Following the central premise of Romeo and Juliet, Il trovatore realises a scenario in which vengeance passes from generation to generation and destroys innocent love along the way. The plot is famously complicated and received wisdom holds that the propulsive score calls for high-powered vocalism, though in the self-styled world capital of music these shouldn’t be reasons for neglecting one of Verdi’s most striking operas for 13 years (the Staatsoper), or indeed 50 (the Volksoper).

Chariklia Mavropoulou © Barbara Palffy / Volksoper
Chariklia Mavropoulou
© Barbara Palffy / Volksoper

But since 2013 marks a much-publicised Verdi anniversary, the Viennese have been treated to two new productions this season: Philipp Stölzl’s pacey, offbeat deconstruction for the Festwochen that will open in Berlin next week, and this Volksoper co-production with the Theater Bonn where the curtain goes down after every scene. The underlying concepts are indeed as far apart as these details might indicate, with the Volksoper eschewing the genuinely unconventional in favour of a more-or-less traditional presentation window-dressed with a smattering of inconsequential “modern” touches. The very mixed audience reaction to directors Dietrich W. Hilsdorf and Ralf Budde suggests that putting old wine in new bottles is not necessarily the surefire way to please everybody that is sometimes assumed. But despite the general timidity and underwhelming execution, the production is not entirely absent of thought, and, while some ideas don’t work, others work very well.

There are a few meaningful metaphors, like the image of a Virgin Mary with child in the gypsy hideaway where Azucena (and later Manrico) sing behind a barred window. To have Manrico, concealed under a cloth, hide himself in plain sight on a life-size crucifix in Leonora’s convent, is both interesting in itself and thematically associated with the plot, since the Christ figure is brought back in for the closing of the divine judgment scene. Comical Zorro masks and hats make Leonora’s mistaking of di Luna for Manrico a little bit more credible, and yet Manrico’s and di Luna’s duel scene takes place not in a park but amid the late 19th-century furnishings of Leonora’s room, a location shift that goes unexplained and looks all the more awkward for them clambering up to this space with a ladder.

With it unintentionally looking as if Leonora not only poisons herself but also Manrico, other basic stage business of the opera is similarly confusing. The cartoonish depictions of violence strike a tasteless note, too, going to show how difficult it can be for traditional productions to handle the more unsavoury aspects of operatic texts. All in all, the production passes as solid and tells the story well enough, but communicating the plot is not the point of this opera. It’s about drama, climax after climax, and the abyss of the human soul.

There are two casts for this production, but illness unluckily took out both Azucenas – in Janina Baechle’s case, just a few hours before this première. As it turned out, last-minute substitute Chariklia Mavropoulou, who sang in the same production in Bonn a year ago, was the highlight of the evening, acting and singing like she had been through all the rehearsals. Her voice reminded me a bit of a low version of Caballé with more vibrato and only a hint of strain in some top notes. Melba Ramos as Leonora was a bit nervous at first but gave a very enjoyable performance. Enrico Caruso’s debatable but often-quoted opinion that it takes the four greatest singers in the world for Il trovatore is a curse which often seems to lead houses to cast the loudest instead of the most adequate available – a bit like taking a truck on the mountain road when you’d have more fun with a four-by-four; or at least that’s what came to my mind when listening to Stuart Neill’s square-shouldered Manrico. His focus was all on volume, and the famous “stretta” went very well but the rest suffered from insecure intonation, as did Tito You’s di Luna throughout. As Enrico Dovico in the pit didn’t shine either, it was Yasushi Hirano’s excellent Ferrando that saved male honour for the night. The chorus delivered their hit numbers with verve.

***11