Il Trovatore is an opera that can be presented in different ways. The improbable and convoluted plot lends itself to melodrama, but the sublime music is more suited for serious drama, the option chosen for this Opera Australia production of Verdi’s 1853 Italian opera, sung in Italian with surtitles.
The plot is a tale of love and revenge: of the misplaced love of a noblewoman Leonora for a troubadour; of a count’s passion for Leonora; of a gypsy woman burnt at the stake and a baby burned with her; of kidnapping and suicide and killing.
Not that it is all doom and gloom. Director Elke Neidhardt takes several opportunities to inject some comedy into the proceedings, particularly in the delightful character of Inez, Leonora’s younger sister (Vanessa Lewis), and in the opening scene of Act II, where the young army recruits are stripping for a medical examination. Much is made of dressing and undressing throughout the play, introducing a note of realism and humanity.
In this production of Il trovatore (the troubadour), Neidhardt has relocated the setting to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, giving the opera more relevance to today’s audiences. Verdi originally set it in a fifteenth-century Spanish civil war, with references to the Spanish Inquisition, targeted at Muslims, Jews and women accused of witchcraft. Il Trovatore also alludes to the Italian revolutions of 1848-9 that were taking place at the time the patriotic Verdi wrote the opera.
The stage design is stark and menacing. The crumbling edifice of the Count di Luna’s castle sets the opening scene and moves back or opens out for subsequent scenes. The lighting is designed for the set: shafts of light are directed through the fissures in the walls on to the faces of the singers with a powerful dramatic effect. The filtered lights are discarded for the final scene in the prison cell, where a brightly lit cage is suspended above the stage, in shocking contrast to earlier scenes, with prison bars that act as suitable props for the death throes and dramatic arias.
Acting is not always the forte of opera singers and yet the overall standard in this production was very high. Nicole Youl, as Leonora, plays the soprano lead with passion and conviction, even in the most elaborate vocal passages. Both her singing and her acting get stronger as the drama intensifies, culminating in the ‘Miserere’ scene, which is Leonora’s scena and which Youl sings with a lightness of touch and yet with a voice that is both warm and sonorous.
There is a second leading female character in this opera, the gypsy woman Azucena. When Verdi created this character, it was the first principal role for a mezzo-soprano (or contralto) on the operatic stage. Bernadette Cullen plays Azucena with an earthy, distraught, vengeful intensity. Her aria Stride la vampa, which she sings sitting frontstage by the light of a fire, is a highlight of Act I.
Michael Lewis is abrasive, threatening and yet multi-dimensional as the troubadour’s rival, the Count di Luna. He is a confident actor, with a particularly agile face. His voice shines in the arias, which are at times touching and delicate, but becomes a little lost in the trios.
The troubadour Manrico is played by Dennis O’Neill. The character is first encountered as an offstage voice, when Manrico is serenading Leonora from afar. The tenor voice is haunting, captivating, wistful and coolly passionate. When he appears, Manrico is less impressive. The coolness and understated emotion in his voice come across as stiffness and remoteness in the flesh. But O’Neill’s voice is one of the dramatic forces that shape this production.
The chorus is beautifully choreographed to bring out the historical and dramatic themes, particularly in the anvil chorus scene, which uses tableaux and slow-motion sequences to depict the horrors of war. The orchestra is sensitively conducted by Giovanni Reggioli. The dynamics are carefully judged and there are only a couple of moments when the orchestra overpowers the singers.
This is an original and powerful production that blends history and realism with the fantastic and the romantic. Musically it is satisfying and uplifting. Dramatically, it grows from an uncertain opening to a lively and passionate second act.
Opera Australia presents
by Giuseppe Verdi
Venue: State Theatre | the Arts Centre
Dates/Times: Evenings at 7.30pm – April 24, May 1, 4, 9 & 12; Matinee at 1.00pm – April 28
Duration: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 20-minute interval
Tickets: $40 - $210 | a children’s price of $40-$44 is available for all performances
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 136 166, Arts Centre Box Office or www.opera-australia.org.au