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REVIEW: Il trovatore | Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney

As long as we recognise terms like genocide and ethnic cleaning with repugnant familiarity, there’ll be a place for Verdi’s forward-thinking opera. This production shows no sign of ageing.

The cast of Il trovatore | Joan Sutherland Theatre

It’s quite a musical. OK, so it’s an opera. But when all’s said and done, what’s the difference? (That’s really asking for it, eh?!) My flippancy is actually intended to be complimentary to both forms, inasmuch as material distinctions exist. Because I reckon opera novices could come at this production of Verdi’s Il trovatore (The Troubadour) without compunction. And get a whole lot more out of it than is likely from, say, Cats.

Certainly, the guy sitting behind us did, practically whooping when one of the featured soloists went for a really big, extended top C, whistling, singing along. At least he was enjoying himself, but how uncouth! Imagine my surprise, after the final applause, when I turned around to catch a glimpse of Lyndon Terracini. Whoops. Well, he is from Queensland. Seriously though,what better illustration my point about how thoroughly accessible, engaging and enjoyable this opera and production are, despite some improbable plot devices.

Like so many operas, it’s based on an earlier text: a play, from 1836, El trovador, by Antonio Garcia Gutierrez, a Spanish Romantic. The opera, you might note, had two librettists, as the original, Sal(vadore) Cammarano died halfway through 1852, leaving it unfinished. Leone Emanuele Bardare was a young, aspiring writer who GV took under his wing and, to a certain extent perhaps, thumb, guiding his completion of the work.

Like a modern box office record-smashing blockbuster, Il trov really took off. By name, you might think you don’t know it, but, trust me, you’ll almost certainly recognise the tune. (Well, part of the tune.) In fact, even if you’ve never heard it before, it’s so memorable and, somehow, instinctively familiar, you’ll be able to hum along. Or like the young (Italian, I think), tenuous tenor singing into his smartphone outside the opera house right after, belt it out.

This production is a joint venture, if you will, commissioned by the State Opera of South Australia, West Australian Opera and Opera Queensland. It harks back to the 1999 Adelaide Festival, where it was first performed. It’s certainly stood the test of time, almost as well as the opera itself. For mine, it’s almost flawless. Firstly, the set is very convincing: old, European, war-torn render, peeled away to reveal naked bricks. Elke Neidhardt, the original director, has moved the action from the fifteenth century Spain to the civil war, but loses nothing. In fact, she manages, if anything, to intensify Verdi’s themes of love and revenge by interposing them in a more contemporary context. While we take our seats, the action, in a sense, has already begun. In the foreground of what looks like an age-old fortress is a macabre assembly of what looks like (and proves to be) shrouded bodies. My pessimistic assumption (this being opera) was they represented the deceased victims of a battle just waged. Happily, they’re rather more alive; though not happily for all concerned.

A valuable sidelight of Neidhardt’s leaning towards modernity is that we can well re-imagine her take as being in a Balkan, Iraqi, Syrian, or other recent context.

Matthew Barclay has assumed the mantle of recreating Neidhardt’s vision and does so with what I take to be finesse and fidelity. However, it should be said that this is billed as ‘based on’ a production by Neidhardt, which presumably has afforded Barclay some little room to move on his own behalf. Where the lines are drawn I know not, but what’s material is the result, which is up-close-and personal with perfect.

I’m unsure as to whether Nick Schlieper’s lighting design adheres to the ’99 formula. Either way, he exploits Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set with spectacular evocations of menace: silhouetted soldiers; mistaken identities. The ambience hardly ever burns more brightly than a medieval church candle, save for a stark jailhouse scene. Scott-Mitchell’s visual extrapolation betrays a cinematic sensibility that works hand-in-glove with Neidhardt’s: while she has the chorus act out a scene of consternation in flawless slow motion, he presents us with a Blankety Blanksesque, assymetrically-windowed cathedral-like edifice, illuminating holy icons.

Unexpectedly, the “exhibits” slide across, revealing portals through which nuns appear to serenade us. The richness of the experience, one imagines, must surely rival a stroll through the streets of old Madrid, where walls can probably tell many a tale. Sound design goes uncredited, yet someone’s thought long and hard about aural perspective, if the clarity versus relative remoteness of the off-stage singing be a guide. There are many other smart and surprising touches brought about by Neidhardt’s light directorial hand. There’s a cleverly choreographed and decidedly cheeky military medical inspection, for example, which leavens the heavier themes, such as that of persecution of Romani people. Judith Hoddinott’s costumes, embracing swathes of khaki for uniforms and scarlet for the lovelorn heroine inflamed by love, apply the final stitch to an aesthetic apogee.

Arvo Volmer, erstwhile music director and conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, with ready, willing and more than able cooperation from the indefatigable Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, produces a dynamic, impassioned rendition of Verdi’s admirable score; one which has me shaking my head in disbelief at his genius for orchestration, which is often surprisingly spare.

But Verdi is masterful in more ways than musically. It’s the synergy he achieves between text and score, his literary, thematic and theatrical appreciation and adeptness, that make him the transcendent master he is. Let’s not forget, after Rossini, there was great skepticism as to whether Italian opera had anywhere else to go, or even if it had a future. It was Verdi that put paid, affirmatively and decisively, to both concerns.

It’s almost a given that anyone who sees this work will be drawn in, as if by electromagnetic force, by the story it tells. Wildly romantic; violent; disturbing; lustful; self-seeking; sacrificial. It’s a meeting of the forces of good and evil. A walk through the garden of Eden. And a plummet into the depths of hell. Forget coarse language warnings. This opera represents full-frontal exposure to the coarseness of life. With a soupçon of melodramatic licence, of course.

So, what have I forgotten? Ah yes, singers. How could I? This is a very impressive lineup. Very. Impressive. At the top of the list is American Arnold Rawls, as Manrico (a role in which he debuted only a year or two ago with The Met), whose ample, ringing lyric tenor enthrals and gives no quarter to any other, past, present or, probably, future. Better yet, his tone makes him seem born to play roles in Italian opera, as does his histrionic vocal posture, most thrillingly exemplified in the heroically elongated high note to which I referred earlier. This is one for the history books. Lucky Luciano is liable to spring from his peaceful repose to have a closer listen to a young, new rival. Theatrically, his expression tends to be somewhat one-size-fits-all, but if and when this comes, one of the greatest-ever opera stars will be in our midst.

Manrico is fatally attracted to Leonora, played by Italian soprano, Daria Masiero. Hers is a voice as supple and considerable as Rawls’. By an almost precociously young age, she’d already sung in many of the world’s most renowned opera theatres (La Scala, Milano; Teatro Regio di Torino; a long list of others, throughout the world). I’ve no doubt, even then, she had no trouble filling those auditoria with her glorious and generous voice; one which occasionally faltered, here and there, but which, on the whole, deployed an courageously expressive vibrato to colourful and powerful effect.

Local baritone Michael Honeyman is Count di Luna, feverish for Leonora, but impeded by the tryst between her and Manrico. While his effort was earnest, tone agreeable and projection strong, I felt his delivery lacked character. The count needs to be imbued with a sense of imprudent authority, a taint of madness, which didn’t seem to be forcefully present.

Richard Anderson, as his advisor and the cleric, Ferrando, was as rock-solid an dependable as his role would imply. In his case, the dryness of his presentation seemed utterly relative. Similarly, Sian Pendry, as Leonora’s sister and confidante, Inez, pitched every detail of her performance well. Though their roles be smallish, Luke Stoker (as a soldier) and Sam Roberts-Smith (as Manrico’s friend, Ruiz) made the most of their opportunities and their presences very much felt.

After Rawls, my gold star for the evening goes to Milijana Nikolic, as Azucena, the slightly touched gypsy woman. Hair and makeup were the grace notes of the finest characterisation on the stage (representing a perverse cosmetic triumph, in rendering a beautiful woman almost beastly); with the mezzo’s striking, luxuriant instrument in finest fettle to boot. This is another indelible mark on the scoreboard of success for the young (yes), still rising star.

As long as we recognise terms like genocide and ethnic cleansing with repugnant familiarity, there’ll be a place for Verdi’s forward-thinking opera, which has something to say about it. That alone, especially when taken into account alongside its vibrant musicality, dwarves any shortcoming, conceits and idiosyncrasies. This production, moreover, shows no signs of significant ageing, either.

Long live all concerned! Let the troubadour play on.

The details: Il trovatore plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House for two more performances on March 2 and 5. Tickets on the company website.

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