Maybe not Caruso’s ‘dream team’ but this revival of Verdi’s blockbuster has its moments.

When Verdi chose Antonio Gutiérrez’ 1836 blood and thunder epic El Trovador for his latest operatic project, he was making a conscious decision to set a very modern play to music. The Italian composer, arguably at the very height of his powers in 1853, was inspired to tackle a story set during a period of civil upheaval, much like those rocking his own world of Risorgimento Italy. That he chose a historical Spanish setting said more for the theatrical censorship of the day than anything else. What is certain is that he meant Il Trovatore to feel contemporary. He wanted it to reverberate with his audience.

Elke Neidhardt chose to set her 2007 production for Opera Australia during the more recent Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, a decision that Verdi would probably have applauded. It certainly makes sense of a great deal of the partisan to-ings and fro-ings that frequently impinges on the romantic love triangle at the heart of this drama. And in a world still riven with conflict and civil unrest, Neidhardt’s staging achieves a resonance that feels as depressingly fresh as today’s news footage. The sense of the street fighting and of neighbour against neighbour is vividly conveyed. The Anvil Chorus depicts a harrowing series of revenge killings.

Director Matthew Barclay’s restaging of Neidhardt’s production is timely then, but not everything in the garden was rosy on opening night. It’s a handsome looking production with naturalistic, multifunctional sets (Michael Scott-Mitchell), atmospheric lighting (Nick Schlieper) and convincingly detailed costumes (Judith Hoddinott). One couldn’t escape the feeling however that a little more technical time wouldn’t have gone amiss. Singers occasionally missed their lights, technical cues were sometimes rocky and a bed complete with unfortunate soprano made a painfully visible exit at what seemed a snails pace.

Any revival staging of Il Trovatore needs to convey freshness of purpose especially if it is to avoid the more clunky moments of melodrama that bedevil Salvatore Cammerano’s libretto. Too often singers felt ‘blocked’ rather than spontaneous in their movements. The Act I trio Di geloso amor sprezzato in particular had some terribly over-choreographed byplay with a pistol. Worse, several moments of serious dramatic intent elicited sniggers from audience members.

It was Caruso who famously said that all you need to stage Il Trovatore are the four greatest singers in the world. His quip has held many a staging to ransom over the years but beware; there is more than a grain of truth in the statement.

The star turn on opening night was undoubtedly Arnold Rawls’ Manrico. His lyrical tenor voice, with its Pavarotti-like timbre was deployed to excellent effect. Not a huge instrument, it was used with considerable sensitivity and style, only very occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra. Most importantly, here was a singer whose joy of singing shone out at every turn. Ah si, ben mio was radiantly delivered and Di quella pira was done with great panache.

As his mother, the Serbian mezzo Milijana Nikolic proved why Verdi nearly called his opera Azucena. Her powerful voice brooded, cajoled and cursed by turns, easily riding over anything the orchestration threw at her. She also took some thrilling optional high notes. She proved adept too at suggesting the single minded, self-obsessed outsider. This was a performance of considerable stature.

Italian soprano Daria Masiero grew into the role of Leonora after a shaky start. Her slightly covered voice seemed initially quavery at the bottom, the coloratura a little squally and her trills somewhat lost in the general vibrato. By the second half she’d warmed up considerably and D’amor sull’ali rosee saw her in far more attractive voice. The Miserere also went well. Dramatically she struggled to convey the sense of a young woman exploring an awakening sensuality, convincing more as the resolute survivor of Act II.

As the libidinous Count di Luna, Michael Honeyman put in a plucky performance. The voice was strongly projected with all the required notes but it tended to lack tonal variety and his delivery was short on elegance. The role is dramatically tricky, larded with moustache-twirling villainy and frequently thwarted lusting from afar. Honeyman had a good stab at it, preening and puffing himself up – even plucking his eyebrows. Lecherously sniffing Leonora’s discarded coat was perhaps a step too far.

Ferrando, usually played as a captain of the guards but here as an overbearing Catholic priest was painted in rich, chocolaty tones by Richard Anderson, whose resonant bass nimbly executed the coloratura in Di due figli vivea padre beato. The change of function works well in the first half, exposing the church’s cynicism as it preys upon the superstitious naivety of the common man. His tale of gypsy spirits appearing as owls and similar mumbo jumbo was delivered with aplomb. Ordering the soldiery about in the second half makes less sense however.

As Inez, Sian Pendry projected a lively character but was in danger sometimes of overshadowing her mistress.

The Opera Australia chorus were on fine form, most notably the men, their powerful renditions of Verdi’s various soldiers’ choruses especially memorable. The diversity of shapes and sizes worked well, capturing the sense of ordinary men out of their comfort zones, called upon to defend their beliefs. And the audience was clearly delighted when a selection of the fitter specimens offered a brief moment of bare-bottomed levity.

In the pit, Arvo Volmer gave a thoroughly dramatic reading of the score, proving particularly successful in bringing out the dark colours in Verdi’s orchestration.  He was sometimes less successful when it came to supporting his singers however, seeming reluctant to hold back and allow them sufficient room for manoeuvre in a score that still bears plenty of traces of the older bel canto style.

So, assuming the technical glitches are ironed out, it’s a thoughtful production with Rawls and Nikolic a fine mother and son double act. And Verdi’s score, of course, is well worth the cost of a ticket.

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