Verdi - Il Trovatore

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday July 1 2012

Conductor: Marc Minkowski. Production, sets: Dmitri Tcherniakov. Costumes: Dmitri Tcherniakov, Elena Zaytseva. Lighting: Gleb Filshtinsky. Il Conte di Luna: Dimitris Tiliakos. Manrico: Misha Didyk. Azucena: Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo. Leonora: Marina Poplavskaya. Ferrando: Giovanni Furlanetto. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

Directors must spend a lot of time wondering how to make Romantic plots work, dramatically, with today’s audience. We, today’s audience, meanwhile, on our way to a Sonnambula or a Rigoletto, may (or is that might?) hope - against hope, you could add - to get a decent evening’s singing, but don’t expect to have a great evening’s theatre, let alone emerge breathless and shaken. Yet Dmitri Tcherniakov achieved exactly that: he turned Trovatore into an afternoon (I was at a matinee) of total music theatre, with acting so powerful that it came as a useful reminder – we have plenty of opportunities to forget – that when the drama is at white heat, provided your cast is both vocally competent and willing and able to act up a storm, any imperfections in the singing and playing are of no account: it’s the whole that counts.

The way Tcherniakov did it may not (or is that might not?), however, be to everybody’s liking. You could condemn it as Eurotrash, depending on whether you see your local opera house as a creative arts venue or a museum. I’ll try to explain it briefly. He noted that, in the first third or so of Trovatore, people spend their time recounting tortured past dealings with each other; nobody seems quite to know the truth. So he has Azucena get them together in a closed room to work it all through, therapy and role-play style: five tense characters with old wounds and bones to pick, locked up à huis clos to pick them. This conceit, though artificial to a degree, actually made the famously confusing plot easier to follow. So, up to half time it came across as ingenious, but you did wonder if, after the break, with there only being one set, it wouldn’t (mightn’t?) turn monotonous.

However, after the break, when the lights went up, Luna had evidently blown a fuse and was holding the others hostage, huddled together on the sofa, at gunpoint. From this point on, believe it or not (you can read it to check), so long as the characters were still, sometimes, reminiscing, the text made perfect sense, give or take a prison tower or two: Manrico was bound and stuffed into a cupboard instead, but it worked. Tensions built up, Luna became increasingly menacing, “Di quella pira” was set off thrillingly by four loud shots from his pistol and the end of the work sent shivers down your spine.

As I said above, in these incandescent circumstances, it seems futile to discuss musical imperfections, and in fact you hardly need remember the sets and costumes, but for the record…

It shouldn’t take long to describe the set. It looked like a solid but worn provincial hotel, built, probably, in the 1890s. I recognised it because I lived in one as a child. Black floorboards, black wainscoting, plain burgundy walls above. To the left, some doors and a narrow pasageway off to the back, lined with gloomy paintings. In the middle, the door to a sort of pantry and a wall with the sofa in front. On the right, a counter under a largish opening with views through to glass-paned doors at the rear. A wooden table, some wooden chairs that got kicked about a bit, and torch-shaped light-fittings in opalescent glass of the Art Nouveau kind. As the action pressed on, the space got messier, with leftover food and newspapers, wine bottles, beer cans, Ferrando’s corpse (he got shot in the forehead).

Similarly, as the action pressed on, people’s clothes got more dishevelled and they shed wigs, boots, stockings, socks… The dress was indeterminate modern, with Luna initially in a grey suit and overcoat, the eccentric Ferrando in a mac and muffler, blond Manrico in a snakeskin jacket, black tee-shirt, jeans and boots, Leonora in a pale pink, Chanel-ish suit and white knee-length boots… Azucena was not obviously a gypsy or witch, but got up in a frothy black “hostess gown” and big blond wig, like some louche but prosperous medium in Anthony Powell.

As for the singing… I really don’t want to spend much time on it. This was a strong cast for such a difficult work and we all unfairly have the likes of Callas and Price in our minds from recordings. Quickly, then… Tiliakos sometimes verges on blustery but, as anyone who’s seen the DVD of Macbeth knows, he’s a fantastic actor so who cares? Misha Didyk is a Ukrainian tenor with the characteristic combination of power, bright top and baritonal timbre underneath. Sylvie Brunet still has her fabulous, pale bronze, grainy sound and enough experience to deal with any difficulty at the top.

I wonder why Poplavskaya comes in for such violent criticism in New York. Wrong parts? Too big a theatre? Her voice is powerful and darkish (I wonder if she’s really a mezzo, or will be?), potentially pinched at the top but, as anyone saw her in Verdi’s Requiem knows, she’s a fantastic actress so who cares? Furlanetto seemed good enough in the little he had to sing.

Minkowski’s contribution to Verdi was nothing like Gardiner’s to Berlioz. This was, as far as the pit went and despite some tweaking of the orchestral balance and layout (double basses on both sides, for example), a fairly straightforward account. The inner parts were clearer than usual, the ums in the um-cha-chas more distinct on account of the extra basses. Some of the tempi were agreeably nippy, others surprisingly plodding, and I occasionally felt he was “bashing” the score, as he sometimes does in the baroque. But once the second half got going, I no longer noticed these things: I was gripped by the whole, not focused on details.

Plenty of directors can get their singers to act well (though plenty can’t, so they’re now getting the red-carpet treatment in Paris). But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite so powerful as this on the operatic stage in over 30 years of dashed hopes. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard fast rhythmic clapping in Sunday afternoon’s dozy, undemonstrative Brussels, either.

The production, also reviewed in some detail on Opera Cake,  will be streamed on La Monnaie’s website starting July 7.

Maestro Wenarto sings "Di quelle pira".


  1. The melodic line is of playgroup rhyme simplicity. The complementary music consists largely of imitation string chords and percussion. There is zero here that we haven't heard a thousand times facing.


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