We’re not supposed to like Il trovatore these days. The witch-burning, baby-abducting tale of vengeance and fratricide has often been held up to ridicule as an example of implausibility in opera. These days, when the art form desperately seeks “relevance”, it stumps directors. Yes, the plot is nuts and you do have to pay attention to the backstory narrations to untangle it, but the music! It’s a red-blooded score, packed with what the kids these days call “bangers”. It was thanks to Trovatore that I fell in love with opera – Verdi in particular – and it remains a not-so-guilty pleasure. 

Anna Pirozzi (Leonora), Simon Mechliński (Conte di Luna) and Chorus
© Roberto Ricci

Around the turn of the 20th century, Enrico Caruso wryly observed that the secret to staging Trovatore successfully was easy; all you needed were “the four greatest singers in the world”. The Verdi Festival may not have fielded the four greatest singers, but they could well have fielded the four loudest. Or so it seemed from a box in the tiny Teatro Girolamo Magnani in the small town of Fidenza (midway between Parma and Busseto). Seating only 430, with a small pit restricting the numbers of the Orchestra dell'Emilia Romagna Arturo Toscanini, projection was never going to be a problem, but this didn’t inhibit the principals from adopting the “can belto” school of singing in a turbo-charged performance that was often thunderous, unsubtle… and rather fun. 

Anna Pirozzi (Leonora) and Sally Demonte (Leonora)
© Roberto Ricci

It was quite a coup to secure Anna Pirozzi as Leonora for this opening performance (Silvia Dalla Benetta sings the rest of the run). The Neapolitan soprano has sung the role to acclaim in many of the world’s great opera houses, but she’s also sung plenty of Abigailles and Lady Macbeths too and it rather showed in some frayed edges and squally high notes that flapped wildly. There was agility in her first act cabaletta though and she was at her best in the floated high phrases of “D'amor sull'ali rosee” sung outside Manrico’s prison. 

Enkelejda Shkoza (Azucena)
© Roberto Ricci

Enkelejda Shkoza was also engaged for this single opening performance, having sung Azucena when Elisabetta Courir’s production was new in Parma in 2016. Her mezzo sounded ragged up close, but this rather fits the matriarchal gypsy, whose confused memories about what happened that night she abducted the old Conte di Luna's son fuel the plot. “Stride la vampa”, during which forged blades were passed chain gang style, wobbled but “Condotta ell'era in ceppi”, her narrated backstory to Manrico, was gripping in its intensity. 

Enkelejda Shkoza (Azucena) and Angelo Villari (Manrico)
© Roberto Ricci

Angelo Villari’s teflon-coated tonsils breezed through the role of Manrico, his tenor often thrilling in declamatory fire. He’s about more than just volume though and shaped his nuptial aria “Ah sì, ben mio, coll'essere” to his beloved Leonora with honeyed affection. Ironically, the iconic high C at the end of the rousing cabaletta “Di quella pira”, which should have been plain sailing to Villari, was short and stumpy. 

Polish baritone Simon Mechliński, by far the youngest of the four principals, sang the Conte di Luna, displaying plenty of “blade” in “Il balen del suo sorriso”, even if he did power through it at an unremitting forte. If he can resist applying pedal to the metal, he could be a real prospect. His duet with Pirozzi where Leonora agrees to submit to di Luna, was urgent with passion.

Simon Mechliński (Conte di Luna) and Sally Demonte (Leonora)
© Roberto Ricci

Bass Alessandro Della Morte’s fine diction made much of Ferrando’s opening narration, where Courir has its events re-enacted by members of the MM Contemporary Dance Company (choreography by Michele Merola). One of those members, Sally Demonte, is on stage for most of the evening as Courir has her silently act the role of Leonora, the beautiful young lady-in-waiting with whom both brothers – Manrico and di Luna – are in love. It’s not a terrible idea – I’ve seen far, far worse in Trovatore – and it is adroitly executed. 

Anna Pirozzi (Leonora) and Sally Demonte (Leonora)
© Roberto Ricci

Demonte acted with great sincerity and graceful expression, but in making her the focal point, Courir sidelined Pirozzi’s Leonora into being yet another narrator, parked on one of the blocks of black steps that constitute Marco Rossi’s monochrome set. At times, even Villari wasn’t quite sure to which woman he should be singing. Leonora’s innocence is symbolised by lilies, whose petals are plucked and strewn around the stage; a net studded with them forms the background to her wedding, a moment where singer Leonora briefly connects with her incarnation as a dancer. 

The compact Toscanini orchestra (two cellos, one bass) provided the nut to the singers’ sledgehammer. Sebastiano Rolli conducted with vigour, less so the very genteel anvils played from a side box above the stage. Far from a perfect Trovatore, but a really enjoyable one nonetheless.

***11