Verdi's Il trovatore premiered in 1853, the second of a triad of masterpieces also including Rigoletto and La traviata, written in the composer's middle-career, when he was moving the operatic art form beyond the traditional bel canto standards to newly developed musical and dramatic attainments. It immediately gained an immense popularity, so that in the three years following its première it had some 229 productions worldwide: in Naples, for example, in the first three years it had eleven stagings in six theatres, all performances totalling 190. It still stands as one of the most beloved operas in the standard repertory.

The opera has been accused to have a weirdly implausible plot, but the confusion may rise because the public or stage directors often assume that it is just a love story between Manrico and Leonora (with the Count as a jealous suitor); this was not Verdi’s idea, though, as he considered to call the opera The Gypsy instead of Il trovatore, to highlight the prominence Azucena had in the story, even if he eventually decided to stick with the title of Gutiérrez’s play (from which the libretto was drawn).

Verdi clearly sympathises with the gypsy Azucena, who was the first of many great dramatic mezzo-soprano roles he would depict from this opera on. The gypsy and her mother are evoked in the opera’s very first scene, when Ferrando narrates the backstory about the bewitchment of the old Count of Luna’s younger son, Garzia, by an old gypsy (Azucena’s mother) who had later been caught and burned at the stake. In the ashes of the stake the charred remains of an infant were discovered, assumed to be the count’s son kidnapped by Azucena to avenge her mother. Later on, the backstory is completed by Azucena herself who tells Manrico the terrible secret: asked for revenge by her mother, in an attempt to burn the Count’s son, she threw her own son into the flames instead. And famously the final line of the opera is told by Azucena: "Mother, you are vindicated!”

Muddled as the libretto can be, it is outdone by some of the most magnificent music ever written for operatic singers, presenting bright vocal lines and spellbinding dramaturgical arrangement.  

In this production, Alfred Kim sang Manrico. The Korean tenor's voice was remarkable, though at times it showed more vigour than subtlety. All in all, it was an exciting sound with a core timbre which sounded rather beautiful. As Leonora, soprano Anna Pirozzi deployed a gorgeous, rich tone also providing the fluidity required in this role. Pirozzi is a true Verdi soprano with the richness of tone to challenge the difficult role, whose heights of a dramatic soprano’s range she naturally reached. Her “Tacea la notte”  and “D’amor sull’ali rosee” were beautifully rendered, the cabaletta ensuing the former aria brightly and gracefully articulated.  

Passionate and jealous, the Conte di Luna is one of those Verdi baritone roles famous for the vocal strength they require. For the part was scheduled George Petean, but at the eleventh hour  he was replaced by Simone Piazzola, whose voice proved perfectly suitable to this demanding task and he showed his dominance in this role with a beautifully sung “Il balen del suo sorriso”. 

Enkelejda Shkosa's Azucena sounded vocally tired and sometimes strained on extreme notes. Shkosa doesn’t possess the low contralto-like tones one would expect for the resentful gypsy. So in “Stride la vampa”, she did not give an impressive vocal performance, even though the innate dramatic force of this aria always makes up for any poor execution. Anyhow, Shkosa is a good acting singer and she brought a remarkably depth and dimension to the role. Bass Carlo Cigni appeared supple of voice in Ferrando's narration, and showed an imposing presence. His resounding voice and the men of the San Carlo Chorus masterfully presented the sinister beginning to the evening.

However, the problem was less the singing than the conducting and staging. Conductor Nicola Luisotti led an indecisive account of the score, his choice of tempos swayed throughout, with a seesaw effect. His fluctuating performance did not maintain the right tension throughout the performance, as he oddly slowed down (“Stride la vampa”) or speeded up too much (“Di quella pira”) some of the best lyrical moments. Nonetheless, the San Carlo Orchestra played at their usual proficient level.

Chorus master Marco Faelli, at his first performance in Naples, made a terrific work with his ensemble, particularly with a beautifully sung "Miserere”. Even by their current elevated standard, Faella’s chorus sang with great strength and loud impact, with the soldier’s choruses especially resounding.

As for director Michal Znaniecki, he set the action in an indeterminate 20th century wartime, undecidedly trying to mix up visual suggestions and primeval anguish, without effectively amalgamating his (few) staging ideas. Luigi Scoglio’s settings and the costumes by Giusi Giustino were hindered by the lack of a robust direction, and could only provide the audience with scattered images and raw descriptions, whose overall poor effect was not enhanced by Bogumil Palewicz's atmospheric lighting. Nonetheless, the performance received warm applause from the public, which once more proved that Trovatore has an intrinsic force which fascinates its listeners, no matter the quality of the performance.