This time I won’t reproduce Caruso’s quote, but only mention that the Salzburger Festspiele presented Verdi’s Il Trovatore only once in 1962 when Karajan had Leontyne Price, Giulietta Simionato, Franco Corelli and Ettore Bastianini (and the next year, without Corelli). Some would say that you will never have a cast like that again, but the Festival has decided that you can always try something different when you cannot offer the traditional choice. Their bold move has paid off – this was a performance that showed the audience many interesting possibilities about staging an opera by Giuseppe Verdi in our days. But let’s start with the cast.
Since she has become a mother, Anna Netrebko’s voice has developed in an interesting direction – her middle and low registers have become truly luxuriant and, if her extreme top notes have become less reliable, how many sopranos in lirico spinto repertoire actually venture above a high c these days? I am not sure if Lady Macbeth is her repertoire, but – if you have in mind that probably only Zinka Milanov or Maria Callas were truly beyond reproach as Leonora – Netrebko is a Leonora to be reckoned with. First, the voice as it is now is extra rich, surprisingly voluminous and still flexible enough. The velvety tonal quality, especially in her mezzo-ish, well-connected low register is particularly appealing. She has tried all trills and was successful more often than not, her mezza voce is a bit smoky, but in a good way and, even if one can notice that florid passages require her full attention, she tackles them if not with poise, certainly with diligence. If something requires some extra work, this would be staccato, which could have been tackled with a little bit more roundness and spontaneity. Maybe breath control too – even if she disguises it expertly, some phrases were too often chopped for extra intakes of air. In terms of interpretation, things are rather generalized, but there is passion and animation. In moments such as D’amor sull’ali rosee, one feels that spiritual concentration was secondary to getting the notes done. All that said, the glamor is there, and this is an underrated requirement in this repertoire.
I’ve read the name of Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Azucena with skepticism. I had seen her in Verdi only once as Ms. Quickly and found her light-toned for this repertoire, but today she has shown some unexpected possibilities of her voice. Although her middle register is soft-grained, she opens up in some very rich and forceful mezzo soprano top notes, while still retaining her dark contralto bottom register. Her voice is not Italianate either, but this gave her Azucena a very particular color. Her performance never had a dull moment – she is an experienced Lieder singer and never sang a word without considering its musical-dramatic weight, but did not succumb to the trap of making it fussy and too subtle: she managed Italian emotionalism very well. Actually, I have found many of her Handel roles exaggerated in an almost expressionistic way – but this was put to good use in this role. A compelling and intelligent performance.
Francesco Meli too is light-voiced for the role of Manrico. He is what one calls “a natural tenor”, his voice is spontaneous and appealing and has a good volume for a lyric tenor. He beefs it up a bit for this repertoire, and his high notes sound a bit straight sometimes. However, there is no hint of ugliness here. He is an elegant singer, capable of tone coloring and dynamic variety, what made his Manrico more vulnerable and sensitive than usual. Di quella pira, as predicted, even with adaptations to accommodate the unwritten top note, does not really come in the package, even if he cannot be accused of disgracing himself in it.
Replacing an ailing Plácido Domingo, Artur Rucinski too proved to have had interesting developments since I last saw him as the Count Almaviva in the Schiller-Theater. As the Count di Luna, he sounded like a lighter version of Giorgio Zancanaro, singing with unfailingly firm-tone and bel canto-ish poise. His extremely long breath is particularly amazing. He deservedly received thunderous applause this afternoon. Riccardo Zanellato offered a vivid account of Ferrando’s aria, and Diane Haller was a bright-toned and well-focused Ines.
Daniele Gatti found a good balance between a musically detailed approach, bringing to the fore many hidden niceties in the score, and the need for raw energy in strong accents, animated tempi and richness of sound. In this, he had the world’s ideal orchestra for this music: the Vienna Philharmonic at its most crystalline and flexible, singing together with singers on stage. This was Verdian music-making of the highest level.
Il Trovatore is an opera that resents the “régie”-treatment, but Alvis Hermanis has found a very particular niche where this works: the opera opera is staged in a museum in which museum guides and guards mix fantasy and reality under the influence of the paintings they “live” with. Not only these paintings in their red wallpaper museum walls are very atmospheric, but Hermanis has studied the score to find the right moments to shift from present to the past. For instance, Azucena is first seen in modern clothes leading a group of art students when she sings the more “conventional” verses of Stride la vampa, but is transformed in a gipsy woman when telling the more “realistic” and modern music of Condotta ell’era in ceppi.