Zurich’s new Il trovatore: a grotesque evening with four debuts, though not without interest
By John Rodes
Verdi’s Il trovatore is both one of the most criticised and at the same time, for many, one of the most popular operas in the entire operatic repertoire. The plot is grizzly, convoluted and incredible, but the reason for the piece’s enduring popularity is the composer’s unbridled melodic inventiveness. Just a quick reminder of the plot: the gypsy Azucena once watched her mother, accused of being a witch, being burned at the stake. Vowing revenge, she kidnapped Manrico, the son of the head of the responsible Luna family, to see him (apparently) die in the fire as well. But what only Azucena knows is that the child she threw into the fire in blind despair was her actual son! Manrico, who then grew up with Azucena and who firmly believes he is her son, turns out in fact to be the brother of hated Count Luna. Luna and Manrico, the ‘troubadour’, not only fight against each other in a civil war, but they are also rivals for the same woman, Leonora. As so often in opera, all does not end well.
Ferrando is the first to appear, looking appropriately sinister, with giant clawed rubberised feet. The Count’s gormless army are a cross between the Roundheads, the Keystone Cops and Dad’s Army. The rebel forces are oddly portrayed with badgers on their heads. Count Luna wears a regal tunic, but in childish pink with a large red heart on the front. There are five hobgoblins, who cavort noiselessly on stage for much of the time, bringing to mind Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo. The gypsies, in striped pyjamas, had either escaped from prison or a concentration camp.
Casting this opera, as Caruso once famously put it, was quite simple: you only needed the four best singers in the world. Zurich opera assembed perhaps not the best available, but certainly a fine quartet: Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka in her debut as Leonora, her lover Manrico no less a tenor than Piotr Beczała, his counterpart Count Luna Hawaian Quinn Kelsey and Polish mezzo Agnieszka Rehlis in the role of Azucena.