Verdi's Il Trovatore can be difficult to stomach: at its heart, the story of a baby cast into the flames of a gypsy campfire. But a story is what it is, and it is the storybook nature of the oddly structured piece that Thomas and her designer AnneMarie Woods bring out in this production.
Marine Rebeka as Leonora and Gabrielė Kupšytė as Ines. Photo: Camilla Greenwell
Grim and gruesome, like so many of the tales we grew up with, its theme, as in so many plays, is vengeance. Azucena is the outsider mother deranged by the execution of her own mother by the old Count di Luna. In her delirium she in turn did an appalling thing. But not everyone is who they seem…
The love interest lies between Leonora and the mysterious stranger Manrico, the troubadour of the title, raised as her son by Azucena. This enrages the new Count who plans to marry her himself. Will Leonora choose love, duty or death? Will Azucena reveal all?
Much of the action of the opera takes place in the past, events relayed by one character to another. These episodes unfold like a series of framed, often grotesque, paintings, or as the densely illustrated pages of a picture book. Weird creatures scamper through the action, but they do this so often that they become less and less interesting and more and more irritating. The grotesque world of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch was a big influence on design.
Jamie Barton as Azucena. Photo: Camilla Greenwell
But this medieval world of superstition and hennins –those elegant pointy hats – hangs on a worrying flight of steps that take up most of the stage, apart from an impenetrable downstage strip too steep and polished to venture on to with any certainty. Stairs worry audiences: will Ludovic Tézier’s sturdy Count roll down, or be felled by a cascade of four-legged familiars? There were no such calamities on first night, but fingers crossed for the rest.
Il Trovatore requires only ‘the best four singers in the world’, according to the great conductor Arturo Toscanini. Who could definitively name those today? And would they necessarily be Verdians? No matter, here is a one of the most consistently well sung productions at Covent Garden. The count’s officer Ferrando, Italian bass Roberto Tagliavini gets things off to a strong start, reminding his thuggish henchmen of the backstory, reigniting their thirst for vengeance.
Sweet-voiced soprano Marina Rebeka, by contrast, confides her love for Manrico to sympathetic Ines, warmly sung by Gabrielė Kupšytė. French baritone Tezier is in fine voice as the immovable Count, and Riccardo Massi is every inch the Italian tenor as Manrico.
Roberto Tagliavini as Ferrando. Photo: Camilla Greenwell
But the night belongs to mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, a Cardiff Singer of the World winner and Last Night of the Proms artist with a big personal following. She is hugely impressive as the singular Azucena, unhinged by grief and guilt, yet making this role more musical than mad, which is not always the case. This is her first fully staged Covent Garden appearance since 2016, and the audience is clearly ready for more.
Sir Antonio Pappano conducting brings his customary deep and fresh insight into a familiar score, and the conspiratorial chorus numbers are delectable.
Great singing, then, great playing and some striking visual effects, such as the watercolour clouds that fall and rise, a stylised sun, and the throngs of stripey, slippery oddballs. But the stairs are problematic. The only way is up isn’t always good news.
Il Trovatore is sung in Italian with English surtitles. Further performances on 5, 8, 13, 16, 21, 24, 27, 29 June; 2 July. A live cinema relay is on 13 June, with an encore screening is on 18 July: click here for details and booking
|Il Trovatore, Royal Opera House review
|Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP
|Covent Garden (underground)
02 Jun 23 – 02 Jul 23, Eight evening performances plus 3pm, 2 July
|Click here for details and booking