Conventional wisdom may suggest that in a duel between a stage director and the plot of Il trovatore, the director is never going to win. This libretto is, er, complicated, and it belongs to a kind of lurid sensationalism that we often assume has nothing under its surface shock and awe. So the most we dare wish for is mere comprehensibility, hence pro forma efforts like David McVicar’s Met production. I don’t mind that production that much, it does what it has to do, but it sets a fairly low bar.
That’s not the only option, though. La Monnaie had a great Tcherniakov production a few years back that took the plot’s complexity not as an insurmountable problem but rather as its subject, becoming a bunch of people in a room experiencing a claustrophobic series of flashbacks. And there was that Olivier Py job in Munich a few years ago, which I saw only on a technically challenged internet stream and thus believe I can only describe as batshit crazy. And there are more.
And now, I hoped, we would have David Bösch’s at the Royal Opera House too. We did, but we also didn’t.
Verdi, Il trovatore. Royal Opera House, 7/8/2016. New production directed by David Bösch, sets and video by Patrick Bannwart, costumes by Meentje Nielsen, lights by Olaf Winter. Conducted by Gianandrea Noseda with Lianna Haroutounian (Leonore), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Azucena), Francesco Meli (Manrico), Zeljko Lucic (Di Luna), Maurizio Muraro (Ferrando)
If you want to watch this production, you can see the whole thing on YouTube until mid-August. I am happy that I have been able to write words to this effect on so many recent entries!
I took a really long time to write about this because after seeing it I went almost immediately to the very busy Biennial Conference on 19th-Century Music in Oxford and then chilled out (literally) in Iceland for a few days. I wasn’t feeling the urgency because, honestly, this production was hugely disappointing and writing about it is thus a bummer. For the record, however, I am posting this anyway.
I’ve really liked David Bösch’s prior work a lot, and I’ve seen a decent amount of it. He and set/video designer Patrick Bannwart and co. have a very distinct aesthetic of childlike sketches and Roald Dahl-esque whimsy suffused with post-apocalyptic darkness and military images. Elisir d’amore (Bayerische Staatsoper) was a story of fragile love amidst militarism, Mother Courage (at the Burgtheater) darkly comic, and his L’Orfeo (also Bay Staats) was one of the saddest performances of anything I’ve ever seen. In a good way.
Trovatore is certainly a dark opera—much more obviously so than, say, Elisir d’amore—but Bösch and co. seem to have utterly failed to connect with the drama. His stylistic signatures are there: the fire curtain has a messy sketch of a heart outlining the essential romantic triangle, the dark stage is populated by militants (Di Luna and co.), quirky outsiders with a camper (the gypsies, and Azucena has as thing for kitschy baby dolls) and innocents (Leonora), and a butterfly flits across the projections to indicate hope in darkness. There are some striking images—the most striking is in the last few seconds of the opera—a spiky, flaming heart—but other than the obvious relevance of FLAMES, Y’ALL it doesn’t tell us anything new or significant.
But beyond the Bösch visuals this seems like production that has barely been staged at all. Despite the striking mood of the visuals, the cast didn’t seem to connect with it in the least and the direction of the singers is barely evident (there are two rotating casts; I saw the so-called A cast; maybe the other group is better). It’s quite dark and my seat was quite distant, so maybe I missed a lot, but I somehow doubt it. While there are the seeds of something here, they’ve failed to germinate.
Musically, things were more rewarding if not entirely consistent. Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting was very good: dark and atmospheric with a good sense of pace and direction. Lianna Haroutonian is a singer I really like: she has a beautiful sound that’s something like Angela Gheorghiu if Angela Gheorghiu sang out all the time and didn’t operate in her own time zone. But this role exposed some technical frailty. Her “Tacea la notte” was beautiful and straightforwardly musical but, as we discovered in the cabaletta, she doesn’t have a trill. Leonora trills a lot, and prominently, and this continued to be a problem. She also has very little chest voice, which didn’t do the Misere any favors. She makes a spunky heroine, but she didn’t really create a character.
Francesco Meli has taken a turn towards the spinto rep since I last heard him (which was a while ago; he was then resident in upwardly mobile lyric tenor land), and it kind of works. As Manrico, his voice is, at most points, large, reasonably bright, and Italian. But he lacks big high notes, and his “Di quella pira” got the least applause I have ever heard. More importantly, he doesn’t sound like a natural musician. When he tries to do something arty, like a subito piano, the effect is self-conscious rather than organic. His “Ah si, ben mio” was carefully done, but audibly careful.
Ekaterina Semenchuk as Azucena gave the most consistent performance, singing with a full, dark mezzo (and all the trills). She’s not a fog horn like Dolora Zajick but is more than loud enough, with a bit of a metallic tint to cut through the orchestra. She’s not very famous despite high profile gigs (she’s the Amneris on the recent Harteros-Kaufmann Aida, but her name is in smaller print on the cover) and I wonder if this is because despite being vocally very reliable she lacks a certain amount of individual flair, but I also don’t think this is a production by which that can be fairly judged.
Zeljko Lucic had a good night as Di Luna, sounding as solid as usual but his mid-sized Verdi-ish baritone is a good fit for this role. Here is where my lateness is betraying me, for other that “Lucic is Lucic, sounds fine tonight” I didn’t write much down. Unfortunately this production did not have the effect of giving singers any solo profile. Jennifer Davis was an excellent Ines and I was sorry she did not get a curtain call at the end.
Bösch also directed the Bayerische Staatsoper’s Meistersinger, to be webcast on July 31, but the word on that one is much more promising than what this suggests, so I’d hold out some hope yet.
Photos copyright Clive Barda