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
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
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.