Royal Danish Opera 2018-2019 Review: Il Trovatore

Verdi’s Fiery Masterpiece Tamed By a Problematic Production

By Freddy Dominguez

“Il Trovatore” fits awkwardly in Verdi’s extraordinarily fruitful “middle period.”  Wedged between the musical and dramatic innovations of “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata,” it seems to be a conservative throwback to an Italian idiom established by Rossini and his early successors.  

It is a “numbers” opera with a melodramatic plot (based on Antonio Garcia Gutiérrez’s “El trovador”) that beggars belief. The opera’s continued centrality in the repertoire is due to Verdi’s vital rendering of traditional forms through a polychromatic score that delves into the psyche of the drama’s main characters.  All performances depend on the strength of the four leads. As Caruso famously said, its easy to put on “Il Trovatore” as long as you are able to cast the four leading roles with the best singers around.

The matinee performance of “Il Trovatore” I attended at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen had the benefit of good singers, but fell short because the production did little to support them.  

A Problematic Production

Strange things happened in “Il Trovatore’s” imagined past.  A gypsy woman was burned for having sickened the second son of an Aragonese grandee. In revenge, that woman’s daughter, Azucena, kidnapped the sick boy to kill him. When she tried to do this, Azucena mistakenly killed her own son instead. She ultimately decided to raise the surviving child, Manrico.   

The opera’s plot takes place during a period of Aragonese war where the Conte di Luna, elder brother of the kidnapped Manrico, fights against rebel forces to which Manrico belongs.  Unbeknownst to both men, brother is pit against brother on the battlefield and also for the attention of a young lady in waiting, Leonora. Leonora loves Manrico, but the Count can’t abide that.  Spoiler Alert: Manrico and Leonora die and Azucena is left to tell the Count that he has killed his own brother. She has avenged her mother.

This brief summary leaves out plenty of plot points and nuances, but it should be enough to show that we’re not dealing with a piece of dramatic realism. This was not Verdi’s goal. He was most taken with the “dramatic situations” that the plot provided.

One of the major drawbacks to many modern productions of “Il Trovatore” is a hesitancy to accept it on its own terms. Directors and producers try to establish thematic coherence or aim at  “believability” at the expense of the discrete “situations” that Verdi cared about and the emotional, interpersonal dilemmas that render each of these emotional encounters believable.

To his credit, Francisco Negrin, in this joint-production with the Teatro Real of Madrid and the Monte Carlo Opera, does not aim for verisimilitude. It is set during a seemingly indeterminate time out of mind. His production also has the virtue of emphasizing the role of Azucena, the character that most attracted Verdi himself.  We see her from the start of the opera as we do the two non-singing actors representing the ghosts of her dead mother and son. The conceit is a worthy one, but the production often gets in the way of the drama. The visual cues and dramatic flourishes throughout disturb the intimacies that are at the core of this piece.

At the start we see Azucena in spooky incantatory mode, entering the stage with gasps and grunts to call on fire.  This continues as the male chorus appears. They wear shabby long coats with ghostly made-up faces. In more traditional productions, the chorus would be shown listening to Ferrando’s dark telling of the story behind the opera’s story. Here, however, the choristers populate much of stage right while Ferrando tells his tale to children on stage left. There are many layers of potential meaning here, but it is hard to take it all in. The audience is left with too many unnecessary distractions. The viewer is overstimulated and neither story nor music is served.

The sets themselves are spartan, but there are several elements including open strips cutting through concrete walls for chorus and other cast members to inhabit, a movable tower-like structure for Leonora and Manrico to canoodle, and perpendicular elements that could conjoin in the form of a cross. Much of this amounted to a lot of fussiness that did little enhance the proceedings.

The spectacle often felt disjointed.  Even when individuals were left alone in open spaces, there was a kind of placelessness that had the advantage of being disorienting, but the disadvantage of making scenes of interaction and intimacy seem strangely adrift.

The result, then, is an atmospheric production that never feels grounded enough to showcase the individual characters and their specific engagements with others or even with their inner voices.

Fiery Divas

Mezzo Randi Stene had to overcome this in her forceful portrayal of Azucena.  At the start, this production depended on an overcooked emphasis on the character’s witch-like qualities and hysterics.  The gasping and grunting at the beginning seemed unnecessary. Why beat audiences over the head with this when Verdi does this musically later with trills and other musical tools?  When not portraying Azucena’s craziness in non-musical moments, Stene’s performance was thankfully much more controlled and ultimately more complex than this production envisioned. Her voice has a stony, mineral quality that conveyed Azucena’s distress chillingly.  Her “Stride la vampa,” where she tells of her mother’s demise, worked because the precision of her voice and the well-sculpted phrasing employed never strayed into over artificial vocal coloration or dramatic crassness. She simply allowed Verdi’s music to pour through and ascend into a shrill horror.     

Gisella Stille gave a touching portrayal of Leonora.  Leonora is the inverse of Azucena, and as such her music is less earthy, with more florid bel canto passages.  Still, like Stene, Stille made a case for vocal temperance.

Her voice has several interesting qualities that helped ground the performance. It is a supple, slender instrument that also has a thick, velvety center that makes it seem bigger than it actually is.  At the bottom, her voice can also have a thin, brittle quality that might not work in every context, but it did here. Several entrances in “Tacea la notte” had a natural, colloquial feel that contrasted well with the more full-throated telling of her burgeoning love for Manrico, giving the whole piece an almost verismatic quality. Her “Dell’amor sull’ali rosee” toward the end was one of the most touching highlights of the whole afternoon, filled with beautiful melancholy and passionate resolution.

Men Lost at Sea

While the male leads achieved vocal dignity, their performances lacked some fire.

As the Count, David Kempester’s leathery quality effectively portrayed the character’s villainous character. Still, I wish there had been a little more bloom in his tone, especially in “Il balen del suo sorriso.”  This would have allowed a more nuanced portrayal of a man who is by no means a Iago. He is moved by a mix of self-regard and honest stirrings of love for Leonora and so there should be some romance in his voice as well.

Diego Cavazzin’s performance was the most disappointing of the night. While he has a resonant, generous voice, and some passages (especially his “Ah si, ben mio”) were quite beautiful, on the whole his efforts lacked dynamism and passion. His phrasing was square and neither exclamations of love nor hate were delivered with much zeal. He is at the center of the various interconnected relationships of the opera, but he did not display much investment in any.

Even the heroics could have benefited from additional stress. His “Di quella pira,” a moment to indulge if ever there was any, fell strangely flat and was capped off by a tame, thin interpolated high note that seemed to leave the audience confused. A moment that often unleashes rapturous applause inspired even more hesitance than normal from the circumspect Copenhagen audience.

Perhaps the attempted pyrotechnics of the production— including a lot of flames— only helped underline the occasional dramatic stiffness of the performance. The final moments of the opera were saved from understated banality by the efforts of conductor Eun Sun Kim. If there was occasionally a metronomic quality to her reading of the score, more often than not she was able to elicit the right amount of bombast from the orchestra even when the singers fell flat.  

Despite my qualms about Negrin’s production, I appreciate his take on the horrific aspects of the drama. This is a profoundly disturbing opera and Azucena, like Rigoletto who came before her, represents the darkness at our human core where vengeance lurks. In this performance, Stene also managed to convey the close connection between love and cruelty that can only be settled by flames of destruction.  


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