Verdi - Il Trovatore

Opéra National de Paris Bastille, October 29 2003

Conductor: Maurizio Benini. Production: Francesca Zambello. Manrico: Roberto Alagna. Leonora: Sondra Radvanovsky. Azucena: Dolora Zajick. Ines: Martine Mahé. Luna: Roberto Servile. Ferrando: Orlin Anastassov. Ruiz: Jean-Luc Maurette (Ruiz). Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

It’s all very well, whenever Il Trovatore comes along, to trot out that old line about success only requiring the four best singers in the world. We understand the truth behind the cliché, but what are the chances of our getting them? We should be grateful for smaller mercies, and in this case the mercies weren’t so small after all.

Let it be said up front, however, that this was a singers’ Trovatore. In France we pay a lot of tax and the Bastille has plenty of money. Francesca Zambello has at times put this to good use: Billy Budd, War & Peace. This production, however, seemed to inspire no ideas other than squandered extravagance. Where was it set? Hard to say. In a desert, by a mineshaft, near a railway construction site (during the anvil chorus, visually effective in fact with its red lighting and flickering flames, they were building a cast-iron Victorian viaduct on fluted columns)? If there was a Konzept, I think it may have been the clash between 19th-century industrialisation and the rule of law (led by Luna and his men) and an older, freer, honour-bound society of peasants and gypsies. Who knows? The huge, silently mobile machines must have cost a packet, without adding a thing. The lack of direction, with singers left to rely on their natural acting ability (and we know how many singers are blessed with that: why else do we need directors?) was incongruous against such an ostentatiously lavish background.

One acquaintance, writing on a forum a couple of weeks back, said “Alagna's final high C at the end of Di quella pira (in his commercial recording) has to be the most vulgar display of bad taste ever committed to disc. He holds on to it forever…"

My reply at the time was “I look forward to hearing it in person. True, undiluted vulgarity is a relatively rare thing and deserves support. Alagna shows genuine dedication to the cause.” In the event, for one thing he (Alagna, not the aforementioned acquaintance) has lost weight and cut his hair, so he no longer looks like one of the pudgier members of the Gypsy Kings: he’s slim and trim, and it helps. For another, you have to hand it to him, his voice is glorious. It is an exceptional tenor instrument, with complexity of sound, dynamic range, nuance and phrasing – and projection. More than once he held a top note longer than might be thought tasteful. But I’m not sure impeccable taste is the main thing needed in Verdi and I didn’t feel it was too much of a good thing. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. True, the applause after Di quella pira went on so long he was unable, as he stood there with his sword in the air, to avoid breaking out into a smile, a thing Callas would have found deplorably vulgar…

Dolora Zajick. Now there’s a name to conjure with when discussing good taste in Verdi. She’s my kinda mezzo. Sure, as a reviewer wrote in the FT, she “fires chest voice salvoes into the audience and takes no prisoners.” But the truth is there’s more to her than that, both in dynamic range (some marvellous piano singing) and tessitura (unexpectedly pure, strong high notes). Zajick is a real trouper of the most endearing kind – how many mezzos would have agreed to be tied, spread-eagle, to the giant wheel of a cannon to be wheeled off the stage (to a mixture of laughters and jeering)?

Sondra Radvanovsky was new to me. Her voice is ample, coppery – almost mezzo-sounding – and has a rapid, rather old-fashioned vibrato that will irritate some. Hearing the volume, you’re surprised to find she’s best where it's least expected: in the rapid, near-coloratura passages. In longer, legato phrases there’s something a little monotonous about the sound (remember Cheryl Studer?) and I did wonder if she wasn’t just a little too dramatic and too little a lyric soprano for the role. Her diction was learned at the hot-potato school. But I’m splitting hairs here. France’s Le Canard called her “suprême,” and the ovations she received (this was an evening with a great deal of applause between arias, not to mention a great deal of vigorous coughing) were no less rapturous than Alagna’s and Zajick’s.

The weak point was Servile, standing in as Luna and possibly sick himself. Anastassov, singing Ferrando, would have made a better job of the role. Servile was booed at the end, as were the conductor, perhaps for not being dramatic enough, and the staging. By the way, "Di quella pira" is Italian for "put that fire out."

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