By nature, the Vienna State Opera Orchestra isn’t long on self-restraint. With a big, thrilling score and a conductor who pushes it, there’s always the danger that things are always going to get seriously loud, and on a bad night, the singers can be destroyed. The première of the Staatsoper’s new Il trovatore was not a bad night. 

Roberto Alagna (Manrico) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Roberto Alagna (Manrico)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

Verdi’s music is brim full of driving, rousing, insistent rhythms, and Marco Armiliato, conducting by heart, strove to get the impact out of every accent. The orchestral sound was continuously thrilling and, yes, loud. But we had a group of singers with huge voices, none of whom were in any danger of being swamped.

Ludovic Tézier (Conte di Luna) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Ludovic Tézier (Conte di Luna)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Notwithstanding the star quality of the pairing of Roberto Alagna and Anna Netrebko, the performance that impressed me most on the night was Ludovic Tézier’s Conte di Luna. On top of impeccable technique and intonation, his voice is strong, melodious, with a richness that combines velvet and steel: in another world and another time, this is a man whom Leonora might have loved.

The expectations of Netrebko are exalted, these days, but she fulfilled every one. What makes Leonora such a difficult role is the range of voice types required: a romantic aria like “Tacea la notte placida” requires expansive legato, but is then followed immediately by a cabaletta which is a vehicle for rapid fire coloratura. The Miserere requires repeated forceful accenting at the very lowest end of her range. Netrebko negotiated every one of these with apparent ease: in the coloratura, she sparkled, while the legato bathed us in the beauty of her timbre. “D'amor sull'ali rosee”, sung as she hopes to waft comfort to the imprisoned Manrico, was the highlight of the evening, showing Netrebko’s voice at its most pure and stopping the show for protracted applause.

Anna Netrebko (Leonora) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Anna Netrebko (Leonora)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Roberto Alagna nearly missed the show with a cold and needed the assistance of a hip flask of (we presume) water to get through the top notes on “Di quella pira”. Other than those top notes being a fraction held back, you wouldn’t have known there was a problem. Alagna portrays Manrico as a musician first and a warrior second: there is an immensely appealing ease to his voice as he follows the smooth contours of Verdi’s melodies. A purist might complain at the amount of portamento, but that’s a cavil: Alagna amply demonstrated why his voice is so thrilling as a romantic hero.

The biggest voice of our four main singers may well belong to Luciana D’Intino. The orchestra was pumped up to high intensity for the backing of Azucena’s “Stride la vampa”, but D’Intino was well on top of them, grabbing the audience by the scruff of the neck. My one complaint is of a tendency to veer sharp on the most powerful high notes. As Ferrando, Jongmin Park got things off to a flying start in “Di due figli”, which also showed off the quality of the chorus.

Roberto Alagna (Manrico) and Anna Netrebko (Leonora) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Roberto Alagna (Manrico) and Anna Netrebko (Leonora)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

Set in the 1930s Spanish Civil War, Daniele Abbado’s staging is straightforward and stylish. Designer Graziano Gregori splits the stage in two: for the front half, a single set is maintained throughout, arched with pillars and balconies. A large shutter serves to screen the rear half for scene changes and, cleverly, to provide acoustic help for the singers: when Netrebko turns and sings with her back to the audience as she gazes up towards the imprisoned Manrico, you hardly notice a drop in level. The back half of the stage provides a variety of staircase, church entrances and other features.

Centre stage: Luciana D'Intino (Azucena) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Centre stage: Luciana D'Intino (Azucena)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Abbado is not trying to tell some different story of his own; rather, everything that he does is to provide visual background material while always maintaining focus on the singers – at no point does he forget that Il trovatore is principally an opera about their motivations and moods. The acting of the principals is credible without being exaggerated. The background events are appropriate: the rebels extracting weapons stashed in various corners of their church; the nuns preparing the effigy of the dead Christ that Leonora will kiss as part of her initiation to the convent; both sides of the conflict claiming that God and Christ are on their side. At the end of Act II, the appearance of Manrico’s men to disarm Di Luna is handled with great theatrical effect, with a great freeze frame during the great trio that closes the act.

With orchestral playing at its most virtuosic, a sympathetic production and an outstanding set of singers, this evening has become the gold standard by which I shall judge future Verdi productions.