It was quite unexpected. The new production of Il trovatore currently showing at the Dutch National Opera is not the totally over-the-top affair for which La Fura dels Baus might have prepared us. For the Catalan theatre group’s standards, it is visually quite straightforward, albeit still monumental, and the action is simply transposed in time from medieval Spain to the trenches of World War I. Director Àlex Ollé has explained that he had not wanted to shy away from the dark drama of the original story line, which is so often ridiculed as unbelievable. In his opinion, the context of the horror of the Great War – or of any war – is enough to make one believe in a confused mother’s infanticide. The transposition works somehow, and the result is a dark, almost monochromatic staging that mirrors the oppressive darkness of the story.

The Great War is an occasion for costume designer Lluc Castells to make use of an interesting mix of old-world uniforms with more modern accessories but, visually, it is the monumental sets by Aldons Flores that dominate the spectacle. Large rectangular monoliths, several storeys high, occupy the stage. As the performance advances, their height is adjusted up and down by cables, or they are lifted up in the air disclosing gaping pits. Scene after scene, they move to depict the various settings of the action: battlefield trenches, tombstones of a graveyard, a peristyle of a convent or a cell inside a dungeon. At their best, those sets have a striking dramatic effect. “Condotta ell’era in ceppi”, Azucena’s narration of her mother’s death and her baby’s immolation, is staged in a chillingly effective manner: under a menacing stone ceiling, the ether thick with smoke and nightmarish gas-masked visions. However, those sets also considerably impair movement on stage and ensemble scenes often feel very static.

This can also have an upside: the staging never interferes with the singing and the Chorus of Dutch National Opera gave a particularly refined performance. I wish this refinement had been matched in the pit, but unfortunately conductor Maurizio Benini led the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance which too often felt run-of-the-mill.

The soloists, having to negotiate their way between stone monoliths, gaping holes and hanging cables, sometimes appeared left to themselves by rather unimaginative direction. This is unfortunate because vocally, they delivered. On the first night, all of them, down to the (not so) secondary roles of Ferrando (Roberto Tagliavini) and Ines (Florieke Beelen), gave stylish singing performances that greatly compensated for the shortcomings elsewhere. And after all, Il trovatore is a singers’ opera par excellence.

Simone Piazzola is a more subtle Conte di Luna perhaps than the brute he is often portrayed as. This villain is almost touching in his unreciprocated love for Leonora. In “Il balen del suo sorriso”, his baritone displayed attractive warm colours and endless vocal lines. Carmen Giannattasio is a good Leonora. In a role that looks back at the bel canto she is stylistically irreproachable. Her soprano boasts a rich medium capable of the required dark colours, changes of register are smooth and high notes sound easy. “D’amor sull’ali rosee” was sung beautifully and the “Miserere” showed off her innate Italianate diction. I just so wished Benini had given her more space to shine in the cabaletta “Tu vedrai che amore in terra”, as it would have taken her performance just that one step further.

After more than a decade of absence, Violeta Urmana returned to the stage where, under the baton of Riccardo Chailly, she was an unforgettable Amneris and Eboli. After that 2004 Eboli, she has concentrated on the dramatic soprano repertoire, before returning to mezzo roles in recent years. The register passages are not as seamless as they once were and the top unveils some shrillness under pressure, but her performance as Azucena is truly remarkable. She was gut-wrenching in her Act II scene and the dungeon scene between the old gypsy and her son is extremely moving.

Francesco Meli was a triumph as Manrico. The voice had all the qualities one could wish for and he used it in an admirable palette of nuances. His instrument is capable of stunning power, but it is shown at its best in the more lyrical moments. “Ah, sì ben mio, coll' essere io tuo” was a moment of pure grace and won him the loudest applause of the evening.

Strangely, this is the first time Dutch National Opera has staged Il trovatore since 1980. Artistic director Pierre Audi even cancelled a planned production when he first started in his position within the company 27 years ago because he felt the soloists were not right. Tonight's four soloists made it worth the long wait.