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Il Trovatore at the Royal Opera House review: leaves its singers stranded

Jamie Barton as Azucena  (Camilla Greenwell)
Jamie Barton as Azucena (Camilla Greenwell)

When opera is working at full throttle, it enters a state of delirium where narrative logic is liable to go up in flames. Too often, though, the passion suffocates under a cloak of misplaced decorum, as if opera is too delicate to be treated rough.

If ever an opera demanded that decorum be cast aside, it’s Verdi’s Il Trovatore (The troubadour, 1853). Set in 15th-century Spain, it has an impenetrable back story. Two deadly rivals for a woman’s love turn out to be long-lost brothers who hate each other’s guts, which they urgently want to spill; a somewhat unhinged gypsy is guilty of a particularly brutal infanticide that happened long ago, and before the opera ends, there will be several more dead bodies scattered across the stage. Add Verdi’s extravagant melodic gift and you have an opera that starts at fever pitch and drives upwards from there.

Marina Rebeka as Leonora and Gabriele Kupsyte as Ines (Camilla Greenwell)
Marina Rebeka as Leonora and Gabriele Kupsyte as Ines (Camilla Greenwell)

Adele Thomas’s new Royal Opera staging, first seen in Zurich in 2021, tries desperately hard not to be decorous, and some of the time it works. Annemarie Woods’ single set is a stairway – to heaven, perhaps – stretching the width of the very wide stage. Initially it looks good but it offers almost nothing in the way of meaningful space. To compensate, Thomas fills it with a hyperactive gang of dancers – half human, half beast – whose cavorting soon becomes wearisome.

She handles chorus movement well but repeatedly leaves the four principals stranded with nothing to do but look into the distance or, occasionally, at one another, gesturing vaguely towards some emotion. Photos in the programme suggest that Hieronymus Bosch is an important visual reference, but I was reminded more of those old Classics Illustrated magazines, in which works of literature were rendered in comic format in the hope of getting kids interested.

Roberto Tagliavini as Ferrando (Camilla Greenwell)
Roberto Tagliavini as Ferrando (Camilla Greenwell)

Musically, things work better, not least because conductor Antonio Pappano switches easily between hell-for-leather urgency and diaphanous lightness. Enrico Caruso famously and provocatively said that all Il Trovatore needed was the four greatest singers in the world. No pressure there, then. The Royal Opera doesn’t quite manage that but as the distinctly unfraternal brothers, tenor Riccardo Massi and baritone Ludovic Tézier are nicely contrasted, the first ringingly ardent, the second more stolid, more threatening.

It’s the women who stand out, though. Jamie Barton’s Azucena at first sounds a little light but her voice gathers weight and colour as the opera gets darker. The love interest focusses on Leonora, and Marina Rebeka is on stunning form. Her voice is rich and flexible, able to encompass a world of feeling that the staging can only intermittently match.

Royal Opera House, to July 2; roh.org.uk