Verdi: Il trovatore

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 14 April 2009 3 stars

Roberto AlagnaWhile it's perhaps true that Il trovatore demands the four greatest singers in the world, in reality it rarely gets them. That means that the focus shifts to different characters depending on who the stronger performers happen to be. On this occasion it was all about the men, thanks in particular to the return of Roberto Alagna to Covent Garden, after a five-year absence, in the role of Manrico.

But this third revival of Elijah Moshinsky's production is far from an all-out success. The staging has always been cumbersome, largely due to Dante Ferretti's enormous, overblown sets, which are traditional in the sense of retaining Verdi and Cammarano's story in a slight updating, but at the same time they do not depict the opera's locations with the lavish hyperrealism of a Zeffirelli. Nor are they so beautiful. It's frustrating, in fact, how four-square and un-evocative it all is, since this piece is hugely demanding in performance. The librettist constantly falls back on the racconto form, whereby action is recounted in narratives rather than actually depicted onstage. This means that the director and designer have to provide an imaginative framework in which the singers can convey the famously convoluted and nonsensical plot about mistaken identities and parental curses.

Ferretti's huge canons, columns and boilers, however, are not really fit to task, and the singers are constantly dwarfed by what's going on behind them. They work against the performance in another crucial way, too: the scene changes seem to take an eternity, so that the tension in the music is constantly being lost. Perhaps it wouldn't matter if the Personenregie were more interesting, but too often the singers are left to stand and deliver using stock operatic gestures; the final scene finds Manrico, Leonora and Azucena all writhing around on the ground at one point, which is hardly compelling. I'm glad Ferrando no longer delivers his opening line from the stalls, yet I still found the melodramatic flashing of the house lights to depict the hand of fate utterly risible and unnecessary.

Admittedly, the updating to the post-Napoleonic period of the opera's composition has potential, with Di Luna as the defender of the state and Manrico as the revolutionary. But I don't think Moshinsky's undeniably interesting parallels with Verdi's engagement in the Risorgimento is conveyed as clearly as it deserves to be because of the physical layout of the staging.

Thank goodness, then, for Roberto Alagna's riveting performance as Manrico. His portrayal confirmed that it's simply been too long since we last heard his rich, unforced tone at Covent Garden. The size and consistency of his voice is remarkable, and although there are other characters which he might be better suited to on a dramatic level, he is entirely at home in this music. A special moment was created when Alagna sang the troubadour's song through the roof of the auditorium, while 'Ah! sì, ben mio' was exquisitely crafted and the macho delivery of 'Di quella pira' (albeit transposed down a semitone) provided the greatest visceral thrill of the evening.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky was ideally cast opposite him as the Conte di Luna. The part requires a singer of equal weight and dramatic presence to act as the aristocratic counterpoint to the maverick Manrico, and in this respect Hvorostovsky was perfect. Vocally, I think Posa fits him slightly more comfortably, as well as giving him better material to work with, but the baritone's detailed approach to the text and beautiful voice were a pleasure to witness, deservedly drawing the evening's first big round of applause for his cavatina.

Roberto AlagnaFor my taste, Sondra Radvanovsky's fast vibrato worked against her in Leonora's music, sometimes leading to tuning problems. She gave a heartfelt, hard-working account of the role and was a noble figure on the stage, but she made heavy weather vocally of 'Tacea la notte', struggled with the lower tessitura of her music in the first two acts, and for me did not create the smoothness of line in 'D'amor sull'ali rosee' that the music really demands, though she did receive loud cheers for her performance of that aria. Her exposed high notes are extraordinary in their security of pitching and apparent ease, and climactic scale passages were well executed too, but I was not as deeply moved by the singer as others in the audience seemed to be.

The weakest of the four, however, was Polish mezzo Malgorzata Walewska, making her ROH debut as Azucena. It seemed bizarre on paper that such starry casting for the other three roles should be completed by a virtually unknown singer as what is arguably the most important character – after all, Verdi treated Azucena as the centre from which he evolved the drama, and it's her avenging of her mother's death that motivates much of the plot. Walewska's performance was adequate but rather provincial, simply lacking in incision and bite from a vocal perspective and wanting in charisma and focus as an actress.

Mikhail Petrenko emoted heavily during Ferrando's opening narrative but didn't create as much colour in the voice as the text demands; the piece became monolithic where it should be infused with a sense of fate. Young Artists Monika-Evelin Liiv (Ines) and Haoyin Xue (Ruiz) both did a fine job, but ROH Chorus members Jonathan Fisher and John Heath were disappointingly dry-toned as the Old gypsy and Messenger.

Carlo Rizzi's conducting was at times quite neurotic, especially to begin with. The long andante narratives tended to be taken at too slow a tempo, while the cabalettas and strettas were so fast and unyielding that the singers were pushed to their limits. That said, Rizzi gave a respectable account of the score that generated tension and excitement as the evening wore on, and in spite of a shaky first half, the performance settled down after the interval and became a good old-fashioned display of Verdian melodrama.

By Dominic McHugh

Photo Credits: Catherine Ashmore line

Dmitri HvorostovskyRelated articles:

Interview: Dmitri Hvorostovsky on Il trovatore
Review: A classic Il trovatore on CD from the ROH Heritage label
Review: The Royal Opera's I Capuleti revival
Review: Il trovatore at Opera Holland Park