finally avenged her mother.
It’s a cracking bit of opera. There are some fantastic music numbers. It makes the mezzo the main character (Verdi and his librettist did consider calling the opera Azucena). The plot is satisfyingly silly. It’s almost the sort of opera of which one could argue that as long as the singing and the conducting are good, it doesn’t matter what’s on the stage (just like Traviata, which can survive pretty much anything). But, thankfully, the ROH has decided to make the effort anyway, and the new production by David Bösch is a visual feast. It makes a big deal out of the context of war (and this is a real war, not a gang turf war or anything like that), though the setting is more modern-ish dress Game of Thrones than any actual conflict. There are soldiers on the stage, people die, atrocities are committed by both sides of the conflict. The landscape is wintery and war-torn, the soldiers huddle together around burning barrels for warmth, there are graves marked with wonky wooden crosses and helmets. At one point, a rather realistic looking tank is wheeled on the stage (tho a former army officer friend thought it was too quiet to be real), and a captured enemy soldier gets jostled around quite a bit – there’s a brief tableau where the poor man is forced on his knees, and the chorus all gather around him, pointing their guns at him, cartoon-style, before he’s lead away with a noose around his neck, the other end of the rope tied to the tank gun. Later on, another soldier is killed on the stage; Leonora covers his body with her coat, and he lies there, getting slowly covered in the fake snow until the end of the opera.
In contrast with this war-torn conflict zone, the gypsies are presented as a down-on-its-uppers circus crew, complete with a woman dressed as a bear, and a juggler (she didn’t juggle tho when I saw this – I’m assuming she missed her mark), with Azucena as the fortune teller living in a small caravan. When the choir sings Vedi le fosche, the anvil is hammered on stage, and it is accompanied by a small band of musicians gathered around it – it’s a busy, fabulous scene.
The aesthetics throughout are dark, but also whimsical – there are video backdrops of animated birds filling the sky and childlike doodles of faces and flowers and hearts, the fake snow keeps falling until the ground is covered in white. There’s barb wire, dead trees, bonfires, and in the end, a giant burning heart lighting up the whole auditorium before the curtain comes down. It is a breathtaking visual and truly fitting of the dramatic ending of the music.
I know from the comments on the ROH website that some people found the production confusing, and most critics were not sold on the concept. Many people complained that they couldn’t work out the period, which made it harder for them – the rest could be WWII, but Leonora faffs about in white costumes that can only be described as period-vague. Perhaps this is a nod towards the fact that she is in a way the character removed from the main storyline, existing on a different plane. When she enters the “real” world, she is wrapped in a rather more period accurate velvet coat, tying her in with the rest. I did love the concept – it is done in a visual style I find very inspiring, it’s stylish and entertaining, and has a few showstopping moments.
Both this summer run and the upcoming snap revival in Dec-Feb have two casts. I saw a performance with Lianna Haroutounian as Leonora, Francesco Meli as Manrico, Zeljko Lucic as Luna and Ekaterina Sementchuck as Azucena. Haroutounian suits Leonora well – her voice is beautiful and secure, her singing well thought out and well prepared. So well thought out and prepared in fact that there were moments when I sort of wished that she would throw caution to the wind and just go with it, give space for that extra bit of thrill. Meli was equally secure, but the part is almost impossible to do perfectly, and he sounded at times a bit shouty. The big number was big indeed, and it was impossible to say how much (or little) he was working. He doesn’t seem much of an actor, but in this repertoire it probably doesn’t matter. Lucic has a lush, manly voice, though he occasionally sounded a bit hoarse; he certainly had a great presence on stage as well, which helped.
There however was little doubt who the real star was – Sementchuck brought the house down as Azucena. She has a dark, confident voice, and she was exciting, thrilling performer to watch. Both Stride la vampa and Condotta ell’era in ceppi were chilling, the last line of the latter absolutely blood curdling in its horrified intensity. Sementchuck also chooses to keep her face hidden behind her hair, suggesting her character being burnt, deformed by the fire, constantly at the brink of madness. Trovatore is a confusing opera in the sense that though it was named after the tenor, it is really Azucena and Luna’s story; Leonora is almost dispensable to the action, as is the love triangle between her and the two men. This production perhaps does a better job in putting the emphasis on Azucena than some that I have seen, and Sementchuck being the strongest member of the cast certainly helps that.
The RO choir is always fantastic; they are frequently the highlight for me in almost all the things I have seen this summer, and Trovatore wasn’t really an exception – the big, lush sound is a thrill every time. Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting was dependable and in style.
Il Trovatore returns in December with two more super star casts – Maria Agresta, Roberto Alagna, Anita Rachvelishvili, Haroutounian, Gregory Kunde, and Dmitry Hvorostovsky will all appear, and the production will again be filmed for cinema relay. Tickets will come to sale in October, I believe.
Il Trovatore production photos by Clive Barda from ROH flickr feed.