There are many contenders for the title of “most implausible opera plot”, but Il trovatore has to be one of the best candidates. Azucena’s accidental murder of her own baby, Manrico’s coincidentally becoming his brother’s romantic rival, Leonora’s inability to tell the difference between her lover and the scheming Count – these are just a few of the opera’s absurdities. But Il trovatore remains a centerpiece of the repertoire in spite of these plot weaknesses, thanks to Verdi’s ravishing music.

Act II © Wilfried Hösl
Act II
© Wilfried Hösl

The Bayerische Staatsoper’s current production also owes its success to the music. It’s not that the staging is bad. On the contrary, director Oliver Py wisely recognizes the opera’s flaws and runs with them, making surprising decisions that are ultimately justified by the text. Leonora’s blindness startles at first, but it actually makes sense of her difficulty distinguishing between the Count and Manrico in Act I. Similarly, Manrico’s odd childishness and complicated relationship with Azucena (they kiss on the lips, but she also tries to tie him up, and he nearly strangles her in Act IV) is probably reflective of her own mixed feelings towards him, as both her foster-son and the son of her mother’s murderer.

Pierre-Andre Weitz’s sets and costumes are stylish, with a steampunk feel. Azucena sports a top hat and petticoats, and Manrico initially wears a bizarre sparkly diamond-patterned waistcoat. Gears whirl at the sides of the stage, and a train engine makes an appearance for the famous anvil chorus. Priests in white robes with pointed hoods remind the audience of the opera’s Spanish setting (though American viewers will likely think of the KKK). Nudity is used, but sparingly – mostly as an indication of Azucena’s mother’s vulnerability. The doomed mother appears on-stage both to re-enact her death as it is recounted and to join Azucena and Manrico as they await their own deaths. Her presence is an effective way to be sure the audience understands and remembers the important backstory that drives the plot, but it’s also unnecessary: every member of this cast sings and acts expressively enough to tell the story clearly.

Anja Harteros led the cast as Leonora, and she was more wonderful than I can possibly say. She tackled the challenge of playing a blind Leonora believably without letting blindness become Leonora’s driving character trait (that would be determination). And her voice! Effortless legato, occasional fireworks, expressive phrasing – Harteros has them all. On top of that, her beauty and grace lent extra credibility to her portrayal of a young, universally beloved heroine. Luckily for us, she was well-matched by Yonghoon Lee’s Manrico. His resonant, slightly nasal tenor took a little getting used to, but he definitely knows how to use it. His sound was always smooth, and he made his top notes seem easy (even in “Di quella pira”). Lee’s skilled – if occasionally overdrawn – acting also made Manrico unusually complicated, torn between brash courage and paralyzing uncertainty.

Anja Harteros (Leonora) and Golda Schultz (Ines) © Wilfried Hösl
Anja Harteros (Leonora) and Golda Schultz (Ines)
© Wilfried Hösl

As Azucena, Anna Smirnova showed off an intense, dark mezzo. She carried a lot of vocal weight even into higher passages, which added to the richness of her sound. “Stride la vampa” was especially beautiful, and also allowed her to display her understated but effective acting style. The object of her revenge, the Conte di Luna, was sung strongly by Vitaliy Bilyy. His Conte had a delightful spark of scheming villainy without venturing into panto territory. In a less stellar cast, he’d probably have been the highlight of the opera, but here, he didn’t stand out.

Maestro Paolo Carignani set tempi that fitted the story and kept the orchestra precisely in time. The Staatsorchester produced a fabulous, full sound without ever overwhelming the singers. The strings in Act II were a particular highlight.

Nothing will make the plot of Il trovatore less ridiculous. But a director who embraces that ridiculousness, plus stellar playing and singing, make for a great show.