In recent years, Chelsea Opera Group has become well known for its work in the rarer repertoire, so its concert performance of Verdi’s Il trovatore at the Cadogan Hall was a departure from the norm.

Marianne Cornetti © Suellen Fitzsimmons
Marianne Cornetti
© Suellen Fitzsimmons
Premiered in 1853, Trovatore was an immediate success, the bewildering and fantastical plot a perfect fit for Verdi's musical and theatrical instincts, unleashing some of his most popular and most tuneful music. The story, though it tries as hard as it can to be tragic, cannot be viewed without incredulous laughter. One advantage of a concert performance of the work is that any questions of staging are dismissed and one can focus entirely on the music. A classic example of his 'galley years', the opera is famous for its need for four spectacular singers, and this has generally restricted productions to major companies which can afford to take such dents in their budget; consequently an initial concern was whether COG would have the resources to assemble such a cast.

In Marianne Cornetti, we had a sensational Azucena. She has sung the role throughout the world and her assumption of the part at this performance was total. She delivered a masterclass in concert performance: singing entirely from memory, she dominated the stage, writhing and glaring and somehow making one forget that Azucena must win the prize for worst mother in the whole of opera. Her voice is enormous – in many respects too big for Cadogan Hall – and her higher register remains as fresh as ever. Cornetti handled the top notes with ease, displaying fine breath control and particularly exquisite raw colouring at the lower levels. My only very minor criticism is that once or twice sheer volume dwarfed any subtlety in her expression. "Condotta ell'era in ceppi" was a superb piece of vocal acting; Cornetti vividly brought Azucena's mental instability to voice.

Sally Silver was a moving Leonora and handled the demands of the role well. Her top notes verged on the shrill at times, but her tone was generally of sufficient purity for the part and she coped with the coloratura reasonably well. Leonora's showcase aria "D'amor sull'ali rosee", often deployed by soprano legends, is phenomenally difficult, but Silver brought both technical skill and great emotion to it, and justified the applause she received. A slight irritant in stage manner was that whilst she very admirably tried to avoid the music stand by placing it to one side, at areas where she was uncertain she often turned her head to consult it for extended periods, to the detriment of many on the other side.

Baritone Roland Wood's Conte di Luna left me marginally conflicted. Though possessed of an unusually strong high register, there is a slight fogginess to his voice that I found mildly unpleasant. That said, he clearly knew the part backwards; like Cornetti he was unencumbered by a music stand, and he brought a degree of vocal nuance to what an often unsubtly interpreted part. His trio "In braccio al mio rival" with Cornetti and Jihoon Kim was one of the highlights of the evening.

Jonathan Stoughton was an unmemorable Manrico. Unlike the others, he seemed dramatically uninvolved for much of the performance and relied heavily on his music stand which saw more of him than the audience did. His voice has a not unappealing lightness to it, but at this performance seemed unsuitable for the demands of the role.

Seeing Jihoon Kim’s name on a programme always makes me optimistic; possessed of that classic combination of hefty gravity and fruitiness, he is rarely disappointing. Kim seemed slightly stretched by the quicker parts of his early aria “Di due figli vivea padre beato”, but compensated with superb phrasing and characterful diction. In the minor roles of Ines and Ruiz, Natasha Jouhl and Samuel Smith made the most of what little music they have, though Jouhl had a somewhat awkward stage presence next the dynamism of Silver.

The COG Chorus sang as enthusiastically as ever, though their male section has started to sound rather dry in tone, and a number seemed a half beat behind the majority. Andrew Greenwood drew some decent playing from the COG orchestra, though his tempi were occasionally more lethargic than was ideal. The brass coped well with the demands of Verdi’s barrage, and there was some supple playing from the strings. If only someone had told the rather enthusiastic ‘blacksmith’ that the size of the hall was not equal to the volume and force of his hammering!