To avoid repeating the contents of previous reviews, let’s get two things out of the way: (1) Il trovatore is one of my favourite operas. (2) I didn’t like David Bösch’s Royal Opera staging the first time and repeated viewings serve merely to reinforce my irritation at the details (although, to be fair, the bulk of the awful cartoon animations have been excised from this revival). So this review is going to be almost entirely about the singing.

Under the baton of Richard Farnes, the Covent Garden orchestra turned in a solid performance. Tension was maintained, rubato and variation in dynamics deftly handled, balance with the singers was good.

Anita Rachvelishvili (Azucena) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Anita Rachvelishvili (Azucena)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Amidst a generally good cast, one singer stood out: Anita Rachvelishvili as Azucena. She does extraordinary things with her voice: pianissimi that are hushed to a whisper still penetrate the whole hall, and then shift to terrifying high notes with complete control. Her “Stride la vampa” put goosebumps on my flesh, her duets with Gregory Kunde’s Manrico were filled with urgency and drama, the sweetness of “Ai nostri monti” was heartbreaking. It’s hard to believe that Rachvelishvili’s role debut was just a couple of months ago: here is an Azucena that can hold her own in any company.

Kunde’s tenor doesn’t have a timbre that I’m naturally drawn to, but I can’t fault the way he tackled the role. Phrases came out with nice bel canto contours, there was plenty of expression in the voice – including in some of Verdi’s more implausible recitative passages, where other tenors give up – and he had plenty of power for the big moments without sounding strained.

Anita Rachvelishvili (Azucena) and Gregory Kunde (Manrico) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Anita Rachvelishvili (Azucena) and Gregory Kunde (Manrico)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Kunde has improved in the role since I saw him last year, and so has Lianna Haroutounian as Leonora. The creamy tone for big arias like “Tacea la notte placida” has now grown from a demonstration of beautiful singing into something more heartfelt, the recitative “O dolci amiche” more fervent as she approaches the altar, her reunion with Manrico, “È questo un sogno, un'estasi”, more joyful. However, the performance had its imperfections: the complex decoration of the cabaletta “Di tale amor” were not handled well; Haroutounian is clearly more comfortable singing in an expansive legato.

Many of those booking for this performance will have been hoping to see Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who withdrew in December due to ill health. Everyone will be wishing him well. Making his Royal Opera debut, it’s unsurprising that Vitaliy Bilyy doesn’t quite have Hvorostovsky’s star quality, but this was a very promising start to his Covent Garden career. The Count di Luna is a tricky role to balance: too polished a legato and you fail to bring across the man’s villainous nature; too harsh and guttural and you miss out on the gorgeousness of an aria like “Il balen del suo sorriso”. For me, Bilyy got it just about spot on; I’ll be looking forward to hearing more of him.

Lianna Haroutounian (Leonora) and Vitaliy Bilyy (Conte di Luna) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Lianna Haroutounian (Leonora) and Vitaliy Bilyy (Conte di Luna)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Another promising Ukrainian, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, sang the bass role of Ferrando. It’s another tricky role. Ferrando has to come straight out of the blocks because after a very short prelude, his opening narration, “Di due figli”, is a barnstormer that sets the scene for the whole opera – after which he gets very little to do for the remainder. Tsymbalyuk delivered it with force, marred only by a few oddities of phrasing and the fact that his voice is somewhat young for the role – as are his looks. For the second Verdi opera in a row at Covent Garden, I found myself wishing that the make-up department had done something to prevent Ferrando and Azucena from looking younger than Manrico and Di Luna, who are supposed to be the age of their children.

For a production that was last staged as recently as last July, this run of Il trovatore is getting a substantial number of performances, and the Royal Opera management’s faith is being repaid in that every performance has been virtually sold out.  Whatever my reservations about the staging, it remains a great opera which is being well played and sung.