Lurking sheets of ashes cover the stage, drifting by its disturbers. The warn down branches of isolated trees have been stripped and burnt.
We are here to bear witness to director David Bösch’s war-torn landscape for his production of Il trovatore. The piece has been revived by the Royal Opera House from the original production that took place in July earlier this year. Verdi’s piece plays on the emphasis of fire, whether the fragile images of emotion it conjures or the devastation of war, and thus demands a volatile enough production to follow suit.
The war we are witness to resides itself among two camps: that of the Count Di Luna and the Count of Urgel. Verdi makes the decision to focus on two rivals: The Count Di Luna himself and Manrico, an officer in Urgel’s army. In the middle of the two is Leonora, the object of both men’s affections. Her own loyalties lie comfortably with the troubadour Manrico. Throughout the show these two sides collide for superiority against a background of conflict, placed among a series of coincidences and melodramatic twists. In this regard, it carries in parts elements of farce.
Bösch creates a series of effective images in his staging, complimented finely by Patrick Bannwart’s arresting set design. There is in places a lovely sense of poise about proceedings, and a final haunting eruption arouses an unfortunate sense of what could have been. The production is gorgeous, and a single glance at the program alone displays the craft at place in a fine set of snapshots. But this is how we remain; a curiously static quality emerges through dull lines. While preservation of voice is important, there is an ambling nature to movement that undercuts any motivation, placed alongside signs of hammy gestures that ultimately allow clichés to take their grip.
There is an evocative sense of drama however, through the conducting of Richard Farnes. Verdi places a lovely sense of storytelling in the music of the piece, and Farnes allows every touch to reach the audience, with structure and place clear and precise. It is a shame that extended set changes force the orchestra to halt this charge.
On the night of attendance, it was the character of the gypsy woman Azucena, played by Anita Rachvelishvili, who was particularly well received by the vocal Royal Opera House audience. Maria Agresta’s Leonora has a functional voice which mostly holds out well, although she becomes part of a frustrating distancing effect caused by a lack of emotional resonance. Quinn Kelsey and Najmiddin Mavlyanov as the Count Di Luna and Manrico are effective, Kelsey particularly maintaining a nice physicality, while their voices stand up strong. The two’s relationship as enemies is difficult to accept as their brief duels on stage end up cut brutally short, and lack the gravitas of momentous occasion.
By the end, this is a production that is solid without enticing much else. Verdi’s work is difficult to perfect, and it is a shame that a mostly solid cast is bogged down by a stillness that falters their performances. Touches and brief snapshots portray a production that captures the coldness of war within the piece, but fails to ignite the emotion behind.
Il trovatore is playing the Royal Opera House until February 9 2017.
Photo: Catherine Ashmore