According to legendary tenor Enrico Caruso, the recipe for success in Il trovatore is disarmingly simple: “All it takes is the four greatest singers in the world.” An impossible task, perhaps, but we skirted pretty close at the Opéra Bastille last night where a remarkable cast assembled for the Paris première of Àlex Ollé’s curious new La Fura dels Baus staging. Musically, Verdi’s opera requires a “blood and thunder” approach and – on the evidence of this performance – three of the four main singers truly delivered to deserve Caruso’s “world-beating” accolade.

Ludovic Tézier (Count di Luna) and Anna Netrebko (Leonora) © Charles Duprat | Opéra National de Paris
Ludovic Tézier (Count di Luna) and Anna Netrebko (Leonora)
© Charles Duprat | Opéra National de Paris

Ollé’s production is a creation of smoke and mirrors – imposing and sombre. Civil war in 15th century Spain is transposed to the German trenches of the First World War. Alfons Flores’ titanic set features giant rectangular blocks that rise and fall into the stage: sometimes they are decorated with crosses to become war graves or the convent; sometimes imprisoning Manrico and his mother Azucena in their cell; sometimes rising to the flies altogether to loom above the Count di Luna’s troops in their trenches. It is clearly referenced on Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, a claustrophobic labyrinth of concrete blocks of varying height. Ollé’s gypsies are refugees, fleeing their country to seek safety.

Part III © Charles Duprat | Opéra National de Paris
Part III
© Charles Duprat | Opéra National de Paris

In referencing the plight of the Jews in the Second World War, Ollé attempts to give the plot of Trovatore a depth it doesn’t necessarily warrant. Trovatore is a convoluted opera, reliant on back-story narrative and remarkable coincidences, parodied in the Marx Brothers’ film A Night at the Opera. However weighty the director’s treatment, it’s difficult to suppress a smile when Leonora mistakes the Count for her lover, or when the injured Manrico – stretchered in to the gypsy camp – leaps up moments later, fit as a fiddle, to go and save Leonora from taking the veil. Most of the real “action” in the opera takes place off-stage, but the end of Part II, where di Luna’s ambush at the convent is counter-ambushed by Manrico, was effectively staged.

Problems with the set gnawed away at me during the evening. The wires to raise and lower the blocks are numerous and make negotiating the stage treacherous. You can appreciate why the singers tread cautiously and it certainly inhibits movement. More damaging was the giant mirror at the rear. Yes, it gives greater depth to the building block maze, but it also means you are often aware of an extra figure in your field of vision – conductor Daniele Callegari’s head merrily bobbing up and down in the mirror, delivering his cues. Thank goodness Trovatore is largely a nocturnal opera – inject any light onto this set and you would see the Bastille’s glamorous audience reflected on stage.

Anna Netrebko (Leonora) © Charles Duprat | Opéra National de Paris
Anna Netrebko (Leonora)
© Charles Duprat | Opéra National de Paris

Musically, this was a superb performance, easily the finest Trovatore I have heard live. Callegari has full measure of Verdi’s score, keeping a taut rein on tempi. Anna Netrebko’s career as a Verdi soprano continues to soar. She has sung the role of Leonora in Berlin, Salzburg and New York and has it completely under her skin. Her lower register – flecked with mezzo tints – is luscious, especially evident in “Tacea la notte placida”. She has largely tamed her coloratura to deliver cabalettas stylishly. Netrebko’s exquisite diminuendos and arching phrases shaped a tremendous “D’amor sull’ali rosee”, one of the evening’s undisputed highlights.

Ludovic Tézier (Count di Luna) © Charles Duprat | Opéra National de Paris
Ludovic Tézier (Count di Luna)
© Charles Duprat | Opéra National de Paris
The other came courtesy of Ludovic Tézier, singing the Count di Luna. Silky smooth rather than refulgent, he is an enormously stylish baritone. “Il balen del suo sorriso” was truly magnificent – ardent, sensitively phrased – and rightly brought the house down. If Leonora had heard this declaration of love, surely she would have dumped Manrico!

Marcelo Álvarez has all the ingredients for a superb Manrico – bright, bullish tone, dramatic attack – and sang with passion all evening. “Di quella pira” was unusually disappointing; a showstopper, it found Álvarez pulling up on high notes three times. He missed Thursday’s general rehearsal, so hopefully he’ll return to form later in the run. Ekaterina Semenchuk has all the firepower for Azucena, the vengeful gypsy. She can summon tremendous depth and vocal power, yet she is more than a blaster; she scales down her powerful mezzo tenderly, always alert to the text. With sturdy support from Roberto Tagliavini’s Ferrando, this is as fine a Trovatore cast as any international house can muster.

Despite the sombre staging, it’s the vocal fire that blazes bright in this impressive Trovatore