What do you get when you have a woman being burnt on the stake and her daughter tosses a baby – the wrong baby – on the pyre? The correct answer is Giuseppe Verdi’s incredible melodrama Il Trovatore.

The Canadian Opera Company’s production (borrowed from Opéra de Marseille) eschews melodramatic displays but does provide some thrills. There are also a few gaffes but overall the production does credit to Verdi.

The singing kudos goes to South African soprano Elza van den Heever as Leonora. She has a good stage presence and gives us a lovely and tortured heroine. She achieves controlled fragility and vocal splendour. When she sings pianissimo and you are afraid that her voice may crack, it takes wings and slowly soars with indelible beauty. It’s like a white dove slowly opening its wings and rising towards the sky. She can be dramatic as well and gives a well-rounded performance of the first order.

Canadian baritone Russell Braun cuts a dashing figure as the Comte di Luna, the “bad guy” of the opera. In a military uniform with an elegant cape, he looks every inch an officer and a nobleman. His commanding presence and assured movements are aided and abetted by his vocal prowess. He sings with resonance and displays complete control of the role. This is in sharp contrast to his opponent Manrico, the troubadour, but more about him later.

Azucena, the gypsy woman, is a juicy role and in the hands of the right mezzo-soprano, she can almost upstage the soprano. She is the woman who, in horrible confusion, tosses her own baby on the pyre. She is a woman full of passionate hatred. She wants revenge for what was done to her mother and what she did to her chid. All of that must come out in her acting and singing. In the hands of Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina it does. She crouches around the stage like an almost demented woman and she drips venom vocally. She is also capable of tenderness, as displayed in her final scene with Manrico.

Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas is a disappointment as Manrico. He is physically overshadowed by di Luna and his simple black outfit does not help. But the real complaint is about his singing and acting. He appeared lost physically and vocally. At times he was almost overwhelmed by the orchestra and he never managed to soar through those long, arched phrases with which Verdi provides him. He did rise to passion and tenderness in the final scene with Azucena but that was too late.

The production is by French director Charles Roubaud and set designer Jean-Noël Lavesvre. Il Trovatore is ostensibly set in 15th-century Aragon but nothing in the sets or costumes gave that away. I have no idea in what century the action in this production takes place. The military uniforms, the epaulets and the muskets could represent any number of eras.

The opening scene is described variously as a vestibule in the palace by the quarters of di Luna or the guardroom. In this production, we find ourselves in the soldiers’ barracks with cots arranged in two neat rows. The soldiers wear long-johns or knee-length underwear and they are in bed or taking a bath. Interesting but a bit unsettling and unconvincing.

The soldiers’ cots are just about all the props that we will see except for some paraphernalia to make the Anvil Chorus sound “anvilly”. There are bare walls on the sides lit variously between dark and grey tones and the rear of the stage has a light panel for sunrise for the “outside” scenes. Aside from that, there are a couple of large panels with views of mountains for the palace garden where we first meet Leonora and her servant Ines (well sung by Tunisian mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb).

“Spartan” is perhaps the best adjective for the sets, because it carries the compliment of intelligent economy and the slight of parsimony. And speaking of parsimony, when Manrico and di Luna decide to duel, they both reach for tiny daggers. Surely, they could have been give decent-sized swords!

Marco Guidarini conducted the COC Orchestra and Chorus. He maintained a fine, balanced tempo, avoiding the frenetic pace that one can slide into with Verdi’s score.