Il trovatore is well known by its audience for its signature choruses and by opera companies for the absolute need to secure four good singers to make it work. Happily, Scottish Opera has assembled a particularly strong cast for this re-directed 1992 production which caught fire with Swedish conductor, Tobias Ringborg stoking up musical excitement from the orchestra in the pit.

Claire Rutter (Leonora) and Roland Wood (di Luna) © KK Dundas
Claire Rutter (Leonora) and Roland Wood (di Luna)
© KK Dundas

In a sparse set, Tim Hatley’s original designs of austere sections of high curved wooden walls were trundled to and fro to create the different scenes. The overall bleakness was tempered by Robert Dickson’s subtle lighting washes and use of clever shadow projections of onstage characters spookily enlarged in silhouette like a magic lantern show. In an opera which is, set pieces apart, fairly short on stage action, the sombre setting threw the spotlight firmly on the music and singers.

Martin Lloyd Evans, re-directing Mark Brickman’s production, produced some fluid chorus work, but the overall effect looked dated with principals left somewhat static, singers often placed too far back on the stage, and a female chorus of nuns far upstage centre, partially hidden by the curved walls and half of them facing away from us as they circled a tree.   These were slight niggles, as the strength of the singers overcame these handicaps, and in fact the balance between pit and stage was perfect, not always the case in Theatre Royal.

Jonathan May (Ferrando) and Anne Mason (Azucena) © KK Dundas
Jonathan May (Ferrando) and Anne Mason (Azucena)
© KK Dundas

The opera is a dark tale of the result of a botched infanticide, set by the director in the middle of a bloody Civil War in northern Spain in the 1800s surrounded by its menacing atmosphere of suspicion. To set the scene, the curtain rises to reveal grey helmeted soldiers with swords, arranged like a painting as Ferrando, Captain of Count di Luna's Guard, keeps his troops awake by telling them (and us) the story so far. Claire Rutter was a truly magnificent Leonora, drawing us in with her wonderfully sung arias as she was amorously pursued by two men on opposite sides, the Count and the Troubadour Manrico who at the end of the opera, finally turn out to be brothers.

Tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones, making his Scottish Opera debut, was mightily impressive in presence and vocal vigour as the troubled and ultimately tragic Manrico, his costume permanently oozing blood from a stomach wound. Roland Wood's Count completed the love triangle with his powerful voice breezily carrying over the fireworks in the orchestra. The fourth character was Azucena, the gypsy and baby-burner – with Inés de Castro and Jenůfa it has been a spring season of operas with spectacularly grim plots in Glasgow. Mezzo Anne Mason threw herself into the role, her burnished powerful voice stealing the show at several points as she raged in true gypsy style.

Roland Wood (di Luna), Claire Rutter (Leonora) and Gwyn Hughes Jones (Manrico) © KK Dundas
Roland Wood (di Luna), Claire Rutter (Leonora) and Gwyn Hughes Jones (Manrico)
© KK Dundas

Chorus master Susannah Wapshott can be proud of her forces, belting out the well-known numbers with exciting vigour but just as thrilling in the quieter passages and the offstage work. Like Verdi’s Macbeth, the male chorus has to divide into opposing sides, nicely colour coded blue/grey soldiers and orange/brown gypsies. With fight and movement directors, the stage was busy when the chorus was present, and the curvy walls made appropriate hiding places. My only disappointment was that the anvils were a bit too polite.

With Il trovatore and its daft plot, the music is king, and the other star in a starry evening was Tobias Ringwood and the orchestra. Ringwood conducted most of this from memory, occasionally opening up his tiny black score at Act and Scene breaks. It was fun to watch him making direct contact with his players, whom from the first bars, drew us in to Verdi’s musical world. While keeping tight control of the tempi, he was able to guide his forces round some nifty rubatos, with singers and players following him rigorously to the microsecond.

Musically, this was a particularly special performance, well worth catching and a rousing end to Scottish Opera’s current season.