Verdi - Il Trovatore

ONP Bastille, Wednesday July 4 2018

Conductor: Maurizio Benini. Production: Àlex Ollé. Sets: Alfons Flores. Costumes: Lluc Castells. Lighting: Urs Schönebaum. Il Conte di Luna: Željko Lučić. Leonora: Sondra Radvanovsky. Azucena: Anita Rachvelishvili. Manrico: Marcelo Alvarez. Ferrando: Mika Kares. Ines: Élodie Hache. Ruiz: Yu Shao. Un vecchio Zingaro: Lucio Prete. Un Messo: Luca Sannai. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

I’d seen this production in 2016 and quite liked it at the time, the lighting especially, but the main reason for buying tickets again this season was to see and hear Anita Rachvilishvili as Azucena. It turned out she was not the only treat.

The four principal voices were very distinct. Željko Lučić’s singing style is quite odd and unexpected in Verdi. It’s gruff-sounding, not at all lyrical and with a tendency sometimes to bark, sometimes to bray. Yet quite effective if you’re playing Luna as relatively old, disgruntled and rough.

Anita Rachvelishvili was all I’d hoped she’d be as Azucena, not that it’s a part I particularly like. Once again, she sang daringly pianissimo for long stretches, at times on her back on the floor, forcing the Paris audience (there are a lot of colds around at the moment) into pin-drop silence, but when required, opened out into a solid bronze, organ-like wall of sound, with blazing top notes and almost no chest sound in the lower range.

Marcelo Alvarez has me a bit puzzled. He appears to have laid off the Big Macs and been to the gym, which is all to the visual good when playing dashing young soldier-lovers, and to have developed a particular style of singing in quite choppy, short phrases with no legato, but a very nice, grainy timbre and a lot of dramatic commitment (a kind of anti-Pavarotti). In the end, this package is effective, although it leaves him somewhat en retrait with regard to the women, not the star of the show its title implies. While still enjoying the result, I put this down to illness, and as “Di quella pira” approached he slipped into the dark shadows of the set, turning his back to us, apparently to take a swig from a little bottle. (At another point, unless I’m imagining things, an extra actually slipped him one discreetly.) “Di quella pira” was cut short - I mean, there was no interjection by the soprano and reprise of the cabaletta, just one verse and straight into the men’s chorus. He let them sing and took a rest until the last, not very successful high note. Yet on the French "blogosphere", people are saying he was on top form. If so, I don’t see why he couldn’t sing the full “Di quella pira”. But I suppose if he was sick he needn’t have strained in vain for that top note, seeing as Verdi didn’t originally write it. And it would have been announced. So I don’t know: maybe this was indeed Alvarez at peak form, as he stands today. In any case, the audience gave him plenty of applause and visibly he lapped it up.

Verdi
The person who really stole the show (though with Anita Rachvelishvili not very far behind) was Sondra Radvanovsky. Her dark soprano with its interesting timbre is mature for the part, and the less youthful gambolling about the production requires from her at this stage in her career, the better. But the great advantage of maturity is experience: she gave us a stupendous demonstration of experience, professionalism (“métier”, my neighbour called it) and stagecraft - as well as solar high notes. “D’amor sull’ali rosee” was applauded loudly, the applause becoming rhythmic, which means the French are settling in for a long clap unless you give them more. So after a gesture to Benini, she sang it again. Encores are very rare now at the Paris Opera. I have only witnessed one: Florez repeating “Pour mon âme, quel destin!” Standing ovations are also rare, but a lot of people rose to their feet at Radvanovsky’s curtain call and, though she must be used to acclaim, she looked genuinely moved.

The chorus, perhaps because the work is more familiar, was even better than in Mussorgsky two nights before, and Benini’s conducting was suitably zippy and bouncy, if only he hadn’t drawn some of the slow arias out unnecessarily to a snail’s pace, slackening the dramatic tension too much for my taste.

If I quite liked the production in 2016, I liked it less this time, perhaps simply because I was sitting in different seats, but I wonder. I remembered, in the first half, having admired the lighting, and could no longer see why (in the second half, with the criss-crossed spotlights, it came back to me more easily). One episode took me back to Garnier in its pre-Bastille days, when stage mishaps were frequent: one of the giant “plugs” descended at an angle and refused to disappear into its hole like its peers. It had to be raised up again and straightened before being lowered again, a semi-comical affair while the unfortunate Luna sang on. And “D’amor sull’ali rosee” was not, as someone quipped on a blog, the only encore of the evening. When Luna announced the arrival of the captive Azucena, singing “Eccola,” there was no sign of her. He moved toward Ferrando, maybe muttered a word or two, and they ambled off stage together, then ambled back to repeat the introductory scene. Anita Rachvelishvili then strode on stage at the distant rear left and walked right across the rear to waiting extras, her captors, on the other side. I haven't yet seen any insider info on a blog explaining what happened. Was she lost backstage? Apart from that, overall, from this year’s seats, the staging gave me the odd impression that a perfectly conventional Trovatore was going on independently on the apron in front of obtrusive amounts of sets and extras and a lot of irrelevant, fidgety business.

But vocally, the evening was impressive and, as I said, there was something of a standing ovation at the end, for Sondra Radvanovsky in particular - if not in New York proportions.

Here, the incomparable Maestro Wenarto nailes "Di quella pira" at a cracking pace.

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