If you want to send up Il trovatore, go to the Marx Brothers. Their 1935 comedy A Night at the Opera lampoons Verdi’s oops-I-burnt-the-wrong-baby tune-fest when they sabotage a performance at the New York Opera Company to hilarious effect. Otherwise, Trovatore is no laughing matter. The plot is usually held up to ridicule, but once the eye-popping details in back-narrations by old retainer Ferrando and gypsy Azucena have been swallowed, the opera is a dark tale of lust and vengeance resulting in two deaths, the Conte di Luna learning he has just sent his own brother to the executioner’s block. 

Riccardo Massi (Manrico) and the Royal Opera Chorus
© ROH | Camilla Greenwell

Nobody seems to have sent this memo to Adele Thomas. Her new production for The Royal Opera (already seen at Oper Zürich in 2021) plays it for laughs too often. The Conte di Luna’s soldiers clomp around with hammy Keystone Cops gestures. Di Luna sings of hiding to ambush Leonora on her way to take the veil and, during his stand-and-deliver cabaletta, the soldiers do their best Pirates of Penzance “Yes, but you don't go!” moment of exasperation. Ines makes a comic “Shush!” in the middle of Leonora’s excitable cabaletta. Gypsies – here dressed as stripy blobs – and demons pop up through trap doors, sometimes to wave at the audience. In a Pythonesque moment, anvils are struck from the sides of the stage, one arm each stretched from the wings. 

Marina Rebeka (Leonora) and Gabrielė Kupšytė (Ines)
© ROH | Camilla Greenwell

Annemarie Woods’ set is a Barrie Kosky Carmen flashback staircase and her costumes are in-period medieval, an era susceptible to tales of the supernatural. This makes sense when Ferrando, attended by a posse of gyrating, cartwheeling demons, seems not just to narrate the whole story, but to manipulate it as a ghoul show. Ferrando himself wields the axe and returns with Manrico’s severed head before demons pop up through the trapdoors, whooping for joy, at the grisly denouement. 

Roberto Tagliavini (Ferrando)
© ROH | Camilla Greenwell

Giant storybook clouds or the sun’s rays descend at times and the entire production is framed by… a frame, a narrative device that physically distances the audience and, for those sitting on the sides of the horseshoe auditorium, will have limited how much of the action they can actually see. But in any case, this is another close-your-eyes show. The consolation is that it’s better than the risible David Bösch staging it replaces. A low bar. 

Il trovatore, Part 2 finale
© ROH | Camilla Greenwell

Musically, the rewards were much greater. Sir Antonio Pappano, conducting his first staged Trovatore (he recorded it two decades ago), powered through Verdi’s red-blooded score with vigour, tempered with velvet. He was aided by singing that ranged from decent to the truly superb. 

Marina Rebeka’s soprano has little warmth, but her Leonora started well, her slender tone having laser-like penetration and there was a super trill in “Di tale amor”. But by Part 4, her “D'amor sull'ali rosee” was short-breathed and choppy. After a steely Miserere, she was granted both verses of her “Tu vedrai” cabaletta, wildly sung with juddering runs. Riccardo Massi’s tenor doesn’t have a glamorous tone, but his Manrico was always musical and sincere, “Ah sì, ben mio” sung with fluid legato. There was little juice to his Di quella pira”. 

Ludovic Tézier (Conte di Luna)
© ROH | Camilla Greenwell

One costume that hasn’t survived the transfer from Zurich is di Luna’s pink cloak, tights and skimpy tunic, replaced by voluminous gold to conceal Ludovic Tézier’s legs. Even beneath a dodgy wig, the French baritone brought dignity and class to the stage, his aria “Il balen del suo sorriso” ardently sung in rich, noble voice, although Pappano tried to urge him to a swifter tempo. Bass Robert Tagliavini – on stage more than any of the four main protagonists – sang an excellent Ferrando, his animated narration beautifully enunciated.

Roberto Tagliavini (Ferrando) and Jamie Barton (Azucena)
© ROH | Camilla Greenwell

There’s one thing Thomas does get right. At the top of the set’s frame is an inscription “Mi vendica” (Avenge me!) and she puts Azucena and her search for vengeance at the opera’s centre. It’s a great role for American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton and she sang the living crap out of it. Her character has been to hell and back and is properly haunted. Barton's mezzo has a juicy bite and a fierce chest register – her cry of “Parola orrenda” at the word “stake” was terrifying and is probably still reverberating around the auditorium right now. At the start of that final scene – just Azucena being comforted by Manrico, no demonic extras, no nonsense – Thomas finally allows the drama to speak. It’s magnetic and it’s believable. Trust in Verdi’s score. It tells a great story.