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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Il Trovatore (1851-53)
Drama in four acts: libretto by Salvatore Cammarano
Manrico (tenor): José Cura
Count di Luna (baritone): Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Azucena (mezzo): Yvonne Naef
Leonora (soprano): Veronica Villarroel
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Carlo Rizzi (conductor)
Directed for the stage by Elijah Moshinsky
Directed for television by Brian Large
Recorded at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 3 May 2002
BBC OPUS ARTE OA 0848 D [172 minutes]
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This production was hailed as one of the highlights of the new Covent Garden season, and has made it on to DVD pretty quickly. It’s a no-nonsense, good-looking affair, which is to be expected with Elijah Moshinsky in charge. He is noted for clear-headed productions, where ‘concept’ is kept to a minimum, and intelligence, historical accuracy and a certain amount of ‘spectacle’ are present. All these attributes are evident in the present case, where no boats are rocked, no controversy courted. We can just revel in Verdi’s gloriously over-the-top melodrama in a sumptuous, Zeffirelli-like setting, with a cast that is probably, at least on paper, as good as could be assembled in today’s operatic climate.

Moshinsky’s designer, Dante Ferretti (well known for his work with Pasolini, Visconti and Scorsese) fills the large auditorium with huge, Gothic sets that provide a visual feast, but apparently proved cumbersome and held up the action during changes. Luckily, some judicious editing has spared us this on screen. The setting is 1860s Risorgimento Italy, so a political parallel with Verdi’s own time is clearly being drawn. Costumes are also of sumptuous realism (with what Moshinsky calls ‘a touch of exaggerated fantasy’) so everything on stage certainly looks good.

The singing, while promising so much on paper, proves to be uneven. Cura is probably the biggest ‘draw’ name and certainly looks and acts the part. His visual presence is electrifying, and he prowls the stage looking like a cross between Che Guevara and a wild Spanish gypsy. His athletic physique and dark, unkempt hair and piercing eyes look perfect. The vocal performance, alas, does not match this. He seems under-confident, and whilst his musicianship and phrasing are not in doubt, he simply does not go for the big moments, of which there are plenty in potential. His ‘Di quella pira’, far from being a hair-raising finale, is a non-event, and even the off-stage ‘troubador’ ballad that introduces him is shaky and slightly flat. The tender moments with Leonora work better, but this piece has some of the biggest and best-known chunks in all grand opera, and the listener who is under-whelmed feels cheated.

Hvorostovsky’s performance is more satisfying, with strong characterisation and secure vocal line. He is a touch too smooth for my liking, but better this than a snarling, cardboard cut-out villain. He clearly relishes the role (which baritone wouldn’t?) and his movement is confident and authoritative.

Of the women, I have to express preference for Yvonne Naef as Azucena, and it would seem the audience agrees, as she gets the biggest cheer of anyone at the end. She looks terrific, which is one of the problems. She could be Manrico’s sister (or lover) rather than the old motherly hag Verdi asks for, and this is unfortunate for Veronica Villarroel, whose Leonora looks too plain and frumpish for the two macho-men to be fighting over. Villarroel enjoys her big moments (her ‘Miserere’ is simple and effective) but her voice sounds under too much strain when pushed. Naef, by comparison, spits venom and is vocally superb. This role has often brought out the very best in dramatic mezzos, and she looks set to have a long success in the part.

The chorus is well drilled, though the stylised duelling routine for the start of Act 3 looks a touch camp, especially in the tight leather costumes. Veteran conductor Carlo Rizzi directs the excellent Covent Garden orchestra with a light, elegant, almost Mozartian grace, which is not unpleasant. The trouble is, as with the singing, we miss the big, over-the-top splendour that is part of this score’s appeal – I’m thinking of the sort of sounds conjured up on record by Karajan, Mehta or (more recently), the Garden’s new maestro, Pappano. Rizzi probably feels, like Cura, that too much has been made of the histrionic element in the score, and some ‘cleansing’ is in order. This is all very well, but the emotional temperature remains resolutely low.

Screen presentation is good (the ubiquitous Brian Large) though the sound quality varies, and microphone tracking was obviously a problem, particularly in the energetic scenes. The extras are worth having. There is a synopsis, extensive interview with the director and designer, a piece about the choreographed ‘Schlaeger’ duelling scene, and interviews (plus rehearsal footage) with the principals. And all on a single disc!

This is good value, and a faithful record of a night at the opera. I doubt if it will shake any faithful allegiances to recordings of the past, but could prove popular on DVD, especially as competition for this work in the new medium is not strong, at least at the moment.

Tony Haywood

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