Opera Now, November 2013
Francis Muzzu
Verdi: Il trovatore, Bayerische Staatsoper, Juni/Juli 2013
Il trovatore - Munich
The real reason for being in town was to see the Bavarian State Opera's new production of Il trovatore, with the attraction of Jonas Kaufmann's first Manrico. Olivier Py's production had already provoked controversy before the first night when pictures appeared on the State Opera's website showing a scene featuring a flaming Ku Klux Klan cross. I attended the third performance and there was still a demonstration in the audience at the start of Act III, when a man in the gallery heckled
and hurled leaflets down into the stalls just as the music started.

Much derided as Eurotrash, I found Py's vision was cogent and certainly visually arresting, with Pierre-Andre Weitz's massive black metal set based on a revolve that was used to the full — nightmare scenes literally flashed past. The action was set in 19th-century America, with sonic startling Industrial Revolution imagery (including a steam train) countering the more primal excesses of voodoo and the aforementioned KKK. Py deftly solved some of the plot's wilder excesses: Leonora's blindness made perfect dramatic sense; and making Azucena a voodoo witch also fitted seamlessly into the plot. You'll love it or loathe it, but I found it the most exciting, and indeed comprehensible, performance of Trovatore I have seen.

Thankfully the musical performance matched in intensity. Paolo Carignani's conducting was indulgent of his singers, his soprano setting the pace for her opening aria.There were a couple of slips — alas, the first being Kaufmann's mistimed offstage introduction. The tenor then went on to display his usual virtues of dramatic involvement coupled with some golden tones, plus his ability to hone his voice to a whisper and maintain the line. It is in danger of becoming a mannerism, since there's a thin line between sensitivity and crooning, but I err to appreciation of his bel canto rather than the usual can belto. Anja Harteros gave a sensational Leonora: it's not just the velvet tone, underpinned with some spinto steel, but what can best be described as vocal spin — the ability to mould an almost endless phrase while maintaining a sense of propulsion and purpose, and seemingly with breath to spare. Add her excellent coloratura and elegance of person, and she must be the leading singer of her generation in this repertoire.

The other principals would have graced most stages but were outclassed by the German dream team. Elena Manistina has a solid mezzo of generous tone, but as yet her portrayal of Azucena, though detailed, remained relatively generic. Similarly, Alexey Markov's baritone is a superb instrument with a gorgeous sheen and some thrilling high notes, but it took him two acts to settle vocally and he rattled through di Luna's passions with curious sang-froid. Kwangchul Youn was luxury casting as Ferrando; the orchestra and chorus gave committed performances under Carignani's idiomatic baton.

As a curious added extra, the interval of this production contained a most extraordinary vignette. Those of us who were early back into the auditorium, just a handful of people, were treated to the sight of Elena Manistina popping Jonas Kaufmann into a box, sawing him in half and wheeling both ends around the stage. Thankfully she then reunited his top and bottom halves and restored him to his former glory. They ran off into the wings to cheers and whistles, both highly amused. Bizarre!

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