The Absurdity of Relations: Il Trovatore at the Bayerische Staatsoper

Verdi – il Trovatore 

Il Conte di Luna – Vitliy Bilyy

Leonora – Anja Harteros

Azucena – Anna Smirnova

Manrico – Lee Yonghoon

Ferrando – Goran Jurić

Ines – Golda Schultz

Ruiz – Francesco Petrozzi

Vecchio zingaro – Leonard Bernad

Messo – Matthew Grills

Opernballett der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Chor und Extrachor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Paolo Carignani

Stage director – Olivier Py

Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich.  Saturday, February 7th, 2014

It was once said of Il Trovatore that to do it well, you need four of the greatest singers in the world.  Tonight we certainly had one of them.  Indeed, Anja Harteros’ Leonora encapsulated what is truly great about her singing.  The theatre-filling sound, the tone a wonderful combination of pearl and velvet and those creamy high notes.  Yes, intonation is at times suspect and yes, she sounds as if she is much more comfortable in the slower more sustained music than in the more florid writing of ‘di tale amor’ for example, but this was truly remarkable singing, precisely because she makes you believe, in that very moment, that she is the only person capable of singing the role.  The sound itself sounds so fully connected in that one can hear her entire body resonating.  She is also a captivating stage presence and the temperature certainly increased whenever she appeared on stage.  Then we had one of those remarkable moments in ‘d’amor sull’ali rosee’ where the entire theatre was held in the palm of her hand – the lines long and beautifully phrased, words and music absolutely as one.  Yes, the last note was flat but this is the thing with Harteros, the sheer body of the sound and the way it fills the house seemingly floating on air is just remarkable.  If tonight wasn’t quite as incredible an experience as her Tosca last month that is more a reflection of the work than of her undoubted gifts.

Tonight felt a bit like ladies’ night.  Anna Smirnova’s Azucena was really quite something.  The voice has a brittle quality below mezzo forte but she really does produce a lot of volume.  As the voice was pushed pitch became approximate and the notes on the page seemed to have been taken as suggestions but she was absolutely magnetic.  It wasn’t subtle but it was completely gripping.

Lee Yonghoon’s Manrico was an interesting one.  I left with the impression that the role is a size too big for him.  His wasn’t the typical unsubtle, barnstorming interpretation of the role.  Instead he gave us a beautifully shaded, genuinely-sung ‘ah si ben mio’ with a real attempt to phrase it with love and a highly respectable attempt at a trill.  In ‘di quella pira’ – one verse only – he was somewhat overwhelmed by the gentlemen of the superb Bayerische Staatsopernchor.  The voice at times sounded somewhat constricted as if being pushed to create a much bigger sound than it can naturally produce.  The sound itself has real quality and he’s a fine musician though I’m not quite sure this is his Fach yet.

Vitaliy Bilyy’s Luna demonstrated a baritone of Slavonic bite and satisfying weight.  He doesn’t quite have a genuine legato yet but there is a lot of promise there and he has the potential to be a very useful singer. His big Act 2 set piece, ‘il balen de suo sorriso’ was delivered with good breath control although his pitch parted company with the orchestra at the very end.

As often happens in productions of Trovatore, Goran Jurić’s Ferrando made a real impression sung with a large and resonant bass.  Golda Schultz’ compact and creamy soprano was a notable presence as Ines.   The remaining roles were cast from strength from the Bayerische Staatsoper’s ensemble.  The choral singing was exceptionally good.  With fine unanimity of tone and excellent ensemble, they made a massive sound.  The orchestra played extremely well for Paolo Carignani.  They were absolutely secure, the brass in particular making a real impact.  Carignani’s conducting was extremely sensitive to his singers.  He was at one with them, knowing exactly when to hold back and when to push forward.  He also had a real sense of line and how to phrase this music.  Tempi were sensible – there was a wonderful rhythmic impetus to all of it that worked very well.  Perhaps the last scene dragged a little where it should have been pushed forward but otherwise this was truly superb Verdi conducting.

I tweeted during the interval that I found Olivier Py’s staging hyperactive.  Later it became clear that that was precisely the point.  There was an absurdity to the production that reflected the fact that this is often a work that isn’t taken seriously.  The set was in constant motion revealing actors and dancers acting out the back story to the events that were being described by the singers.  It’s clear that Py sees the story as a cycle of unending violence, destined to repeat itself.  Two shirtless dancers in masks are seen constantly sword fighting with each other.  Sets (Pierre-André Weitz) and costumes (also by Weitz) seem to reflect a vision of gold rush California meets a 1970s nightclub.  And yet, in the final scene all of this disappears and we are left with a bare stage and the image of Manrico and Azucena alone in the prison.  Suddenly, the frivolity of the work disappears and what stays with us is the tenderness of a bond between two people.  It’s as if Py is telling us to forget all of our preconceptions about the absurdity of the work, this really is a story about individuals and their struggles that can only find an outlet in violence.  There is no other way for this story to end than death and it is an extremely potent message.  I found it absolutely fascinating how Py draws the line between highlighting the complications of the plot and the fact that this really is a story about individuals.  It is a highly stimulating and thought-provoking piece of theatre.

Musically tonight was somewhat mixed – we had greatness and we also had some undeniably exciting though imprecise singing.  We also had a fine singer perhaps somewhat miscast in a role that is on the heavy side for him and we were introduced to a Verdi baritone of genuine promise.  What I will take with me from tonight is the wonder of Harteros’ singing, Carignani’s highly idiomatic conducting and Py’s intelligent and invigorating staging.   This was an evening that fully justified the Bayerische Staatsoper’s outstanding reputation.

Il Trovatore at the Bayerische Staatsoper (photo: Wilfried Hösl)
Il Trovatore at the Bayerische Staatsoper (photo: Wilfried Hösl)

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