David McVicar's six-year old production of Il trovatore has returned to the Metropolitan Opera House with a starry cast. It does its job well without adding any insights, but it is a model of clarity and mood compared with the Met’s previous staging. Updating the opera to the Spanish War of Independence does no harm and keeps the divisive bitterness at the forefront while the love-triangle issue remains the same. And Azucena is Azucena.

Charles Edwards’ gloomy sets and Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes bring to mind some of Goya’s darkest paintings – there’s no joy to be found in this joyless opera, and it’s very effective. The set rotates to give us a mud-grey castle wall with a staircase that, in itself, looks dangerous, a Gypsy outpost with huge, buff men swinging huge hammers, a dim cloister and finally, a dimmer dungeon. Everyone moves well despite the opera being an ideal example of “park and bark.”

Happily, there is no barking going on. Remarkably, without an Italian in the cast, Verdi’s exact “tinta” and mid-career blood-and-thunder are beautifully expressed. At its center is the stunning Anna Netrebko as Leonora, now happily out of the lyric-coloratura roles in which her personality, rather than technique, shone. She no longer relies more on her glamour than on following and reproducing the score as it is written. Yes the trills don’t always work, but when they do they’re beauties, and her overall performance is committed and thrilling. The voice itself remains lush and beautiful. She acts up a storm – yearning, being frightened, peacefully entering a convent, almost taking marriage vows. And the big arias in the last act (she sings the cabaletta, “Tu vedrai,”), as well as the “Miserere” and the duet with the Count all come across with such star power and allure and with long, high, floated phrases that she takes one’s breath away. It is a great joy to watch a soprano living up to her capabilities, let alone her hype. A brilliant portrayal.

Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee is Leonora’s handsome troubadour, Manrico. The voice has become something glorious – a dark hue in the middle with shining, secure high notes, including a pair of whopping high Cs in “Di quella pira.”  His phrasing and attention to dynamics are unique in this opera – not since the young Pavarotti has the role been so well sung.

Of course, Dolora Zajick’s Azucena still makes one tremble – who else dares to push chest voice up to an A flat? To make up for a falling off of some volume in mid voice (she is in her 60s), her sustained pianissimo singing is lovely. Her Azucena is wild, huge, schizoid and riveting; this was the 50th time Zajick has sung the role at the Met. Dmitri Hvorostovsky bowed out of the role of the Count after three performances for health reasons, and the little-known, young, Ukranian baritone Vitaliy Bilyy has taken his place. His only previous Met assignments have been in Russian opera, but he may be a true Verdi baritone. Without either the charisma or hair of his predecessor, his attractive, well-placed baritone handled the role and its long, legato lines handsomely. If he seemed a bit nervous and out of synch with the orchestra at the start of “Il balen,” he made up for it with the rest of the evening’s work. Štefan Kocán’s dark bass voice added a nasty touch to Ferrando’s storytelling and Maria Zifchak’s sympathetic Inez works well.

Kudos to Marco Armiliato for holding the whole evening together and certainly helping to keep the Italian tradition at the forefront. He is considerate of the singers but fearless in rousing big playing from the stupendous Met orchestra and chorus.