Sir David McVicar has become the predilect director of the Peter Gelb era at the Metropolitan Opera. In the current season, no fewer than four different productions – Norma, Cavalleria rusticana/Pagliacci, Tosca and Il trovatorebear his signature. His style matches best the General Manager’s goal of bringing gradual changes to the list of Met’s productions without upsetting its conservative donor base too much. McVicar is not a radical, Regietheater type of director. He might change some circumstances here and there, but he is not going to move the action to a spaceship. On the other hand, his fluid directorial style is anchored by a vision and he is not impervious to fresh ideas. His well-crafted mise-en-scènes reverberate with many meaningful details.

Yonghoon Lee (Manrico) and Chorus
© Karen Almond | Metropolitan Opera

The current production of Trovatore dates from 2009, having been first mounted several years earlier at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. It was actually McVicar’s Met debut. The action takes still place on the Iberian Peninsula, but the director changed the time from the 15th century to the first years of the 19th, the period of the Napoleonic Wars. There is absolutely no harm in this revision, but neither is it of too much help in making more palatable a libretto as full of foolishness and unbelievable events as any other. The production is supposed to reference Goya’s cycle of etchings The Disasters of the War but, besides an enlarged detail from A Pilgrimage to San Isidro, a mural from La Quinta del Sordo, there is very little of Goya’s imagery floating around. It is true though that, similar to the pervading mood in Goya’s late works, the scenery is bleak and depressing, with very little color in Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes for gypsies and soldiers alike. Charles Edwards' rotating set allows the huge initial rampart with a long flight of stairs to quickly metamorphose into Leonora’s apartments, a gypsy encampment, a cloister or an enclosure with an immolation stake.

The set was truly effective in following the fast pace of the action. What was less successful was the moving around of vast number of choristers, occasional dancers and supernumeraries. Some of the scenes – the famous “Anvil Chorus” is a good example – were as crowded and as full of potentially distracting details as a Zeffirelli production. Neither were the stage entrances of the main characters and their interactions handled on the imaginative side.

Jennifer Rowley (Leonora) and Quinn Kelsey (Conte di Luna)
© Karen Almond | Metropolitan Opera

Despite its preposterous plot, with its mixed-up babies, poisonous potions and unassuaged hatred between brothers who don’t recognize each other, Il trovatore is such a big success with the public because of its superb vocal and orchestral music, ravishing multiple melodies and fast paced score. Marco Armiliato kept a firm grip on the orchestra, pushing the action forward with crisp rhythms while underlying the elements of counterpoint. The coordination between pit and stage was almost flawless. He supported the singers well, making sure that the orchestra’s “voice” rose to the proper level when needed.

In the title role of the troubadour, Manrico, tenor Yonghoon Lee sang with unbridled enthusiasm and assuredness especially his declamatory “Di quella pira”, where he also tended to pose in an old-fashioned way. Gentler passages where not as successful, lacking color. As his brother and bitter rival, Count di Luna, baritone Quinn Kelsey dispatched “Il balen del suo sorriso” with beautiful legato and nobility of sound. He was less able to convey the character’s evil side, his obsessive need for revenge. The demanding role of Leonora, the unhappy love interest of both brothers, was interpreted by Jennifer Rowley. She possesses a medium-weight soprano voice with a clear and consistent tone. As the evening progressed, she seemed more and more attuned to her character. If her “Tacea la note placida” lacked a certain flexibility, she moved with ease from the delicate “D'amor sull'ali rosee” to the chest voice in the following Miserere. In the role of Ferrando, bass Štefan Kocán displayed an admirable mellifluous voice.

Anita Rachvelishvili (Azucena) and Yonghoon Lee (Manrico)
© Karen Almond | Metropolitan Opera

Towering above all the others was the phenomenal Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili. Not only did she display an amazing dynamic range, but she also proved to be a great actress, portraying with eloquence the volatility of the confused gypsy. Her low voice has the full power of a contralto, but she can easily impart terror with her high register too. At the same time, her instrument has an unbelievable sweetness. “Stride la vampa” and “Ai nostri monti” were extremely effective. With singers like her, the future of bel canto seems assured.