Roberto Alagna as Manrico and Hui He as Leonora © Philippe Gromelle
Roberto Alagna as Manrico and Hui He as Leonora
© Philippe Gromelle

This production of Il trovatore promised to be good or very good - the staging was initially attractive and served the complex and rhythmic plot, the cast was first class and the voices even promised something of a revelation. So it was a great shock when the  dramatic tension sagged badly in the second half. So what happened in the interval?

Charles Roubaud’s staging is not innovative but is attractive at first sight. It updates the story with guards who become contemporary soldiers and a gypsy camp that looks like a Roma camp of today. The set is interesting with a stage divided into two floors: a fairly impressive slope effectively cuts the wall of the ancient theatre lengthways and allows characters to move higher or lower on the wall. This arrangement works particularly well for Leonora’s arrival at the convent: she  joins the nuns, who are all dressed in white, on the upper level of the stage. Video projections (including the projected forest on the wall in Act I) and a few items of furniture (camp beds, a trailer, a plow and three chairs) complete this minimalist set.

But after the intermission, the inspiration disappears and singers seem content to perform little more than a concert interpretation of the music. They go on stage, sing and leave and so one can find more interest and more action from watching the orchestra. It’s a shame that the beautiful scenes that we saw during the first part were not echoed in the acts which followed.

Undeniably, Roberto Alagna is a showman with incredible charisma. His whole midrange register has beautiful timbre and phrasing; his elocution is absolutely exemplary. He interprets the role as that of a hero who would ungrudgingly sacrifice himself for his mother. Without affectation, Roberto charges in. And that's what we love about him, the fact that he never gives us half measures. He easily fills the huge Roman theatre with his unfailingly powerful voice. However, on this first night, our national tenor shows signs of fatigue in his voice that makes him more vulnerable. The high notes are often strained to the point of being close to metallic.

It's important to highlight Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s incredible acting. Entirely credible, despite articulation which is not always intelligible, she is a tortured Azucena, notably in her duet of the second act. However, she sounds less comfortable than usual : the legato falls, the vibrato is used too much and she doesn’t always reach the highest notes. The chest voice is not always used particularly elegantly, but that said, that style seems to work well for the drama.

Chinese soprano Hui He is a find. With a very round voice across virtually all her range, she is a Leonora in top vocal form. This is a high calibre interpretation, whose main failing is a lack of emotion, especially in the much awaited scene of the last act. One hopes for more from a woman who decides to commit suicide in order to stay faithful to her lover while saving his life.

The revelation of the evening was a Romanian voice, George Petean, as the Count di Luna. This Count could have been more terrifying and powerful, but what a singing lesson! His vocal line is superbly held, without a hint of strain in the high notes and incredibly accurate. He showed exemplary musicality. His interpretation of "Il balen del suo sorriso" in Act II was the high point of the evening.

At the head of the Orchestre National de France, Bertrand de Billy’s conducting succeeded in infusing the score with dramatic tension. With a few exceptions, tempi were judicious and the Orchestra showed high levels of discipline. But here also, we were left wanting more. More sound, more drama, more roundness and rhythmic precision. On the other hand, there’s not a word to be said against the performance of the assembled regional choruses, who were well prepared and blended effectively. The secondary roles were a good addition to this creative team (in particular Ludivine Gombert’s beautiful Ines).

In sum, an exciting first half and then a more troubled second half. When we left the theatre, we had the strange feeling of having attended two shows in one. Was this temporary fatigue, a one off drop in dramatic tension or a real lack of balance?


 

***11