Simultaneously one of the most loved and most mocked operas in the canon, Il trovatore has some of Verdi’s catchiest melodies set to one of his silliest plots. Against the backdrop of a 15th-century Spanish war, a cast of nobles, gypsies, nuns and soldiers enact a drama which hinges on that hoariest of dramatic clichés: children swapped at birth. The hyper-romantic tale includes a serenade, a duel, a love-triangle, an elopement from a convent, an obsessive gypsy mother, a hero who is constantly rushing off to rescue people, a villain who abuses his power in pursuing his love, a heroine who will take the veil or poison to solve her problems, and ends with a suicide and an off-stage beheading for two of the principals, while the other two face life-long remorse and burning at the stake, respectively. And yet, this congeries of gothic improbabilities works, somehow. Welcome to Opera-land.

In Opera Australia’s current production, created by Elke Neidhardt in 1999, the action has been brought forward half a millennium, to the Spanish civil war. The parallels work fairly well: the romantic rebel outcasts, Manrico and the gypsies, are rebranded as republicans, while di Luna and his cronies become the ultimately victorious nationalists. The set was cleverly designed: a battle-scarred wall on three sides was given a modernist feel by the haphazard arrangement of windows of different sizes at various heights. The back wall could be moved up- or down-stage or hinged open in the middle, allowing for efficient transitions between different set-ups. For instance, the opening scene was played with the wall set far down stage, looming over Ferrando’s tale of the gypsy’s curse; while at the abortive wedding in Act III, the back separated slightly and the light filtered through the cracks in the shape of a cross. Most effective of all was the convent scene in Act II, where the windows were filled initially by religious iconography, before these moved to reveal nuns holding candles. (Note: I’m using the original four-act divisions, although last night’s playbill listed it as being in two acts.) The final prison scene took place in a room high up on the back wall, an effectively claustrophobic combination of shop window and psychiatric ward.

Some elements in the story were changed: Inez, Leonora’s maid, becomes her “sister and confidante” (their first scene is like a slumber party, where she is in bed while Leonora undresses), while Ferrando is transformed from a captain of the guard into a biretta-wearing priest (leading to the bizarre sight of a priest as one of the party trying to carry off Leonora from the convent). All this happens in the era of firearms rather than swords, of course, and so the altercation between di Luna and Manrico involved some fairly unconvincing by-play whereby Leonora aids in disarming the gun-toting di Luna (well, Manrico wasn’t going to accomplish much with a blade about the size of a kitchen knife).

The famous anvil chorus didn’t have any visible anvils: instead the cast were engaged in the grisly task of moving corpses around. The FAI insignia indicated that these were anarchists – to the initiated; I couldn’t get beyond “Football Association of Ireland”. It wasn’t clear why the chorus suddenly started moving in slow-motion during Azucena’s “Stride la vampa” which followed, as it isn’t one of those operatic numbers that really do happen outside time, the expansion of a single moment.

A moment of light relief was provided immediately after the interval in the barracks scene. While some singers did more or less impressive physical activities (one-handed push-ups from one show-off), the new recruits stripped down – yes, fully – and a somewhat intimate medical check-up was mimed. The audience certainly seemed to enjoy the brief gratuitous nudity, and the inevitable restiveness wasn’t a problem during so catchy a chorus as “Squilli, echeggi la tromba”. Other innovations were more problematic. It has become traditional to cut one of the verses of “Di quella pira”, but here Leonora left the stage before it started (in upper-class shock at discovering that Manrico was the son of a gypsy? or just to change into her red dress for Act IV?), which meant that his explanation of why he was going to have to leave her was dramatically rather redundant.

My favourite singer on the night was Michael Honeyman, who especially excelled in di Luna’s lyrical number “Il balen”. The tenor, Arnold Rawls, delivered his part with gusto, and gave us the unwritten (but almost obligatory) top C in “Di quella pira”. Milijana Nikolic was mesmerizingly intense, especially in her Act II narration. Least impressive to my ears was Daria Masiero as Leonora, but she improved by Act IV. Among the comprimari, Richard Anderson was an able Ferrando, and Sian Pendry was effective as Inez. The orchestra was on pretty good form: tuning was sound and under Arvo Volmer the coordination with the singers was tight. Special praise is also due to the chorus, busier here than in many a production, with the staccato “Ardir, andiam” particularly delicious. A couple of opening-night snags will hopefully be remedied in later shows: the bed in Act I didn’t retract smoothly, and the surtitles vanished on more than one occasion. Still, this was a worthy production, although hardly a classic. After fourteen years, time for a change, maybe?