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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Il Trovatore
Il Conte di Luna – Plácido Domingo
Leonora – Anna Netrebko
Azucena – Marina Prudenskaya
Manrico – Gaston Rivero
Ferrando – Adrian Sâmpetrean
Ines – Anna Lapovskaja
Ruiz – Florian Hoffmann
Staatsopernchor and Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
Stage Director: Philipp Stölzl
rec. live, Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, Berlin, 15-22 December 2013

Whilst I was on my first visit to the Salzburg Festival this summer, the opera production that everyone was talking about — and for which mere mortals like I could not get a ticket — was Trovatore starring Netrebko and Domingo. Hence, when this film of the pair in a Berlin production from last year appeared, I sought it out to see what I was missing.
The main reason for picking up this DVD is undoubtedly the performance of the two lead ladies. Netrebko, surely in her vocal prime, is perfectly suited for the role of Leonora. Hers is rich, thick voice, large scale when it is at its best. Thus it is extremely welcome to see her moving into the dramatic Verdi roles, which I’ve always suspected were her natural terrain, far more so than the bel canto material she has dabbled in of late. There is a luxuriant richness that makes her perfect for the two big arias and, in both Tacea la notte and D’amor sull’ali rosee she uses the full majesty of her voice to tremendous effect. It’s marvellous to hear the way she shades her voice to the role’s requirements, and she can go from a thrilling climax to a delicate pianissimo in a heartbeat. She also has both the colour and the power required to cut through the big ensembles, and she acts well through the director’s concept, more of which below. In short, she is a triumph and well worth seeking out.
Prudenskaya does every bit as good a job with Azucena, managing to rise above the absurd costume she is given. Her finest attribute is the way she uses her lower register, which is nothing short of thrilling. From the moment she opens her mouth in Stride la vampa, she sends a bolt of lightning through both the music and the stage action, ravishing in the lower writing but electrifying in the top notes, most obviously when reliving the death of her son. She is also beautiful in Ai nostril monti, and her final shriek of triumph is thrilling.
Gaston Rivero is light of voice, so he doesn’t quite have the vocal power an ideal Manrico needs. That said, he has a ringing quality that is very appealing and which makes him distinctive in the company. The only place he appears off colour is the first scene of Act 2, and Mal reggendo, in particular, sounds underplayed. Elsewhere, though, he is good enough. The lesser roles are well taken, and Adrian Sâmpetrean’s Ferrando is especially compelling, commanding and authoritative in the scenes wherein he appears.
The most problematic element of the set, however, is Domingo. I’ve never been convinced by his move to a baritone and, since I expressed my doubts at the Covent Garden Simon Boccanegra, I’ve only become more sure that I’m right. The fact remains that he is not a baritone, and when you compare him with some of the great Counts on disc, the results are embarrassing. He has none of the heft of Milnes or the beauty of Cappuccilli, both of whom partnered him in earlier Trovatore recordings: in fact, to my ears, this recording catches him sounding nasal and even rather breathless at times. Frankly, he sounds like a tenor singing down, even with an element of a beat to his voice, and it is no credit to him to be spending his time singing roles like this. Nobody should settle for a count sung like this, and Domingo is put to shame by the high quality of his fellow singers.
It took a while for me to warm to Barenboim’s direction, which can sound bitty, but then it struck me that he is doing all he can to match the demands of his singers. His tempi are slow and expansive for Netrebko’s big arias, to reveal how well she can do them, but he speeds up distractingly for Domingo’s big moments. Il balen, in particular, seems much too fast; but then I realised that he’s probably doing it because he has to: Domingo’s breath control is far from what it was and he probably can’t cope with anything slower. It’s a shame for that aria, but it calls down glory on Barenboim who confirms that he has a brilliant ability to read a musical situation and to support his singers.
Philipp Stölzl’s production goes out of its way to avoid taking the drama seriously. His single set — an open cube with a few occasional video projections — and the lurid technicolor of his costumes makes his singers seem like characters in a comic strip, and that’s especially true of his Picaresque treatment of the chorus. You can decide for yourself whether you like this or not, but its most damaging effect is that any scenes where there’s a possibility of dramatic involvement – most obviously, for me, Azucena’s reliving of the death of her son – pass for nothing, with almost Brechtian levels of alienation.
The picture and surround sound quality are very good, though there are no extras. Still, despite the good work from the ladies, the finest Trovatore on DVD remains Karajan’s 1978 film from Vienna, also featuring Domingo, but there captured in his prime as Manrico. It’s old fashioned and idiosyncratic, but a thrilling memento of some of the 20th century’s greatest Verdi performers. They don’t make them like that any more.
Simon Thompson

Previous review (Blu-ray): Robert Farr