Writing about Verdi’s Il Trovatore is an exercise in restraint: there are so many irresistible clichés (the best four singers in the world, the libretto’s absurdity, the big-guitar orchestral writing…) one is advised to avoid, but how to avoid them in an opera that is the very model of all clichés about opera?
It is not true that you just need the four best singers in the world to cast a Trovatore, but you do need some singers in very specific and unusual Fächer: a soprano drammatico d’agilità, a dramatic mezzo, a Verdi baritone and a sui generis style of tenor, not too dramatic yet not too lyric. Singers like that are not usually bound to an opera house; the result is that this is a title rarely cast from the ensemble. This is precisely why the Deutsche Oper’s habit of casting Verdi from their roster proves adventurous in a work like this. Soprano and tenor are usually reserved for guest singers, given the problem of finding Italianate voices this sound of the Alps. The opera in Bismarckstraße is Angela Meade’s European “home away from home”. Soon after the Met has decided to invest in her, the Deutsche Oper featured the American soprano in some very difficult Italian roles. Although I have seen her in the US as Semiramide and here as Lucrezia Contarini, I have never somehow pictured here as Leonora, a role entirely within her natural gifts and abilities. She has the big high notes, the strong low register, the floating pianissimi, most of the trills and the flexibility… and yet she is rarely convincing in it. Her voice is now often fluttery and somewhat “spongy” in tone; long noble phrases as in her opening aria lack the poise and legato that are the hallmark of every famous Leonora. Ms. Meade, however, is always persuasive when things get athletic. Then she negotiates runs, leaps, staccato, you name it with animation, precision and sheer energy. In those moments – when most sopranos are usually desperate – she sounds like an important singer. Elsewhere, her heart seems to be elsewhere.
A Trovatore without an Azucena is something close to fraud – this role is in the core of a performance of this opera and it is no wonder that singers who excel in it, such as Cossotto or Zajick in their days, tend to the ubiquitous. Dana Beth Miller is a member of the ensemble, a reliable singer out of her depth in a dramatic emplois. As the part requires some sort of bizarre, many singers take profit of that label to make some very strange sounds and get away with it. Ms. Miller is not fond of shortcuts and dealt seriously with all the difficulties written by Verdi, but she was operating on her limit. This often involved her sounding sharp, mostly colorless. She has the dramatic temper for this, and one felt inclined to like her, but this sort of kamikaze-mission is rarely healthy for the singer and the audience.
I confess I was not eager to see Carlo Ventre as Manrico and welcomed his replacement by Turkish tenor Murat Kaharan, although I had never heard about him before. It is not a beautiful voice, rather steely in sound and stentorian in volume. It is also refreshingly unproblematic in its high register. Although one cannot speak of nuance or elegance, his singing is not vulgar either, but rather matter-of-fact. His restrained delivery of Ah, sì, ben mio, beautiful trills included, surprised me. Its infamous cabaletta had only one verse and it was adjusted to fit the interpolated high notes. This is not an age for tenors truly able of singing this role; therefore, Mr. Kaharan is a name to keep. I have heard better in recordings, but not live, I am afraid.
Dalibor Jenis was a capable Count di Luna, not the most velvety in tone for his big aria, but rhythmically alert and dramatically engaged. Marko Mimica offered a skilled account of the role of Ferrando, keen on his divisions and tonally varied.
Roberto Rizzi Brignoli’s flexible and energetic approach to the score found in the house orchestra an ideal ensemble, rich in sound and light-on-its foot. These musicians really left nothing to be desired this evening. Actually, there is one moment that called my attention: the anvil chorus, when the anvils seemed out of synch.
Hans Neuenfels’s 1996 production is of the sometimes illuminating, sometimes irritating type. Sets and costumes are always beautiful and stylish, the show is visually compelling in its symbology that parts with the need of real acting from the cast. Some ideas are powerful – both Manrico and di Luna are shown in the same bullfighter costume, the audience can see Azucena set not only her son but her own mother on fire during Condotta era ell’era in ceppi and a closing scene when mother and son look entirely deprived of dignity as brutalized and traumatized prisoners. At the same time, Neuenfels loves silliness – choristers (as always) behaves as if they had some sort of mental disorder; in the cloister scene, Jesus (!) waltzes with a cardinal and there are bartenders during the soldiers’ chorus.