Verdi’s Il Trovatore notoriously has an episodic and highly improbable plot. It’s also famously difficult to cast. Creating a compelling production and staffing it with capable singers therefore presents a formidable double challenge. The current Canadian Opera Company production gets it half right. The problem is Charles Roubaud’s much travelled production. There’s not an idea in it. It’s not surprising that the director’s programme notes run to three short paragraphs. Roubaud sets each scene in a sort of grey box of towering walls. Unfortunately each grey box is just different enough that that the curtain comes down at the end of each scene and the stage crew spend what seems like an interminable amount of time setting up the next grey box. We just aren’t used anymore to sitting quietly through interminable scene changes. We expect slicker stagecraft and in a modern opera house there’s really no excuse for this 19th century approach. Within in each grey box the grey clad cast come and go and in between mostly stand around. Blocking is perfunctory, acting superfluous and old fashioned “park and bark” the order of the day. It’s the sort of production that might have passed muster thirty years ago but really doesn’t cut it in 2012.
Fortunately the music making is really rather good. The stand out for me was South African soprano Elsa van der Heever as Leonora who combines lyricism, flexibility and power in a most attractive way. New York watch out! She’s coming your way soon. Equally impressive was Russian bass Dmitry Belosselsky as Ferrando. He is the first singer we hear and it was quite thrilling to hear his enormous voice ring out across the Four Seasons Centre. There were fine performances too from Ramón Vargas as Manrico, making his COC debut, and Elena Manistini as Azucena. Russell Braun was making his Verdi debut as the Conte di Luna. It had been suggested to me prior that maybe he had been forcing the voice in earlier performances. Last night he certainly didn’t take that approach. He sang lyrically and with the terrific musicianship we expect from him but it was hard to avoid the impression that the role was half a size too large for his voice. While he sounded great singing solo he rather tended to disappear in the big ensembles. Finally, there was a lovely cameo from mezzo Rihab Chaieb as Leonora’s confidante Inez. Marco Guidarini got a rousing, if inevitably disjointed, performance out of the COC orchestra and the chorus was its usual excellent self making the most of the big set piece opportunities like the famous anvil chorus.
For fans of opera as a concert in costume there’s a lot to like here. For fans of music theatre not so much. There are seven more performances between now and the end of the month but note that Riccardo Massi replaces Ramón Vargas for the last two.
Photo credits: Michael Cooper courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company.