Welsh National Opera
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, and touring
The clouds certainly hang over the WNO's fine revival of Il Trovatore where the past - medieval Spain - is seen as through a glass darkly. This is in large measure down to the stark monumentality of Tim Hateley's set - all pillars and monolithic stone- and Davy Cunningham's tenebrous lighting which shrouds the proceedings in gloom.
Peter Watson's staging was first seen at in Cardiff four years ago and its return, to a triumphant reception at the wonderful Millennium Centre, before it heads off for a whistle-stop tour of England, one would have to say that the production has worn well. The sombre visuals are entirely appropriate given the grim storyline and typically tragic ending, though they do ensure that Act 1, The Duel, gets off to a somewhat subdued start.
Speaking of Il Trovatore, legendary tenor Enrico Caruso remarked that producing it was easy. "All you need", he remarked, " is the four best singers in the world." I don't think even WNO's marketing department would make that claim, but the production is certainly strongly cast and the principal leads all acquit themselves well. What makes the opera so compelling is a combination of a gripping storyline fuelled by revenge and thrilling music, at least some of which is known by just about everyone. I'm thinking of course of The Anvil Chorus, but its music can also be found in films as different as Visconti's Senso and the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera.
Il Trovatore comes in the so-called 'galley years' of Verdi's career, a period marked by what Groves describes as, "strong, sombre stories, a vigorous, almost crude orchestral style that gradually grew fuller and richer forceful vocal writing, and above all a seriousness in his determination to convey the full force of the drama." The libretto is based on the play El Trovador by Antonio Garcia Gutierrez and critics have taken the opera to task for being confused. Certainly if you arrived at the theatre late you would struggle to follow things since the opera begins with Ferrando, the Count di Luna's captain of the guard, explaining the events that has led up to curtain up. It's an odd way to begin a drama. Peter Hall has remarked that when Shakespeare used it, he imagines it was because he was somewhat worse for wear that morning and at a low ebb imaginatively.
Whatever the truth, it makes for a slow start to proceedings, the stage, as remarked, shrouded in darkness. But from here, things rapidly pick up. As Ferrando narrates the story of the witch who is burnt, allegedly cursing the child of the Count di Luna, her spirit now haunting the skies, the massed strings under the direction of Carlo Rizzi yaw feverishly before finally reaching a crescendo and the troops exit uneasily in the shadows.
The shadows linger in the following scene in which Leonora, a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Aragon, waits for her lover, an unknown troubadour in the palace garden. Dennis O'Neill is in glorious voice as Manrico, the troubadour. Katia Pellegrino as Leonora initially has a somewhat astringent edge to her voice, but early reservations are quickly dispelled. The arrival of the count (the excellent Dario Solari), himself in love with Leonora, ratchets up the tension musically and dramatically before the scene breaks out into a swordfight.
Act Two finds us in the gypsy camp which brings a welcome lightening of proceedings, metaphorically and literally, climaxing with the anthemic Anvil Chorus. Relief is short-lived though and the tragedy begins to hurtle towards its inevitable and shattering climax but there is time for one final vision of hope and beauty as Leonora and Manrico, at the Castle of Castellor, prepare for their impending marriage. Cunningham floods the left-hand side of the stage, on which Leonora and the nuns, all in white, process, in brilliant light. Stage-right, however, the count and his soldiers gather outside in the blackness. The forces of darkness, it seems, will have their way.
A thrilling and a discomfiting evening then, ending with a revelation from the daughter of the murdered gypsy, Azunca, who has finally obtained her revenge, which denies the audience any crumb of comfort. The Marriage of Figaro this isn't, but a wonderful marriage in the way Lear is wonderful. Mention must also be made of a vigorous performance from David Soar as Ferrando and a compelling one from Anne-Marie Owens as Acuzena.
Kevin Catchpole reviewed this production at the Mayflower, Southampton
Reviewer: Pete Wood