Opera Holland Park's 2008 season opened with a bang with this lively performance of Verdi's Il trovatore. The cast had to struggle against the cold – it was chilly enough to be able to see the singers' breath – and the pitter-patter of the rain on the auditorium's canopy but between them, and with the help of Brad Cohen's tightly controlled, if occasionally hard-pushed, account of Verdi's masterly middle-period score, they managed to bring a good deal of emotional warmth to this dank June evening.
No-one could accuse director John Lloyd Davies of lacking ideas, and there were times when he made clever use of the limited stage space at his disposal. However, I often felt that the stage was rather too busy, full of unnecessary paraphernalia and clutter. The clear conception of the main stage design was effective: the division between the civilised realm of the Count di Luna on the left and the barbaric world of Azucena and her gypsies on the right was strikingly delineated by a red vertical shaft, which could be lit effectively to evoke both pyre and stake, as well as representing, one assumes, the ever-present line of fate. To the left a portrait of two boys – perhaps an idealised artist's impression of Luna and his lost brother – doubles as Leonora's window. These well-thought-out devices were undermined by what looked like anti-tank defences strewn across the stage throughout much of the evening, as well as a flimsy metal criss-cross structure being employed variously throughout most of the second half, ending up as the frame for the wall of the closing scene's prison, the final touches added by nuns.
The direction also did little to persuade us that the opera – actually a highly sophisticated and meticulously crafted work of a composer at the height of his powers – was more than a melodramatic hotch-potch of clichés. It was difficult to take seriously Manrico's entrances when each time he appeared as some sort of masked avenger, and there was little chance of us believing in Leonora's Act One aria when for the cabaletta she was made to skip around with twee gaiety while poor Ines tried to put her coat on her. The chorus, particularly the men enacting Luna's soldiers, were too often directed individually, something that it is admirable in theory but here sometimes led to the eye been drawn away from the action.
With Cohen's conducting, that action never seemed far away. Despite occasional rough edges, the orchestra rose to some excellent playing, particularly in the final act, and there was fine solo work from the woodwind. And although many of the faster cabalettas and ensembles sounded rushed – often to the detriment of ensemble – there was much to enjoy. Of the principals, Anne Mason was the most consistently impressive. Almost single-handedly bringing the focus of the opera away from the Manrico-Leonora-Luna love-triangle that Verdi's librettist Cammarano wanted to be at the heart of the opera, she placed Azucena firmly as the central, and most human character, as Verdi himself had perceived her. Vocally, she was impressively secure and threw herself fully into the characterisation.
Stephen Gadd's Luna cut a dashing figure and started well, his baritone impressively dark and sinister in the middle of the range. However, it soon became clear that the role doesn't sit terribly comfortably for him. He was stretched by the tessitura of his first trio with Leonora and Manrico, and his 'Il balen' was underpowered and seemed deliberately designed to disguise the relative weakness of the voice high up. However, in cleverly tailoring his performance to his strengths, Gadd produced a very respectable portrayal.
Both Katarina Jovanvic's Leonora and Rafael Rojas' Manrico were less convincing. Neither singer wanted for vocal power but there was a lack of refinement, both musically and in terms of acting, that failed to fire one's sympathy; of all the principals, they suffered most from a lack of specific direction. Jovanvic was often rather wayward – some of her candential flourishes in particular – and at times the basic sound of the instrument could lack appeal. She did, however, seem to be trying to inject Verdian style into her performance and gave a solid account of this highly taxing role. On the other hand, stylish vocalism seemed rather far down the list of Rojas's priorities. His stentorian delivery took its toll on his voice – he paid the price for an evening's singing fortissimo when he tried to introduce tenderness in the final scene – and began to grate on the ear. Although he gave us an impressive 'Di quella pira', the preceding 'Ah! si, ben mio' and brief hushed duet at the altar were delivered with a similar angry snarl in the voice and, it has to be said, a total absence of legato line. The voice itself, though, is often mightily impressive, and he, like his Leonora, was never anything but fully committed in his performance.
Geoffrey Moses's Ferrando was occasionally pushed but he led a well-cast set of secondary characters (Stephanie Corley's creamy soprano as Ines standing out) and the chorus, despite a few tentative entries, was spirited and full-voiced. In an opera that's notoriously difficult to cast, Opera Holland Park have once again proved what can be done at the fraction of the cost of London's opera houses. This isn't Verdi performance at its most refined but it's still a great way to enjoy this wonderful score.
By Hugo Shirley