Il Trovatore has doggedly survived in opera’s hit charts despite dispensing generous quantities of hair-raising as well as eyebrow-raising content. Verdi’s music is intoxicating, of course, but there is something to this work that makes it accessible beyond reasoning. It depicts instincts and strong emotions in an almost Shakespearean way, but the absence of much development in the characters makes their erratic negotiation of recurring problems extremely poignant and archetypal: Azucena, whom Verdi would have liked to have had as the title heroine, is traumatized by the execution of her mother as well as her own crime, whereas Manrico’s lot is to fight, get wounded and stand up again. Leonora and di Luna share the fate that they cannot have whom they want, but while her frustration turns into violence against herself, his goes outward against Manrico.

Philipp Stölzl’s production is intellectually challenging as well as visually interesting, and one sees a clear concept to the stage direction and remarkable choreography by Mara Kurotschka (di Luna’s men dance to Ferrando’s tale of the gipsy and at her arrest, Azucena is dragged around in chains like the bear that is part of the anvil chorus scene). Fascinatingly, this staging blends elements of different periods, so just as the opera is set in Spain around 1400 to mid 19th-century music with partly Baroque poses, this production gets a visual 16th-century commedia dell’arte treatment topped off with surrealistic paintings, looks and moves in part like a comic strip, and is inspired – as the programme states – by the inquiries into hysteria by Freud’s teacher Jean-Martin Charcot. But in the end Il Trovatore shows that society hasn’t progressed from the archaic rule of an eye for an eye: Azucena will burn for burning a child.

The set (by the director and Conrad Moritz Reinhardt) is an open quadrangular room of which one corner is tilted towards the pit; on this incline the quartet of principals often gravitates towards its brink, or, metaphorically, the verge of a nervous breakdown. The two walls of the rooms are each divided into 48 squares that partly open so singers can make their entries or to show the procession of the nuns in the convent from which Manrico abducts Leonora. But what looks like a conventional backdrop at the beginning is soon transformed through the elaborate video work by fettFilm. Miraculously, the squares suddenly change in look and shift or are replaced with excerpts from paintings by Salvador Dalí or René Magritte (like the latter’s famous rose during Manrico’s troubadour song). Predictably, the walls partly collapse to Manrico’s military defeat and are doused with blood as Leonora is dying, only to get busted into cubes and out into a starry universe in the finale.

All this keeps you busy watching, so the singers often seem to turn up out of nowhere (often through the floor). This stresses the playful take on the libretto’s deliberately loose, even incoherent sequence of scenes, for which Ursula Kudrna designed a version of historic costumes with a twist, following the forms of 17th-century fashion (as in Velázquez’s portraits) but also partly reminding one of commedia dell’arte characters. Di Luna and Manrico wear leggings and short breeches, while di Luna’s men sport top hats to black armours and ruffs. Azucena, in her Harlequin-style dress and with hair standing on end, keeps nervously clasping her skirt, whereas Leonora wears an enormous hoop-skirt that is topped at the waist with an equally large ruff that hides the dagger with which she stabs herself instead of drinking the traditional poison. As an analogy, Manrico is stabbed by Luna in the back of the neck, which makes for a both more plausible and spectacular ending than a behind-the-scenes decapitation and a better fit for the tempo of Il trovatore’s short but ghastly climax.

The four Vienna performances have been a test-run for the Staatsoper Berlin, where Daniel Barenboim (with Anna Netrebko and Plácido Domingo) will surely produce more italianità than Omer Meir Wellber, who set out to show “form in Verdi” where the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien would have needed a maestro to drive its members, who don’t play Verdi too often. By contrast, the Arnold Schoenberg Chor gave a self-reliant and classy performance. In the technically difficult part of Leonora, Carmen Giannattasio sometimes lacked suppleness, but surprised with beautiful high pianissimos. Artur Ruciński’s voice wobbled quite a bit in “Il balen”, but he was otherwise a convincing di Luna. Yonghoon Lee produced almost deafening volume for this small house, and though this was impressive, his Manrico, and particularly the troubadour song, needed more honing to lift the vocal performance to another artistic level. As Azucena, Marina Prudenskaya will hopefully bewitch the audience in Berlin as she did in Vienna.