sun 14/07/2024

Il Trovatore, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff | reviews, news & interviews

Il Trovatore, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff

Il Trovatore, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff

Under-production but strong vocals in the Spanish gloom

Katia Pellegrino: vocal brilliance but could liven up on stageImages by Brian Tarr

Verdi’s Il Trovatore, the WNO season brochure assures us, “is Italian opera at its most passionate and full-blooded”. But you could sit through this revival of Peter Watson’s seven-year-old production and overlook the fact. Always understated (to put it kindly), with age it has retreated further into its shell. The singers face front and largely ignore one another; the soldiers seem to have taken orders from the latest tottering Middle Eastern tyrant not to fire on their own people.

There are no flames to trouble Azucena’s conscience; no blood, not much passion. It’s a very small volcano in a very remote corner of Spain.

Few would claim that Trovatore is Verdian theatre at its most visual: its impact is almost entirely musical. But that’s no reason to shut one’s eyes altogether. Unfortunately Tim Hatley’s blank, dimly lit high walls give virtually no purchase for the imagination, and might as well, frankly, not be there. Moving them around, though, seems enough of a problem to necessitate an interminable pause after each scene, so that Verdi’s fast-moving dramaturgy stutters at every turn.

Nothing that Watson does with his singers speeds it up very much. Mostly they stand and deliver, their eyes firmly on the conductor. No wonder Leonora confuses Luna and Manrico in the semi-darkness; she barely looks at either of them. And no wonder, one might cynically suggest, Azucena once upon a time threw the wrong baby into the fire. The production might almost be making a point about mistaken choices, but I suspect that would be to flatter a severe case of under-direction.

How much does all this matter, provided you get the four great singers Caruso used to insist was all Trovatore needed? The answer is that even great singers need choreographing once you put them on the stage. The Italian critic Gabriele Baldini thought that Verdi’s entire drama was in the music, and what you saw onstage was Wagner’s “deeds of music made visible”; but after all they do have to be made visible.

WNO_Il_trovatore_-_David_Soar_Ferrando_3The Welsh National Opera cast is certainly strong vocally. Katia Pellegrino has the potential to be an outstanding Leonora. She has real brilliance in her top register and a beautiful sound throughout the range, needing perhaps a touch more weight in the chest voice. Above all, though, she needs to liven up her stage presence, acquire some spontaneity of movement and gesture, catch her lover’s eye more often, get some exercise around the set. Not that Gwyn Hughes Jones sets her the best possible example. Ludicrously costumed in tight hose and what might be a male maternity shirt, he looks – and occasionally sounds – like a stock Italian tenor, which may actually be no bad thing in Trovatore under happier, more athletic circumstances. Here he sings a very acceptable Manrico, conventional in almost all respects (not excluding the regulation unwritten top C at the end of “Di quella pira”), but like Pellegrino largely disengaged.

David Kempster’s Luna is stronger than this dramatically: handsome, brooding, and with a finely villainous but not excessively diabolical presence. His singing on the first night was somewhat dry, but he was recovering from bronchitis, which is certainly no condition in which to sing middle-period Verdi. Veronica Simeoni likewise has the makings of a forceful Azucena under more pointed direction. At present she comes and goes, disappointingly tepid in “Stride la vampa” – always a test, starting absolutely cold – but warming up in her scenes with Manrico and especially Luna. She too would respond, I suspect, to more muscular direction.

Not for the first time on the Wales Millennium Centre stage, some of the best singing comes from the WNO chorus, excellent in the opening scene with David Soar’s exceptionally well-sung Ferrando (pictured above), superb later in the anvil chorus and the irresistible “Squilli e cheggi”, with majestic brass-playing. At these moments the conductor Andrea Licata is plainly in his element. At other times he seems slightly one-paced and short on brio, which may go to show that inertia is catching.

Watch the WNO guide to Il Trovatore

The production might almost be making a point about mistaken choices, but that would be to flatter a severe case of under-direction

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I wrote something very similar to a friend of mine last night when I got home from the performance. I'm glad I'm not the only one who found the production very stuttering and the interminable scene changes totally unnecessary given the bland nature of the set. The one thing that never lets down a performance is the chorus and they were fine, even if they suffered from the same lack of on stage dynamism as the leads. For me, the constant breaks, which by my reckoning took well over 20 minutes all told, completely destroyed any flow or momentum that might have been built up during the scene. Not that there was very much of that. By Act IV I was yawning my head off and sincerely wishing that they'd hurry up and die so that I could head home. All companies have hits and misses and since the last time I saw WNO in Cardiff was Die Meistersinger, this by comparison was a dire miss. No doubt this will be crowd puller as it tours the provicial theatres, which is sad because it accustoms those patrons to 2nd or even 3rd rate productions.

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