Verdi’s Il Trovatore is notoriously difficult for opera houses to produce. Caruso once said that all you needed for Il Trovatore to work was to have the four best singers in the world sing it; easier said than done! The Teatro Real definitely gave it a try though and with some real star power: the supremely talented baritone Ludovic Tézier as the Count di Luna, Maria Agresta as Leonora, Ekaterina Semenchuk as Azucena, Francesco Meli as Manrico, Roberto Tagliavini as Roberto and conducted by Maurizio Benini.

Il Trovatore (The Troubadour) premiered in 1853 and has been a staple of operatic repertoire ever since, as one of Verdi’s most successful operas. When the mother of the gypsy Azucena is killed for being a witch, Azucena takes revenge on the Count by stealing and purportedly burning alive, one of his children. Years later the current Count di Luna (the other brother) is in love with Leonora, who is in love with a Troubadour (Manrico). It’s revealed that Azucena didn’t kill the Count’s brother, but her own child instead, raising the brother as her own. In the end Leonora kills herself so that Manrico can live, but his brother, the Count kills him. At this point Azucena reveals the horrific truth that he has murdered his own brother, that her mother’s dying wish for revenge is now fulfilled.

Francisco Negrin directed this production. It looks quite utilitarian (one set, grey with doors and openings on each side and a fire constantly burning at the front of the stage), however Negrin does some very interesting things with the production. He focuses on Azucena the gypsy and her history, the overture and the first aria (Di due figli vivea padre beato) in which a brilliant Tagliavini’s Roberto recounts the sorry history in one corner of the stage.

The rest is taken up with presenting the story. Throughout the opera Azucena is ‘visited’ by her dead son (hauntingly, a real young boy covered in makeup to look badly burned), who wanders on stage as she grapples to get hold of what she has lost. It’s an effective exploration of her character and very well done here. Her aria in which she tells Manrico the story of having murdered her own child by accident (Condotta ell’era in ceppi) is intensely moving. Semenchuk as Azucena is phenomenal, both at acting and in song; you really feel the loss, the anger, the desperation.

Ludovic Tézier is, in my opinion, one of the best baritones in the world, and in this performance he more than lives up to that reputation as the evil Count di Luna. Tézier doesn’t just ‘do’ evil though. Through his wonderful use of colour and his strong acting, he humanises the Count, making him more morally grey in a black and white world. His singing is just perfect, that range, that timbre – it was a genuine pleasure to listen. Maria Agresta as Leonora was again, fantastic, she gave it everything that she had. Her D’amor sull’ali rosee in particular was stunning, and brought the house down.

Francesco Meli was perhaps the weakest of the main four. His voice, whilst a nice middle register, felt strained when going high, and his Di Quella Pira suffered as a result. One of the best arias in the whole opera is the final one, Prima che de altri vivere. Benini, who otherwise conducted very well, seemed to slow at the end here, which was a bit of a shame.  I also didn’t like how this final scene was directed. Manrico picks himself up to go to his death and Azucena is nowhere to be seen to start with? Which seemed a bit muddled.

This production is a brilliant exploration of the characters. Negrin adds depth and humanity to the performance, which is so rare and important for this opera in particular. The leading cast and chorus were brilliant, with some truly phenomenal, and at points, haunting, singing and acting, a must see.

Il Trovatore is on at the Teatro Real, Madrid from 3rd to 25th of July.  For more information, visit the Teatro Real.

Words by Stuart Martin.

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