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Verdi, Il trovatore at the Royal Stockholm Opera, 13.05.2006 (GF)


Conductor: Christian Badea
Direction: Wilhelm Carlsson
Set Design and Costumes: Reinhard von der Thannen
Lighting: Ellen Ruge


Cast:

Count Luna Karl-Magnus Fredriksson (baritone)
Leonora Hillevi Martinpelto (soprano)
Azucena Marianne Eklöf (mezzo-soprano)
Manrico Badri Maisuradze (tenor)
Ferrando John Erik Eleby (bass)
Inez Ingela Berglund-Kyhle (soprano)
Ruiz Carl Unander-Scharin (tenor)
An old gipsy Björn Blomqvist (bass)
A messenger Anders Blom (tenor)
The demon of revenge Mirco Andreani (miming artist)


The Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra

 


The story of Verdi’s eighteenth opera has often been castigated for being incomprehensible, illogical, ridiculous and … add any adjective with a negative connotation and it probably fits in, too. Director Wilhelm Carlsson, in a short essay in the programme booklet for the new production at the Royal Stockholm Opera, doesn’t really deny any of this but states that “Verdi’s deconstruction … the fragments which he picks out of the original work are burning hot” and he goes on to point out, as many commentators have done, that it isn’t the large structure but the thrill of the isolated moments that interests Verdi. “The story about Azucena, Count Luna, his brother Manrico and Leonora – the woman both of them love – has its labyrinths. But the meeting between them and their passions are fully recognizable, as clear as glass. Forget the story, meet the human being when she hates … and loves beyond all senses”.


This maxim is the guiding philosophy behind Carlsson’s direction. He presents the eight scenes as eight isolated episodes, only loosely connected and they are all played within the same circular space, a “stage within the stage”, like a shallow basin. At key moments the actors can step onto the edge and deliver their arias. Around the basin is a movable wall with doors and this wall also functions as a second curtain. The sets are sparse: a few large rocks in the Anvil scene, a huge green tree being lowered during Leonora’s first aria, and colours are mainly white and grey with some subdued lighting, the only real exception being the Anvil scene, where the gypsy women’s fiery red dresses reflect the colourful music. Carlsson also trusts the impact of the music and the acting ability of the principals and avoids that kind of constructed side-plots being performed in the background, which is increasingly popular among directors today. It is a “peeled off” production that is sometimes felt to go against the music but it also lays bare the central conflicts. We are also reminded that Verdi initially contemplated the title “The revenge of the gypsy woman” and so Azucena appears in front of the closed arena already during the short prelude, accompanied by a miming character, the Demon of Revenge, a big black bird that is almost omni-present during the performance. Those in the audience who didn’t read the synopsis in advance of course became at once informed of the background story, recounted by Ferrando during the first scene. I have seen some reviews feeling this evil spirit’s presence on stage being over-explicit but I have no objections.

 


Il trovatore is of course a dark, tragic story with little redeeming light in it. Still Verdi’s music is often cheerful, mainly in major keys and a lot of the “rum-ti-dum” of his earlier operas. One of the jolliest pieces in the whole opera is the soldiers’ chorus at the beginning of act III, and here it was the opening number after the only interval. For some reason it is staged in this production as a hilarious crayfish party (typically Swedish! I can’t dream of medieval Spanish soldiers indulging in such exotic pleasures) with funny hats, some men in women’s clothes and an insane crayfish eating competition! All right, it goes well with the music but it jars with the rest of the drama. Maybe Carlsson draws a parallel with Puccini who always has some elements of comedy in his tragedies.

 


An unintentional comedy occurred on this opening night when Leonora’s long dress got stuck under the closed circular wall and her confidante Inez tried in vain to get it loose. She had to run out in the wings to call for help and both the audience and the two singers were bursting with laughter before someone from the technical staff managed to operate the wall so that Hillevi Martinpelto finally could leave the stage. The two ladies curtsied in the usual manner and got a round of applause.


The “clean” stage picture, as I have already implied, allowed the music to speak even more articulately than in a more traditional production and with Christian Badea in the pit one could rest assured that the orchestral contribution was on an exalted level. The standard of the playing was consistently high and Badea’s care over details as usual paid dividends, revealing that Verdi’s handling of orchestral colours even in this primitive opera is far from crude. He chose some very fast tempos and the anvil chorus at first seemed over-rushed, but it worked well and certainly heightened the temperature. He also underlined the lyrical moments of the score, most obviously in Leonora’s act IV aria, which became one of the real highlights of the performance. This extremely beautiful aria was drawn out to such extent that Hillevi Martinpelto had to chop up some phrases for need of breath, but that was more than compensated by the intensity and feeling and all through the evening she sang with such purity of tone, such beauty and such identification that it is hard to imagine it better done. She is no newcomer to Verdi: I reviewed the Stockholm Don Carlo a year ago and she also recorded that part for Naxos almost five years earlier, but internationally she is probably best known as a Mozart singer, a repertoire she still excels in. She was the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro last autumn in Stockholm and she also sang and recorded Vitellia in La clemenza di Tito in Edinburgh, a recording I reviewed very favourably a few months ago. As so often has been said, singing Mozart every now and then preserves the lightness and agility of the voice and since Verdi also prescribes some florid singing in Leonora’s part, she executed them with unstinting elegance, whereas many a spinto soprano can make quite heavy weather of these runs. As a whole I don’t think I have heard Hillevi Martinpelto sing better than in this performance.


On a par with her was Karl-Magnus Fredriksson as Count Luna. He is a terribly gifted actor and his once extremely lyrical voice has deepened and expanded to such a degree that today he is a fully fledged Verdian baritone, singing with power and authority while retaining some of the lyrical qualities. His great aria Il balen, sometimes bawled out as a call to arms, was filled with passion and still he never sacrifices the text by smudging the consonants. Every syllable was clearly enunciated. A great performance.

 


As his twin brother Manrico, Badri Maisuradze sounded slightly worn in the beginning but he soon regained his usual burnished but slightly baritonal tone and delivered full-throated heroic singing of a kind that can’t be taken for granted anywhere today and, as I have remarked before concerning Maisuradze, he also has a lyrical vein, which is just as impressive as his fortes. The short love scene with Leonoras in act III and the following Ah, si, ben mio were masterly. Unfortunately he is not a very convincing actor, which robbed his vocally dynamic portrait of Manrico some of its credibility.


Marianne Eklöf delineated a sharply etched portrait of Azucena not least through her expressive face and after a somewhat shaky start she found a more concentrated tone and sang throughout with great assurance. And, as my wife pointed out, like the Devil Azucena has the best tunes!


John Erik Eleby, small of stature but an expressively restrained actor and the possessor of a firm bass voice, made a believable Ferrando and the smaller parts were all well taken with an extra plus for Carl Unander Scharin, who made much of little as Ruiz. Being also a successful composer he contributed an interesting article on Verdi’s music in the programme.


The last production of Il trovatore, mounted in 1972, conducted by Carlo Felice Cillario and featuring Rolf Björling, son of Jussi, as Manrico, was a resounding success, but it seems that Stockholm have come up with another winner this time. It will continue to play with the same cast during the rest of this spring, until June 17th, and it is to return in the autumn, first performance on September 1st, with partly new singers. Don’t miss this!




Göran Forsling


Photos: Mats Bäcker/Kungliga Operan  mats@matsbacker.se




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