Review: Opera Australia’s ‘Il Trovatore’ at the Sydney Opera House

Reviewed by Priscilla Issa An imprisoned troubadour, a love triangle, dysfunctional family relationships, a vendetta, deceased babies, suicide, and a prophecy…Opera Australia’s Il Trovatore, as director David Livermore put it, drowns the audience in horror. For it is “when the human being is bent on revenge and blinds himself by committing violence against his fellow man, all that is left is a cry of pain and loneliness”. Giuseppe Verdi’s opera was originally based on a drama about the Spanish civil war of 1412, written by playwright Antonio Garcia Gutierrez in 1853. Opera Australia transposes the work to the Spanish civil war of 1936, where the Nazi sympathasisers in the lead up to WWII persecuted and murdered the Romani people. For a long period in history, these people were the outcasts of Europe, often viewed with suspicion. The question of how to represent the Romani in this production was answered through circus acrobatics and tarot reading. The question of how to represent the hatred towards this group of people was answered through macabre backdrops of burning buildings and fairgrounds. The plot centres around the revenge of two characters, Count di Luna and the gypsy, Azucena. Azucena’s mother was burned at the stake. The story goes that she purportedly bewitched the Count’s younger brother, Garzia. Naturally, Azucena intended to avenge her mother’s death. So, she abducts Garzia. Stricken with grief and confusion, she mistakenly murders her own son. The audience discovers that Manrico, whom Azucena has raised as her own, is in fact Garzia, the Count’s brother. The brothers, unaware of this at first, become rivals over the love of Leonora. Leonora’s love leads her to decide to free the captured Manrico. But to free him, she has promised to give herself to Count di Luna. Manrico is about to escape but discovers that Leonora has poisoned herself. Believing Leonora has given her love to the Count for Manrico’s freedom, he refuses to flee. It is her death that causes Manrico to understand the extent of her love for him. Count di Luna, infuriated by Leonora’s deceit, calls for Manrico’s beheading. The opera’s denouement sees Azucena reveal with the Count has, in fact, killed his own brother. Yonghoon Lee played the role of Manrico. While he appeared to be in physical discomfort, perhaps a result of an injury sustained in another production, his resonant and consistent tenor was exhilarating to listen to. Most impressive was the contrast between his notoriously challenging offstage musical athleticism, his first top C in “Di quella pria”, and the graceful lyricism of the duet, “Ah, si, ben mio”, sun with soprano, Leah Crocetto. Crocetto, who played the affectionate and courageous Leonora, was sublime in her aria, “D’amor sull’ali rosee”. While it took her a while to warm into her voice - perhaps as a result of opening night jitters - her messa di voce and glorious timbre created a feeling of the sublime in this Act IV showstopper. The audience loved it! She captured with ease the strength of Leonora’s moral compass and woefulness of the character’s inevitable demise. Perhaps being given a little more direction in terms of stage movements could have helped strengthen her and Lee’s chemistry. Also, occasionally her physical performance lacked conviction; it appeared as those she was second-guessing her actions. This might have had something to do with the fact that the set design was very sparse, not giving her enough of an opportunity to use her surroundings. Baritone Maxim Aniskin, as Count di Luna, performed commendably. His middle notes were focused and sonorous, and his lower notes were warm. However, there appears to be some restraint in his upper register; the notes sound held-back, when in fact they need to open up for songs like “Il balen del suo sorriso”. While he made a convincing ‘villain’, it was his vocal reservation that prevented him from demonstrating a great passion for Leonora. Undoubtedly the most seasoned performer of the night was Elena Gabouri. Her performance was a most convincing combination of world-class singing and acting. Her portrayal of Azucena captured both the bitterness and sympathy of the gypsy. Her soaring bel canto upper register captured the love she was pouring on Manrico, while her growling chest register captured her lust for vengeance. The orchestra, conducted by the masterful Andrea Battistoni, poured out the composer’s rich textures. The sound could only be described as thrilling. The music added another layer to the already robust sound of the soldiers, as well as the sweet and ecclesiastical sound of the nun’s chorus; the latter was a truly breathtaking part of the opera, musically and performatively - a personal favourite. The set design and digital content, envisioned by Giò Forma and constructed by D-Wok, were appropriately dark and unsettling. The upfront panels displayed vibrant tarot cards, foretelling the gypsy’s prophecy. The bright reds, pinks, greens, and yellows matched the costumes and acrobatic physicality of the Romani circus troupe. The grandiosity and performativity of the circus contrasted the monochromatic visual mapped imagery of a war-torn urban landscape in the background.

In sum, this was a brilliant take on the score and libretto - a true take on a masterpiece composition. Bravo!

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