Who would want to be Manrico? In three acts, you sing your heart out and perform the most extraordinary heroics, only to find impending disaster or, eventually, get your head chopped off; the interval of getting the girl is all too brief. The answer to this question, clearly, is Francesco Meli, who has been making the role his own around the world’s great opera houses, reaching Covent Garden last night. As Manrico, Meli is now the finished article: the voice is big, warm and open; the music seems to flow from him with no effort, hitting the difficult notes with confidence and without error; the subtle shifts in phrasing inject urgency and ardour.

"Di due figli": Maurizio Muraro as Ferrando and chorus © ROH / Clive Barda
"Di due figli": Maurizio Muraro as Ferrando and chorus
© ROH / Clive Barda
Il trovatore is more about backstory than action and therefore needs a strong all round cast, capable of convincing you with the storytelling – and that’s precisely what it got last night, from the very beginning. The opening narration “Di due figli” falls to the elderly retainer Ferrando: Maurizio Muraro set the scene with superb diction and forceful, dramatic punch as he describes the burning of “the witch” who we later learn is Azucena’s mother. It’s the only aria Ferrando gets, so Muraro definitely falls into the luxury casting category. The same story is retold in the next act from a very different point of view when Ekaterina Semenchuk’s Azucena sings “Stride la vampa”, after which the opera really came to life in Semenchuk’s duet with Meli, the sparks flying as two powerful voices bounce off each other.

Francesco Meli as Manrico, Lianna Haratounian as Leonora © ROH / Clive Barda
Francesco Meli as Manrico, Lianna Haratounian as Leonora
© ROH / Clive Barda
Both Lianna Haroutounian, as Leonora, and Željko Lučić, as di Luna, showed us impeccable bel canto credentials; neither, however, succeeded in getting fully into character. Haroutounian has a creamy soft soprano: the timbre is attractive, the pitch accurate and the phrasing neatly turned. “Tacea la notte placida” and its ensuing cabaletta were lovely things to listen to in a “sit back in your seat and enjoy the lovely music” sort of way, without quite convincing me that I was listening to a woman enraptured by the memory of burgeoning love in a calm moonlit night. Lučić’s baritone is similarly smooth and it works fine for di Luna to deploy maximum bel canto lyricism in  “Il balen del suo sorriso”, but for the drama to work fully, di Luna needs a dose of brutality that wasn’t quite there in the voice.

Gianandrea Noseda conducted with precision, the orchestra producing some good sounds and extremely well balanced with the singers. For my taste, however, we could have done with a little more Italianate verve and abandon.

Ekaterina Semenchuk as Azucena © ROH / Clive Barda
Ekaterina Semenchuk as Azucena
© ROH / Clive Barda
The best that can be said about David Bösch’s new staging is that it’s relatively inoffensive: there are some reasonable ideas, but the production suffers from all manner of problems of detail. Patrick Bannwart’s setting is appropriately military, with the overall feel being World War II Eastern Front (a large tank, barbed wire, snow). The visuals are strong: we’re in monochrome, but intelligently lit by Olaf Winter with a wide range of greys. There’s a recurring theme of fire to tie everything together – the gypsies’ and the soldiers’ camp fires referring to the pyre on which Azucena’s mother was burnt. I thoroughly disliked Bannwart’s video projections: I just don’t need a Quentin Blake-like sketch of a baby being lowered into the flames to reinforce my understanding of this opera, nor flitting butterflies, nor cutie-pie L♡Ms.

But more importantly, there were innumerable jarring details. To give two examples out of many: why do several of di Luna’s men appear just before the duel? Are they going to just stand around while Manrico all but kills their master? And how come Leonora arrives at the convent a few minutes before her accompanying procession, who are off-stage praying that her veil will shield her at the precise moment that she removes it? In the same scene, Manrico enters alone: wouldn't di Luna seize his chance and make a grab?

© ROH / Clive Barda
© ROH / Clive Barda
The many inconsistencies and a lack of differentiation between the settings for the last three scenes will befuddle anyone who isn’t well on top of the synopsis and the backstory. They’re compounded by a severe lack of acting direction: apart from the chorus numbers, singers didn't interact much or throw themselves into their roles.

I love Il trovatore dearly, and this production (in this casting, at least – I’ll be seeing the B cast on Thursday) is worth seeing for Meli alone, as well as Muraro, generally excellent singing and some good visual tableaux. But that's not enough to make the overall production a real winner.