There is an inherent problem with reviewing opera from a modern, and in my case feminist, perspective: a lot of the material is a century old or more. The stories and characters of opera often reflect a world in which issues such as race, class, religion and gender were viewed very differently from the way they are now. There are new productions, but mostly we see the classic stories, with the score and libretto basically unchanged since the premier. I therefore often find myself having to dissociate the music and performances of an operatic production from the story and characters, being entertained by the former and irritated by the latter. In the case of Scottish Opera’s Il Trovatore, however, this proved rather difficult.
The story pretty much runs as follows: a few years ago the youngest son of the Count di Luna fell ill after a visit from a gypsy woman; the Count then had the gypsy burned at the stake. Seeking revenge, the gypsy’s daughter, Azucena, snatched the ailing child, planning to throw him on the fire too. Maddened by grief she accidentally threw her own son on the fire though and ended up raising the Count’s child as her own, naming him Manrico. Now a full-grown man and a soldier in an opposing army to his brother, the new Count di Luna, Manrico and the new Count end up vying for the love of a young woman named Leonora. Although she chooses Manrico, di Luna continues to pursue her, swearing to kill his rival and unaware that Manrico is in fact his brother.
Il Trovatore is a wild, melodramatic opera, involving so many unlikely scenarios that it can often feel disconnected from reality. The first half of runs on a near constant stream of drama, whilst the second half is more sedate and reflective, right up until the rather sudden, tragic climax.
Scottish Opera have impressed me again and again with their productions. The pool of talent they now have access to puts them on par with the larger, London-based companies, and this has never been more obvious than here. The orchestration is perfect: large and loud enough to bring you the spine-tingling crescendos but subtle enough so as not to overshadow the cast. Of the main performers, Anne Mason stood out the most for me, portraying the tragically tortured soul of Azucena, but Roland Wood (di Luna) and Claire Rutter (Leonora) were also flawless, and I could listen to Gwyn Hughes Jones (Manrico) sing in that gorgeous tenor for days on end. I don’t think I can do their talent justice here; it is something you must witness for yourself. The main cast are backed by an enormous ensemble, providing soft accompaniment and raucous choruses, including what is probably the best known piece from this opera, the “Anvil Chorus”.
The staging is beautifully simple, with three or four huge, undecorated set pieces that are rearranged between scenes, accompanied by changes in lighting to create eight distinct locations. Spotlights are also used to great effect, casting shadows of the actors onto the walls to accentuate a character’s emotional state and add to the unreality of it all. These choices allow the performances and the orchestration to shine without distraction. However, the large set pieces do mean that scene transitions are overly long and awkward, leaving the audience sitting in silence for a minute and a half while clunks and whispers carry from behind the curtain. It is never a good idea to allow your audience enough time to start a conversation.
As far as representation of women goes, Il Trovatore does better than most. In this case, Verdi wrote that he specifically wanted this to be “a two woman opera”, deliberately enhancing both roles musically and in terms of the plot. This does not necessarily save them from being poorly written, however. Il Trovatore is an emotion-fuelled opera; each of its characters are driven by a powerful desire: Azucena by vengeance, Leonora and Manrico by love and di Luna by jealousy. Azucena is less one-dimensional than the others in that her desire for revenge conflicts with her motherly love for Manrico, leading to a bitter-sweet conclusion to her story, but I still couldn’t call her character “good”. Meanwhile, every single one of Leonora’s lines relates to Manrico in some way; he is her only motivation throughout. She is also very passive for most of the opera, only driving the plot in the final act, meaning she has the potential to become a useless but noisy set piece. In this performance, however, she is played rather well. When di Luna tries to duel Manrico in the first act she attempts to physically restrain him rather than just crying at him (the usual method of resistance used by women in opera). In a later scene where Manrico rushes from her side, possibly to his death, the original libretto has Leonora faint from fear, but here she does not: it seems that the opera world is finally willing to admit that women do not pass out the minute you put them under stress. These are little touches but they do serve to present a stronger character for Leonora. It is unfortunate that the male characters do not get the same treatment; di Luna is detestable on top of being one-dimensional and Manrico has no real personality outside of caring for Azucena and Leonora, meaning neither of them really inspire pity or support in the same way the women do.
Despite this dearth of likable characters and a plot that often feels silly, I could not separate them from the music itself. Unlike almost every other opera I’ve seen, the music of Il Trovatore is what tells the story; even without the supertitles I could tell, every moment, what a character was trying to express. The beautiful but contrasting melodies from Leonora and Azucena and the strong, spine-tingling choruses from the male ensemble fit so well with the dark themes of the story and the emotional drive of the principle cast that I would rather watch poorly written characters do stupid things for two and a half hours than listen to the music performed without context. This especially applies to this production, which genuinely had me engaged and awed throughout.
If you are an established opera fan you are almost guaranteed to love this and if you’re new to opera then this is a great place to start. If you have any appreciation for music you will enjoy the performance and hopefully be left with the desire to see more opera in the future.
Il Trovatore is playing on the 24th, 27th and 30th of May at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre.