Il trovatore, one of Giuseppe Verdi’s most beloved operas, is presented in Zurich in a new production which features no less than four debuts: Gianandrea Noseda conducts his first opera as new general music director of the Opernhaus Zurich; Marina Rebeka and Piotr Beczała are singing the roles of Leonora and Manrico for the first time; while young director Adele Thomas is making her Zurich debut, directing one of her first operas. The plot of Il trovatore is notoriously a gory horror story set in 15th-century Spain. Thomas maintains the medieval setting, but highlights the fantastic, supernatural elements of the plot. Superstition is a strong driving force driving the story and Thomas reifies these superstitions, adding a few dancers dressed as demonic figures who interact with the characters, terrorising them and pushing them along. Her interpretation of the story relies on the grotesque, but she also manages to find quite a few comic elements, exploiting them without vulgarity. The Conte di Luna’s soldiers are a mix between Keystone Cops and a motley crew of underdogs, moving in unison, making funny faces, trembling.

Piotr Beczała (Manrico) and Marina Rebeka (Leonora)
© Monika Rittershaus

During di Luna’s cabaletta “Per me ora fatale”, Thomas times a comedic moment absolutely spot on. The soldiers sing something like “Let’s go, let’s hide in the shadows” as they try to leave, bringing the Count with them, but he keeps heading back centre stage to bellow out his cabaletta, so they get all frustrated, roll their eyes and again try to drag him away, but no, there he goes again. The timing of the music perfectly fits this silly gag, which I found pretty funny.

Robert Pomakov (Ferrando), Quinn Kelsey (Conte di Luna) and ensemble
© Monika Rittershaus

Annemarie Woods' costumes were also grotesque, inspired by the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, featuring headpieces with animal references and Manrico’s army in skeleton suits. The setting was the same for the whole performance: a simple staircase framed by a portal which closed and opened as the toothed mouth of a hellish creature with fire in his hair. Overall, the production is convincing; it is like a medieval fairy tale, with strong gothic overtones, based on beliefs on magic and the supernatural. It works.

The musical side was also convincing. Noseda gave an energetic reading of the score, the Philarmonia Zürich impressing with a sweeping sound. Tempi were brisk, and Noseda managed to keep pit and stage together even in the riskiest moments. Perhaps some of the more lyrical and delicate passages were lost in his exuberance. The Anvil Chorus was particularly fast and exciting, the Zurich Opera Chorus very well prepared and gave a thoroughly enjoyable performance throughout.

Quinn Kelsey, Marina Rebeka, Piotr Beczała, Robert Pomakov and ensemble
© Monika Rittershaus

Rebeka offered a great interpretation of Leonora, her soprano silvery on top, golden in the centre, her coloratura solid and her legato properly Verdian. Her big scene in the fourth act was moving and emotional; Thomas toned down the funny and grotesque in the most emotionally charged moments, and Rebeka gave us a properly heartbreaking “D’amor sull’ali rosee”. As Manrico, Beczała was enthusiastic and exciting, his somewhat boisterous tenor perfect for the warrior-troubadour. He sang “Di quella pira” in the original key and nailed the high C twice. He also found lyrical, sweet tones in the most intimate moments: the wedding scene with Leonora (“Ah, sì, ben mio”) and the final duet with Azucena. Both principal singers passed the test with flying colours.

Agnieszka Rehlis (Azucena) and Piotr Beczała (Manrico)
© Monika Rittershaus

Agnieszka Rehlis was a trembling, shaking, almost possessed Azucena; despite her small figure she filled the stage with her troubling presence. Her mezzo was remarkably uniform over its range, and her high notes were powerful and brilliant. Her “Sei vendicata, o madre”, at the end, was terrifying. Quinn Kelsey, as Conte di Luna, sang with a warm baritone, but with some emission problems in the passaggio. He seemed somewhat ill at ease in the role although, honestly, his ludicrous costume cannot have helped. He was wearing a typical medieval gentleman’s attire (leggings, short tunic and cape) in bright pink, with a red heart embroidered on his chest. His “Il balen del suo sorriso” was delivered competently and with a very good legato.

Marina Rebeka, Piotr Beczała, Quinn Kelsey, Robert Pomakov and ensemble
© Monika Rittershaus

Robert Pomakov was a solid Ferrando, sailing mostly successfully through the many volatine in his “Di due figli” narration. Later, his bass showed some loss of control in the vibrato, but his performance was very enjoyable. He also had a terrifying countenance as the “Lord” of the hellish creatures prancing around, and also acted as Manrico’s executioner. We could have done without Manrico’s head held in his hand at the end, but that’s hardly his fault. Bożena Bujnika was a spirited and convincing Ines, while Omer Kobiljak sang Ruiz with a high and pleasant tenor. The evening was a resounding success.

****1