This review was published at Opera Britannia.
It was a particular joy to see Il trovatore at the Theatre Royal, not only because it is a well directed, well sung sure-fire summer hit for Scottish Opera but also because I was seeing it in the company of someone who had never been to the opera before. This was a perfect production for an opera virgin. It looked good, sounded marvellous and was full to the brim with all the drama and passion that Verdi demands.
Someone, one suspects, somewhere along the way thought a bit about the rather busy plot and realised that essentially the shadows of the past come back to haunt the present. A mix up over an infanticide 15 years before is the driving force behind all vengeance and passion that is presented on the stage. Thus came the idea to use the shadows of the performers so prominently. Low side lights on either side of the stage allow the silhouettes of the performers to act out the plot behind the singers themselves. It is slightly creepy. It also works brilliantly.
The set is sparse but flawless. No crenelated battlements here – but plain grey walls which have something of the manner of a granite worktop in an ultra-minimalist kitchen about them. There’s not that much colour but of course that means that when there is a flash of something bright, it hits one between the eyes and Robert B Dickson’s lighting design was striking.
Scottish Opera have made much in their marketing of the production of the quote attributed to Caruso that all it takes for a successful performance of Il trovatore is the four greatest singers in the world. This is perhaps a dangerous game for a marketing department to play and it is fortunate that there’s a lot to rejoice in with regard to the singing.
First up was Jonathan May’s Ferrando, the Captain of the Guard. His narration of the prior events that give rise to our story was wonderfully measured and brilliantly clear. The gentlemen of the chorus meanwhile lolled all over the stage in their soldier’s outfits. Brilliantly lit, they presented as some kind of pewter relief sculpture. They came to life in more ways than one when they began to sing. Throughout the evening, the chorus, particularly the men, were wonderfully strong.
Roland Wood has plenty of experience on the Scottish Opera stage and was using it all in his portrayal of the Count di Luna. His “Il balen del suo sorriso” in the second act was wonderfully gentle and compassionate. Director Martin Lloyd-Evans tends to allow the principals to take centre stage and just sing their great arias in this production without a great deal going on. Rather than feeling static, it instead focuses the ability of the music itself to provide all that is needed to move the plot along. The effect when Wood was singing was mesmerising.
The object of the Count’s affections was a magnificent Claire Rutter as Leonora. She had the sense to keep something in reserve for the fireworks demanded of her in the final act but this was a consummate performance from beginning to end. “Oh,” murmured my opera-virgin companion during the applause which greeted Ms Rutter’s “D’amor sull’ali rosee”, “oh, how beautiful – I never realised it would be so beautiful”. Quite so. This was a Leonora around whom the rest of the world seemed to spin. Ms Rutter also brought a gentleness into her singing though without losing any of the crispness and vitality of her coloratura.
As for the troubadour himself, Gwyn Hughes Jones as Manrico also had a great deal to praise. His vocal work had a great deal of animation and was a joy to listen to. I have a suspicion that the coda of the great cabaletta “Di quella pira” did not go quite as well as he expected it to. The rest of his singing was captivating though – his voice managing both to dance and also express wonderful colours too.
Last amongst the principals was Anne Mason who made a wonderfully possessed Azucena, the gypsy around whom the plot continually thickens. She seemed to have been driven to the point of madness by the events of 15 years before and there was a burning, urgent passion in her voice.
Down in the pit, Tobias Ringborg was managing to get the most sensitive playing out of the orchestra that has been heard in the Theatre Royal all year. Consistently quite reserved tempi allowed the singers the chance to shine and there was a wonderful (and in Glasgow, rarely achieved) balance between the pit and the stage. At just one moment in the third act did it seem that there was the danger of everything going out of kilter but this was soon rectified. Musically this production was something of a triumph.
There are plenty of opportunities to let the orchestra off the leash, of course. Not least was during an exuberant Anvil Chorus where dozens of gypsies sang their hearts out whilst the shadows of just a few of them made a great tableau above their heads. Smoke and flames were projected onto the scenery behind them – so much more effective than dry ice.
There were lots of great though subtle touches of direction from Martin Lloyd-Evans. The elderly nun stopping a swordsman with a walking stick and a wry shake of the head was one delicious moment but there were plenty of others. Scottish Opera end their season on a high with this production. The verdict of my companion was “I’ll be back”. If next year’s season has the drive and passion of this production she won’t be disappointed.