Il Trovatore at the Salzburg Festival

A revival production from 2014 of Verdi’s Il trovatore opened August 8 in sweltering Salzburg. With temperatures in the 90s and no air conditioning in the Grosses Festspielhaus, it required a dedicated opera goer, not to mention the artists, to endure the heat.

For those attending, it was a memorable evening, and not just for the heat. The production, by Alvis Hermanis, continues the contemporary European trend of dreary “concept” productions. The setting for the staging was a contemporary art gallery, where Ferrando as a tour guide told the tale of the demented gypsy woman’s burning to death of her own child to a group of horrified tourists.  Leonora appeared initially as another tour guide but then later donned the more familiar garb of the Leonora better known to lovers of Verdi’s operas.

Salzburg+FestivalThe action played out more-or-less in 15th Century Spain until the very end of the opera. The point of the staging was obscure, but at least it was not terribly intrusive. Rethinking the staging of familiar works is entirely legitimate, but it takes creativity of a high order to stage the work from a fresh, yet still valid perspective.  Most often, the staging is a vehicle for a stage director’s own ego.  This particular staging was simply contrived.

Il trovatore is, of course, about great singing, and there was some of that.  Adrian Sâmpetrean sang Ferrando’s music with a resonant voice, but with a gruff manner that seems to be unavoidable with this role. Placido Domingo, in his unfortunate reincarnation as a baritone, was originally cast to sing the role of Il Conte di Luna, but he wisely withdrew. His replacement, Artur Rucinski, was a capable singer but not especially inspiring.  Il balen del suo sorriso, one of the great baritone arias of the Italian repertoire, was adequately sung, but it did not recall the great baritones of the past.

Francesco Meli is a relatively light-voiced tenor who is at his best in lyrical roles. His Manrico simply lacked heft.  It is unfair, but the tenor singing the role is often judged by one note–the high C that concludesDe quella pira (a note that Verdi never composed).  Meli sang it, but few off the stage heard it.

The production, of course, was a vehicle for star soprano Anna Netrebko, whose Leonora confirmed her as perhaps the finest Verdi soprano signing today. She began her career as a light-voiced soprano, but she has matured into a dramatic/spinto soprano with a resplendent, rich voice and ringing top notes. She is also a fine and vigorous actress. She richly deserved all the accolades received from the audience.

The countries behind the former Iron Curtain continue to produce excellent low-voiced singers, and Salzburg’s Azucena, Ekaterina Semenchuk, was no exception.  She sang Azucena’s music with a huge, dark voice that seemed to have no bottom.  She was born to sing Verdi’s great mezzo roles.

As pit orchestras go, there is none finer than the Vienna Philharmonic. Conductor Gianandrea Noseda, Music Director of Teatro Regio in Turin (among other appointments), captured the energy and drive of middle period Verdi.  The performance had tremendous musical thrust that was not undone by the tedious staging.  Noseda was carefully attuned to the singers, and the orchestra played the score with an accuracy and nuance that Verdi would have admired.  As hot as the weather was, even more heat came from the performance.

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