Opéra National de Paris 2022-23 Review: Il Trovatore
Judit Kutasi Shines in Problematic Staging of Verdi’s Middle Period MasterpieceBy João Marcos Copertino
This review is for the performance of January 21, 2023
Unearthing the bodies of “Il Trovatore,” La Fura dels Baus and Àlex Ollé found the first great war. This is not a literary metaphor used by this pedantic critic, but what actually was presented in the stage. Large tombs are raised and lowered into rows of graves on the stage while the action is transposed to the bloody first world war. There are gas masks, guns, but also knives and swords in combat. It is a clash of worlds.
One of the merits of such a bold conception is that the dynamics of violence and power are efficiently brought to one’s attention. The medieval costumes and the overly complicated melodramatic plot might sometimes disguise for modern audiences the political strength that “Il Trovatore” had in the nineteenth century. Few operas of Verdi were as popular as “Trovatore” during his lifetime: it was broadly performed and even parodied many times.
Two Regimes of Violence
The Great War marks a turning point in how nation-states used violence to conquer territory and harnessed technological innovation for mass murder. The production of Ollé and La Fura dels Baus offers a confrontation between two regimes of violence. On the one hand, Il Conte di Luna and Ferrando are savage beasts dressed as civilized soldiers. They are the oppressors, bearing all the new, deadly offensive weapons. The Romanies are universalized to represent all groups subjugated during war time. In a certain way, they are devoid of all stereotypes that the Roma carried in the nineteenth century “gypsy” tradition. Here, they are the group that one should be cheering for—in a certain way, a possible political ambiguity in the original is thereby lost. Here is a war with villains and heroes and nothing in between.
In spite of the promising conception, though, the theatrical execution is quite unsatisfactory. The stage is poorly lit for most of the opera. All “Trovatore’s” action happens at night, but should it be that dark? There few games with the light colors, making everything dreary. Also, a mirror is placed in the corners of all the scenarios. Instead of giving an illusion of space, it provides a clear view of Carlo Rizzi conducting—and one time even Alessandro Di Stefano directing the nun choir of the second act. The most interesting moment is in the fourth act, when the light design gains more contrast, and the open graves that compose the scenario are used in movement.
Finally, nobody expects great method acting in one of Verdi’s melodramas. Opera singers are mostly concerned with their voices, not their physical expressivity. However, this “Il Trovatore” was something different. Much of the stage movement, albeit choreographed, was devoid of real meaning. If it were any true meaning behind it, the singers would be able to translate it without hamming it up. The singers were given gadgets that only made their acting more difficult. Yusif Eyvazov had to carry a crutch during part of the second act, but it was evident he did not know which leg he had broken. Would it not be better simply not to expose the singers so much in the staging?
High Vocal Demands
Few operas have higher vocal demands than “Il Trovatore.” Not only is Verdi’s score a showcase for great singing, but the tradition has also introduced many conventions without which the opera would be unacceptable to modern audiences. The famous High C in “Di Quella Pira,” is not in the original score—Verdi wrote a G(!)—, to give one of many examples. Paris Opera’s competent cast provided a solid performance that was, however, not as exciting as the opera can be.
First things first: the title-role was performed by Yusif Eyvazov, a singer who, sadly, is more often hated than actually heard. While some might object to his instrument, Manrico’s vocal writing suits him very well. The role showcases much of his range, and the uniformity of his voice. On the night that I saw him, however, he was not taking many vocal risks until the end of his “Ah! Sí, ben mio.” He did not do a bad job; it was fine—but only fine. The character famously has little in the way of psychology and is not the smartest. But he is, by any measure, heroic, and “being heroic also means being a little dumb,” to recall Herbert Lindenberger’s words. Eyvazov was, for most of the evening a smart singer, thinking on his technique, and thus not very heroic.
Things started to change when Eyvazov gained some panache during “Di Quella Pira”—he did his high C being smart, breathing and taking his time. His best moments, however, were in the fourth act. There he took risks and showcased a vulnerability important to the character—along with some very nice diminuendos. His chemistry with Judit Kutasi’s Azucena is undeniable—maybe she, not Leonora, is his true love?
Anna Pirozzi, who delighted Paris last month with her Leonora in “La Forza del Destino,” is still the great Verdian soprano in “Il Trovatore,” but it is noticeable that this Leonora is harder for her instrument. While she is still the same soprano with an explosive upper register—it is truly remarkable—, “Il Trovatore’s” Leonora requires a vocal agility of her that challenged her throughout the night. In my recollection of “La Forza,” Pirozzi was at her best singing pianissimo: her voice gains a sweetness that is unusual in such big voices. That sweetness was still present in “Il Trovatore,” but not as often. The fourth act had her most gentle moments, but more in the second part of the act than in the arias themselves. In fact, while her “Miserere” was quite impressive—with even some variations at the end—her “D’amore sull’ai rosee” was good, but not great. There was some tension in the complex phrasing, and Pirozzi opted to sing forte e mezzo forte in place of her beautiful pianos. Maybe it was because it was opening night. Nevertheless, she still is the Verdian soprano to watch, so it is worth the visit.
Étienne Dupuis’ Luna was characterized as an entitled and abusive commandant. Dupuis performed the role well, but also brought a youthfulness to the character that garnered unexpected sympathy for him. In the end, one might find oneself craving his redemption, even though Luna is almost as psychologically shallow as Manrico. Vocally, Dupuis’ voice very much suits the part well. His baritone sounds extremely natural, and his Italian is well-pronounced (vowels and consonants). In fact, his concern with the text is so great that he at least twice barely broke his air support for the sake of good pronunciation; this (almost) compromised his legato line at the very end of some phrases. It was the most interesting dramatic effect he performed during the night. Again, this effect contributed to a very solid performance, though one that was still not as electrifying as it could be.
The brightest star of the night was certainly Judit Kutasi’s Azucena. It was her house debut, and she should return soon. Her voice is extremely dark and heavy—especially for such an young singer—, and it worked brilliantly for Azucena. The staging conception increased the centrality of her role: Azucena is not a wicked Roma, but a victim of the war, an abused refugee. Her revenge is more than a personal quest; it is a vindication of every person who has ever been subdued. Therefore, all audiences should cheer for the poor Azucena—even more than for Manrico and Leonora. Kutasi’s voice is sui generis. She has a wide vibrato, and a sort of opaqueness in the higher range. However, her lower register is incredibly well-projected and uniform. Her legato is impressive, and she had complete control of all musical phrasing. Her pianissimos, from “Stride la vampa” to the final scene with Manrico are to die for. I checked her website, and it seems that she is singing mostly Azucenas and Amneris this season. I would love to see her as the Egyptian princess as well.
Carlo Rizzi was a great conductor during the night. The orchestra sounded just as it should sound in a Verdi score. The winds had interesting moments, especially when following Dupuis’ Luna. The Opera chorus sounded outnumbered. Especially in Verdi, one would expect more singers or a louder sound wall coming from them. “Vedi! Le fosche notturne spoglie”—translated into English as the “Anvil Chorus”—was particularly disappointing for sonic reasons.
Overall, a problematic staging and a solid cast, with a great Azucena. I personally like “Il Trovatore” so much, that I think it is very much worth it to go.