First presented in Perth in 2002, West Australian Opera’s Il trovatore (a co-production with Opera Queensland and State Opera of South Australia) is dedicated to the memory of director Elke Neidhardt, and here the stage becomes hers. Caringly powered by rehearsal director Matthew Barclay, Neidhardt’s exquisite direction and fastidious attention to detail generates and propels the drama of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 opera with captivating force, demonstrating a lively interplay between a solid-acting cast and precise timing of onstage action as events harmonise with Verdi's compelling music. Transposed with energetic seamlessness to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, Neidhardt’s Il trovatore is a lesson in directorial rigour, leveraging Verdi's composition with biting freshness and immediacy.

Jennifer Rowley (Leonora) and Rosario La Spina (Manrico) © James Rogers
Jennifer Rowley (Leonora) and Rosario La Spina (Manrico)
© James Rogers

Verdi's four-act opera is presented in two acts separated by one interval, each act consisting of two original parts without loss of the opera's content. This trifling change exemplifies the extent to which detail appears paramount. Act I concludes with such energy as Manrico saves Leonora both from entering the convent and being abducted by Count di Luna, that Verdi’s combined Parts I and II give a sense of jubilant completion under Neidhardt’s direction. The second half, in which hopes are thwarted, revenge and jealousy spiral and everyone is vanquished in one way or another, feels very much like a sequel. 

Neidhardt sculpts each scene with a wealth of breathtaking moments. The slow-motion choreographed assault of the gypsies by di Luna’s forces as Azucena recounts her sensational story, the cheeky regimented undressing of di Luna's new recruits as they jiggle bare-buttocked before slipping into their uniforms, and the masterful, tense pistol duel between Manrico and di Luna are but a few of the directorial highlights which electrify, cajole and intensify the drama.

The detail in the direction is transferred to designer Michael Scott-Mitchell's set, creating a symbiosis with the drama. Suffering the ravages of war as its characters linger in a society smouldering under its brutality, impenetrable-looking brick and stuccoed utilitarian steely-grey edifices loom over events. Spatial expansion and contraction flow with undetectable ease, accompanied by lighting designer Nick Schlieper's astute dramatic flair and a spectrum of chiaroscuro intrigue. Judith Hoddinott's costumes of khaki uniforms, respectably styled period attire and loose-fitting gypsy rags bring equally considered contrast. And the cast delivered.

James Clayton (Conte di Luna) © James Rogers
James Clayton (Conte di Luna)
© James Rogers

Making both her Australian and role debut as Leonora, soprano Jennifer Rowley is large in voice and expressive in range, displaying natural vibrancy and controlled phrasing. Opening with pensive yearning in "Tacea la notte placida", then frolicking with mature, seductive playfulness as she undresses to "Di tale amor", Rowley's Leonora continues to feed every aspect of the drama with heartfelt conviction. Culminating in her duet with di Luna in "Mira, d'acerbe lagrime", Rowley's performance tantalises with gravelly low notes, a broad middle range and feathery light highs. First freezing the performance with theatrical might to pause and weep, Rowley later erupts in a display of ecstatic coloratura as she secretly takes an overdose of pills, giving herself to di Luna in exchange for Manrico’s freedom. 

As Manrico, a revolutionary leader of the flag waving FAI (Federación Anarquista Ibérica), Rosario La Spina powers unabashedly with a warm and volatile, vibrato-lined tenor voice, crisp Italian diction and consistently clean finish. From on and off the stage, La Spina makes size matter, not only projecting with a voluminous, piercing high range and an impressive, resonant, chesty mid range but grabs his role with urgency and agility.

Baritone James Clayton, as Count di Luna never wearied in his jealous quest for Leonora’s being. Quickly warding off initial problems with phrasing, Clayton rises to challenge “Il balen del suo sorriso… Per me ora fatale” with stunningly textured vocal contouring and formidable gravitas, pleading on his knees to us, his audience, to join his attendants in abducting Leonora as he sings of his love for her. Together with his rival Manrico (and the brother he is unaware of), Clayton and La Spina’s explosive relationship is palpably clear.

David Parkin (Ferrando) © James Rogers
David Parkin (Ferrando)
© James Rogers

The ageing, possessed gypsy, Azucena, is hauntingly portrayed by mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Campbell, summoning enough eerily creepy vibrato strength, though exposing serrated fragility in her upper range, to instil fear from the moment she lashes out with “Condotta ell'era in ceppi”. Here as the militant clergyman Ferrando, David Parkin throws competitive weight on his rich, clear and controlled reverberant bass and with Verdi’s ravishing choruses splendidly handled by the West Australian Opera Chorus, including the ever-popular “Anvil Chorus”, the performance is spun with vocal depth. 

In the warm Edwardian embrace of His Majesty’s Theatre, conductor Joseph Colaneri tendered Verdi's grandiose score without resorting to pomposity, supporting the drama with effective tempi and allowing the artists to ride comfortably over the music. Pit and stage alignment momentarily headed south in Act I’s opening scene but from there on Colaneri mustered the artists and musicians of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra to deliver gratifying results. In so doing, Verdi and Neidhardt’s memory are lovingly honoured.