Opera, October 2013
Hugh Canning
Verdi: Il trovatore, Bayerische Staatsoper, Juni/Juli 2013
Munich Trovatore
Even though Germany’s operatic ‘Traumpaar’, Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann, were the main focus of the audience—and media—attention on the first night of the bayerische staatsoper’s Verdi-bicentenary staging of Il trovatore (July 1), the French director Olivier Py, making his company debut, seemed more interested in the unnamed actress playing Azucena’s mother—the gypsy burnt as a witch as described in Ferrando’s hair-raising first-scene narration. She spent most of the opera lurking on the fringes of the action stark naked, her modesty occasionally covered by her wispy white hair and a black wrap. As the motive for Azucena’s single-minded lust for revenge, the memory of her mother’s horrific end powers the drama of Il trovatore, and throughout his production Py never failed to remind us of the importance of this usually unseen figure, a ghost or wraith, simultaneously sinister and heart-rending.

Unfortunately, the director clearly felt the need to encumber his story-telling with a kind of Total-Regie onslaught. Semi-clad extras wearing animal masks crossed swords with each other in what looked like Ferrando’s Fencing School, while Harteros’s Leonora was played throughout as a blind woman, presumably because she mistakes the Conte di Luna (Alexey Markov) for her lover in the dark during in their Act 1

There was never a dull moment, and quite a few provocative ones—many of the audience reacted with almost instant hostility to the depiction of the infant Manrico and Azucena’s baby as huge horror-foetuses reminiscent of Hans Neuenfels’s Gottfried at the end of his Bayreuth Lohengrin. For some reason, never really explained, Elena Manistina’s Azucena performed conjuring tricks towards the end of the interval—several of the firstnight critics missed this optional extra—including cutting a very game (but slightly bemused-looking) Kaufmann in half. All very entertaining, but in the middle of Il trovatore? Regietheater, Schmegietheater …

Certainly the two superstars didn’t disappoint. The Elsa and Lohengrin of Richard Jones’s staging of Wagner’s Romantic Opera at this address four years ago may not be such idiomatic Verdians as they are Wagnerians, but they bid fair to be regarded as the optimum casting for Leonora and Manrico right now. Verdi’s middle-period writing— with its backward glances at bel canto trills, runs and rapid gruppetti—suits both Harteros and Kaufmann less well than their roles in Don Carlo. Harteros, though not always precise in her scales and coloratura flourishes (both singers made fair stabs at the notated trills), sang gloriously, especially in long-breathed cantilena lines: she was heart-stopping in the so-called Milanov phrase (‘Se tu dal ciel disceso’) when Manrico saves her from the Count’s clutches as she prepares to enter a nunnery. Her luminous, big-lyric soprano is in something like its prime right now, and she looks beautiful.

Kaufmann struggled to make Manrico as interesting a character as his Don Carlo, but at least he and Py tried to suggest a creepy relationship with his ‘mother’, who barely looked older than him, and was prone to fondling him on his sickbed in a distinctly unmaternal fashion. It took him an act for his voice to throw off its throaty edge, but by the time he got to ‘Ah, si ben mio’ and ‘Di quella pira’, the sun had come out at the top—he transposed the cabaletta down a semitone (some of the most celebrated Manricos, for example Corelli and Domingo, have done the same) but he bravely gave us two thrilling verses. Leonora’s and Luna’s cabalettas were one verse only.

Manistina and Markov sang well, but in a generalized style compared to Harteros’s and Kaufmann’s refined musicality, while Kwangchul Youn blustered gruffly as Ferrando in unidiomatic Italian. Paolo Carignani’s four-square, bandmasterly conducting seemed inappropriately provincial in the context of an international opera festival featuring two of the world’s most bankable stars. The great Verdi conductors de nos jours seem more interested in conducting Wagner and Brahms.

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