Live From New York: Il Trovatore‘s HD Transmission at the Barbican.

Met Opera Live: Verdi, Il trovatore. Metropolitan Opera’s HD transmission live to the Barbican Cinema, London. 30.4.11 (JPr)

This broadcast of Il trovatore gave British audiences an increasingly rare opportunity to see Verdi’s great Grand Guignol work. Why is it absent from our opera stages these days? Well it is mainly that for opera in Britain we concentrate on ‘theatre’ and how everything looks; for many other opera houses throughout the world the voice comes first – so appearance and dramatic abilities are the least of the concerns. Those who witnessed this Il trovatore cannot have failed to find fairly risible the hand-wringing, eye-rolling, gesticulating type of operatic acting on show while revelling in the sound from four leading singers giving it their all. It was not at all helped by Barbara Willis Sweete’s TV direction and her relentless close-ups but, as noticed before in these broadcasts, there was much more refinement in the performances after the interval – does someone say something to the singers, or is it just that nerves have been quietened?

David McVicar’s production – first seen in Chicago before coming to the Met in 2009 – is fairly similar to his recent Aida at Covent Garden minus all the nudity and much of the gore that the delicate sensibilities of the Met patrons would not allow. There is a turntable that allows the action, such as it is, to flow with little break between scenes. He also updates the story to the Spanish War of Independence in the nineteenth century and there is a very strong Goya-esque influence on Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes and Charles Edwards’s sets, mainly from his ‘The Disasters of War’ etchings so I believe.

This consistently ominous Goya imagery is aided and abetted by a very tall, single set that slowly rotates to provide a backdrop for the different scenes. It adequately shows us the grey wall of a castle with an imposing set of stairs rising up it; it allows us to imagine the rocky escarpment surrounding the Gypsy encampment, the seclusion of a palace garden, a cloister or castle room, as well as, the dungeon where Azucena and Manrico await their fate. Faintly seen in the background are the charred remains from previous executions.

Like McVicar’s Aida it works well, if only to allow the four principal artists the setting to do their ‘own thing’ whilst most of his directorial efforts are put into the physically very intricate big ensemble moments such as the opening scene, the Anvil Chorus (that was particularly exciting) and the antics in di Luna’s camp at the start of Act III before Azucena’s capture.

Repeating their roles from when this production was new to the Met in 2009 were Marcelo Álvarez as Manrico, the troubadour of the title and officer in the rebel forces at a time of civil strife in Spain; Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count di Luna, a staunch supporter of Prince Aragon but — unknown to either — Manrico’s brother who has long been feared dead; Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora, a lady-in-waiting at court who is in love with Manrico but is lusted after by di Luna. Dolora Zajick is back in a role – that of the gypsy Azucena – she first sang at the Met in 1988: Manrico has been raised as her son but she wants to avenge her mother, who she watched being burned at the stake as a sorceress.

In an interval interview Ms Zajick – who seems very much the Susan Boyle of opera – reminded us that it is her character that ‘calls the shots … she spends the first two acts trying to get Manrico to kill di Luna – when she figures he isn’t going to do it (then) does it the other way round’. In other interviews the singers emphasised the demands of their roles in this opera; the range of singing required – high, low, soft, loud, legato, power and ‘passione’ or the extremes of emotions – love, hate, jealousy, fear and vendetta.

Marcelo Álvarez has an old-fashioned tenor voice that is impetuous and full-throated. His finest moments were in the last two acts with a plaintive ‘Ah si, ben mio coll’essere’ before his showpiece aria ‘Di quella pira’ as he rushes off to rescue Azucena. Although a triumphant top note rang out I suspect it had all been transposed to end with a high B and not the traditional C that is not to be found in Verdi’s score. Sondra Radvanovsky is a graduate of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and is a significant talent; she has an intensely expressive soprano voice revealing a bright sound and secure technique. I doubt her future lies in spinto roles and she is more than likely to be appearing at the Met as Brünnhilde in years to come. Right from the start with her aria ‘Tacea la notte placida’ she is clearly yearning for Manrico and creates a believable character – she is the best actor amongst the four principals. She seems to have a great rapport with Álvarez and has sung in Il trovatore with him in Verona and together they have sung in Tosca at the Met. Ms Radvanovsky said she knows when ‘he’s going to zig and I have to zag’. One fleeting indiscreet moment at the edge of the screen at the end of their interview revealed that Marcelo Álvarez and Sondra Radvanovsky seem very good friends off-stage – as well as on-stage.

They were supported by Dmitri Hvorostovsky who brings his distinctive Verdi baritone to a role that fits him like a glove, his character has a suave dignity that verges on blandness but all the conflicting emotions are there in his burnished, rich tones. Dolora Zajick is an old-trouper and the type of one-dimensional performer we would never see in a British opera house; her Azucena is a woman possessed and she spits out ‘Stride la vampa’ with almost demonic vehemence. As always at the Met the smaller roles – most notably Štefan Kocán’s robust Ferrando – were strongly cast and the chorus was excellent.

The conductor Marco Armiliato plumbed all the dramatic depths Verdi wants us to experience and overcame the potential melodramatic and sentimental pitfalls with style, clarity and much sensitivity, as well as, significant ‘passione’.

© Jim Pritchard

The Barbican Met Opera Live series ends its 201a0/11 season on 14 May with Wagner’s Die Walküre: for further details visit – it is sold out there but you can check the listings of your local cinemas.