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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Il Trovatore - Dramma in four parts [143:00]
Manrico - Misha Didyk (tenor); Leonora - Marian Popavskaya (soprano); Il Conte di Luna - Scott Hendricks (baritone); Azucena - Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo (mezzo); Ferrando - Giovanni Furlanetto (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of La Monnaie/Marc Minkowski
Dmitri Tcherniakov (director)
rec. La Monnaie, Brussels, June 2012
DVD9 NTSC 16:9; 2.0
PCM 5.1 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English, French, Dutch, German
BEL AIR CLASSIQUES BAC109 DVD [143:00 + 6:00 (extra)]

The plot of Il Trovatore is notoriously supposed to be complex, even incomprehensible. Strangely this has not prevented it becoming one of the most popular and best known of operas even for the general public. I remember going to an end-of-pier revue as a child soon after the end of the war in which one sketch depended upon the audience's knowledge of the plot. As an annoyingly precocious infant I enjoyed it - or pretended to - but what may seem surprising is that to the best of my recollection so did the rest of the audience. I very much doubt if that would be the case today, even amongst otherwise musically educated people, so perhaps the kind of total re-thinking of the plot which occurs here is justified.

As he explains in a forcefully expressed interview, the director, Dmitri Tchernikov, refers to the complexity of the plot and the need to help the audience to understand what is happening. He sets the entire opera in what looks like a down-at-heel function room, with a table and a few chairs - only five main characters appear on stage. The lines for the minor characters are appropriated by the main characters and the chorus do not appear but sing from the orchestra pit. Tchernikov points out that much of the opera is based on narratives and memories of the main characters. This is not uncommon in opera - think of The Ring. Those characters are supposed to find themselves - at Azucena's invitation - in a kind of role-playing situation in which they discover themselves and what really happened in the past. In the first half the characters work hard at this but their underlying feelings become more and more apparent. By the start of the second half the Count has become completely deluded as to what is real and what is not, and threatens the others with a revolver. At the end all are dead apart from the Count.

All of this is effective enough in a sensationalist way, although the paucity of characters and lack of variety in costumes or scenery does mean that by the end the listener is as keen as the characters to get out of this claustrophobic environment. Whilst I am sure that that is part of the director's deliberate focusing on the main characters and the supposed essentials of their situation, it does make for a bleak evening without the variety of tone that is found in the original. Tchernikov has certainly identified one important aspect of the opera but this is at the expense of all the other aspects. The original is certainly melodramatic but to at least an equal extent so is this new version.

When they are expected to act and to "emote" to such a degree it may perhaps be thought unreasonable that the main characters should also be expected to sing with exceptional skill. Unsurprisingly they do not. All are adequate but none go much beyond that, and they are certainly not the "four greatest singers in the world" once thought essential for this opera. Indeed listening to, rather than viewing, this disc would be a dull affair if it were not for the exceptional contribution of the orchestra and chorus under Marc Minkowski. By the end my attention was much more on them than on either the singers or the by that time extremely melodramatic action.

This is very much an example of director's opera. However whilst it is laudable that Il Trovatore should be taken so seriously, I found the results as presented here considerably less believable, interesting or moving than the kind of production once in favour, especially with the dull singers found here, however good they are as actors. More than most discs this DVD is a case of caveat emptor.

John Sheppard