Verdi - Il Trovatore

ONP Bastille, Monday February 8 2016

Conductor: Daniele Callegari. Production: Alex Ollé. Sets: Alfons Flores. Costumes: Lluc Castells. Lighting: Urs Schönebaum. Il Conte di Luna: Ludovic Tézier. Leonora: Anna Netrebko. Azucena: Ekaterina Semenchuk. Manrico: Marcelo Alvarez. Ferrando: Roberto Tagliavini. Ines: Marion Lebègue. Ruiz: Oleksiy Palchykov. Un vecchio zingaro: Constantin Ghircau. Un messo: Cyrille Lovighi. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

When a man with a mike stood in front of the curtain and announced that Madame Netrebko, sick, would be replaced by Madame He, he was booed. Judging by the number of men in dark suits sporting Légion d’Honneur rosettes queuing to pick up free tickets half an hour before, it can’t have been because many had wasted their money. (This reminds me of something. Skip this parenthesis if you want to get on quickly to Trovatore. It reminds me of an evening at the Opéra Comique, some years back, when the minister of culture was on the front row of the balcony and Jérôme Savary, the director at the time, who had incidentally dubbed his house théâtre musical populaire, decided to seize the opportunity to make a cheeky speech about its popular success on a shoestring budget from the state and started by drawing the audience’s attention to the minister, adding: “He’s the only person here who hasn’t paid for his ticket.”)

Of course, this was a disappointment, though if a singer is really sick I don’t see what booing is supposed to do about it. I have only ever seen Anna Netrebko once, years ago, and that was an unsatisfactory evening of Bellini that contributed to the name of my blog. Since then she’s been hogged by the Met. But in the end, in any case, we had a bloody good Trovatore, as Trovatores go.

Hui He was not scheduled to sing in this production until February 20 so it was game of her to step in. Perhaps this was a last-minute change. If so, she can obviously be forgiven for being nervous. Through most of the range she has a smooth, warm, darkish, eminently “comfortable” timbre: a beautiful voice and one that carries in the Bastille. During the first part (there was one interval), my neighbour (as we found out chatting during it) had had exactly the same thought as I, which was that she was possibly lacking the high notes for the part, and might perhaps consider moving to mezzo roles. But it was hard to tell if the unfortunate accident with a top note in her first scene and the precariousness of later ones (sometimes flat, though "helped up" by the vibrato), occasional “holes” in the voice, or her tendency to rush ahead of the (already zippy) orchestra, were normal features of her singing today or due to nerves. Perhaps the latter, as by the end of the opera she seemed more at ease (relief at getting there relatively unscathed?) and her high notes were more fluent, though the tendency remained for them to fade in volume.

Losing Netrebko, we no doubt lost something, but less than we might have feared. We heard (and heard without straining, which is something these days in the vast Bastille) a lot of very beautiful singing, and if the acting was not so hot, well, that could be nerves too, or lack of rehearsal (with nearly two weeks to go before her scheduled debut); in any case, there wasn’t a huge amount of acting to do in this production (see below).

Ekaterina Semenchuk was an excellent Azucena, not quite as darkly chesty as some, dramatically and vocally powerful but always musical. Musical too, as usual, was Ludovic Tézier, who sailed through it. And while Marcelo Alvarez may not be the most thrilling singing actor, he’s generous and reliable: he can sing the notes, and if not quite solar, his top ones undeniably hit a spot. Secondary roles were well cast and the chorus improved as the evening advanced. Daniele Callegari went mostly for rapid tempi (I say “mostly” because once or twice I was then puzzled at how far he let Alvarez slow down). After audibly ragged triplets in the opening bars, the orchestra was on average form: “no better than they ought to be” as a late Scottish friend might have said. Perhaps on account of the cast change upsetting everyone a bit, all evening there were occasional problems of coordination between stage and pit.

I haven’t read any reviews yet, but suspect some critics will say this production relies more on its sets, costumes and lighting than actual directing. I’ll put a word in first for the lighting, as it struck me that it was a more than usually active contributor to the overall experience: you may often notice excellent lighting, but it isn’t often it comes across as a genuine protagonist. The set was ingenious: rows of giant, rectangular blocks were suspended on steel wires (four per block: one at each corner) and could be raised high above the stage or lowered and plugged – more or less - into rectangular holes in it. Less, and the effect was a kind of Stonehenge; more, with only the top poking out of the ground, it was a graveyard (sometimes with crosses added). Totally plugged in, forming a flat surface, the blocks left a forest of taut steel wires – tricky for the cast and chorus. Totally unplugged and up in the air, they left the holes: braziers, trenches or graves. This clever dispositif was totally modular, making various kinds of spaces possible, and backed on three sides by mirrors to make it seem still larger.

The repeated movements up and down could have become a wearisome gimmick; but the magnificent lighting, changing colour, casting shadows, highlighting soldiers in their dark trenches and glinting off their helmets, making broad stripes on the ground or great spotlight beams from a sky of cubist clouds (a) avoided boredom (or, to be more polite, ensured variety) and (b) crafted impressively painterly, highly graphic, geometric, almost expressionistic tableaux.

The costumes set the period at the outset: World War I uniforms with old-fashioned gas masks. Later, the nuns would have gas masks on shoulder straps over their white habits. That being once done, however, Ollé did very little to justify the decision, leaving it to the audience to think it through. If WWI was a “konzept” he didn’t really develop it – hampered by the sets, perhaps: all those wires to thread through and solid piers or gaping holes to avoid. No anvils, just a long, refugee-like trail of gypsies with babies, during the "Anvil Chorus" isn't really much to go on, and the principals' acting was operatic standard issue. Which is why I think the critics will complain (as they quite frequently do these days) that in a fancy set there was no actual directing. The production is visually sometimes quite splendid, indeed fascinating to look at, but the opera, as staged in it, might almost be a dramatic oratorio.

I, however, am not complaining. If I exclude Tcherniakov’s Brussels production, which I liked very much but is something of a special case, and make allowances for Hui He’s likely nerves, this was still, vocally and visually if not especially dramatically, the most satisfactory Trovatore I’ve ever seen and heard.

Here, Maestro Wenarto shows how it should be done. And here as well, demonstrating the development in his artistry. Here, a very moving Miserere.