Giuseppe Verdi - Il Trovatore
Salzburger Festspiele, 2014
Daniele Gatti, Alvis Hermanis, Anna Netrebko, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Diana Haller, Francesco Meli, Plácido Domingo, Riccardo Zanellato, Gerard Schneider, Miloš Bulajić, Raimundas Juzuitis
Medici, ARTE Concert - August 2014
The Di Luna family seem to have fallen on hard times in the 2014 Salzburg Festival production of Verdi's Il Trovatore. Like many other once aristocratic families with large expensive estates to manage, their home is now open as a museum to the general public as a means of paying for its upkeep. This one in particular has some colourful history attached to it. The eldest son, Ferrando, takes on the role of tour guide and tells the latest group of tourists all about how the fortunes of the Di Luna family went into decline following the death of the youngest son, consumed in the same fire where they burnt an old witch accused of putting a curse on him.
This isn't a bad way to present the 15th century melodrama of Il Trovatore. The opera opens with a tale that relates the background of the story, and unquestionably, it's this historical event that is to continue to have grave repercussions for the Di Luna family. It's perhaps not a device that can be sustained for the whole of the work, so Latvian director Alvis Hermanis - who brought Alphonse Mucha paintings spectacularly to life in La Monnaie's Jenůfa last year - works on a similar 'Night at the Museum' idea here, where the paintings in the galleries come to life and recreate the past. It's not an ideal arrangement, requiring the cast to make some awkward on-stage quick changes, but the crimson colour scheme looks fabulous and there could even be come conceptual merit to the enterprise.
Perhaps it's the troubadour reference, but this intentions of this production of Il Trovatore reminded me of the concept of George Benjamin's and Martin Crimp's Written on Skin. It's about looking back at history and bringing the past back to life through art, through painting, through the power of storytelling. And, of course, through the power of opera as well. It's not a grand concept by any means, but Alvis Hermanis manages to apply it to Il Trovatore without interfering too much with the primary purpose of the opera to entertain and inspire passions through storytelling, since that is also essentially the primary purpose of the troubadour.
It's not uncommon to apply such a distancing framing device to operas (mostly bel canto works) where the plot is a little over-heated or lacking in credibility. Although the plot of Il Trovatore can be expressed in such terms, it doesn't necessarily need a modern framing device because Verdi's score is powerful enough to carry you along through the roaring melodrama. Aside from the abundance of memorable melodies, arias and choruses, the music also succeeds in how it is able to give full dramatic expression to the heightened sentiments of the characters without adding to the hysteria.
Those arrangements seemed to be slightly restrained here as conducted by Daniele Gatti to the point that where very familiar pieces aren't immediately recognisable. I would be reluctant to judge it on the highly compressed live sound-mix for an internet stream, but there does seem to be some holding back from the traditional playing of Verdi at full-tilt, withholding in the process some of the pleasures that come with it in this particular work. On the other hand, it does reveal some of the musicality and beauty of Verdi's writing. Some of the choices however may be determined by the staging - there are no hammers on anvils in the art gallery of this production, for example - but in scenes such as the conclusion where the impact is all-important, it hits home powerfully.
In terms of the singing or the playing of the characters however there was little such compromise. The only real constraint on some of the performers was the necessity of changing costumes in their transformation from museum attendants in modern dress to historical figures in period costume, while continuing to keep singing at the same time. Anna Netrebko seemed to be half in and half out of a dress in some scenes (not that I'm complaining), but it scarcely mattered as far as her performance is concerned. She might not be the ideal Leonora, but she certainly has the ability, the voice and the charisma to carry it off. She's deservedly the star attraction here and remains riveting to watch, never giving anything less than total commitment to the role. If this production itself is less than perfect, Netrebko's raises this Il Trovatore to one that is well worth seeing.
Whether she was well-matched here with Plácido Domingo's Conte di Luna however was difficult to judge. Domingo was announced as indisposed due to illness and his subsequent performances were all cancelled, but he still took to the stage to perform for the live broadcast. He was visibly unwell and struggling for breath, but held up remarkably well even if his performance as the Count is still very much in baritenor mode. Marie-Nicole Lemieux played Azucena exceptionally well. Her account of the Zingarella's fate and her chilling closing exclamations could hardly be more dramatically delivered. Francesco Meli combined power with a rare delicacy as Manrico. The song of the troubadour should have the power to bewitch and enchant, particularly given the requirements of this staging, and that was all here.
Links: ARTE Concert, Medici.tv, Salzburg Festival