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VERDI: Il trovatore
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Lovers of Il trovatore a work famous for its perennially popular cavatinas and cabalettas rightly expect the singers to be at the very top of their vocal game and particularly look forward to the top C at the end of Manrico s stretta, a true do di petto produced not from the head but from the chest. Yet the production of the work that was staged at the end of 2013 by the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin jointly run by Daniel Barenboim and Jürgen Flimm deliberately flouted these expectations and traded familiarity for astonishment. Such a reaction was due not only to the two most famous singers of our age, both of whom were appearing onstage for the first time in their respective roles, but also to the company s music director, who made it abundantly clear that he was concerned with more than just a feast for the ears and rousing rum-ti-tum rhythms. Rather, Barenboim adopted a more daring, not to say unprecedented, approach to Verdi s score, seeking greater refinement and bringing out darker colours than we are used to hearing. Leonora s entrance aria, Tacea la notte placida , for example, was taken so slowly that one would have been afraid that the singer might run out of breath if the soprano in question had not been Anna Netrebko. The Russian star has such superb breath control that you would think the Staatskapelle were supporting her all the way. The quietest of phrases blossom into life, rising to a glowing top note that then returns to its original volume by means of a particularly bold use of messa di voce, most notably in Leonora s great aria in Part 4, D amor sull ali rosee , where we find the magic of a late bel canto style to which Verdi brought such authentic emotional depth that it is impossible to mock his ideal of beauty as no more than a vocal tightrope act. Rather we can respond to an art that speaks directly to our soul.
About the Actor
Anna Netrebko confirmed her exceptional status on the operatic Olympus in 2005, when she sang Verdi s Violetta alongside Rolando Villazón at that summer s Salzburg Festival. With Leonora she has successfully completed the bold move to more dramatic roles. Her voice has always been nobly rounded, but now it has gained in body and volume, becoming fuller and darker in tone. The courtesan Violetta, with her dazzling coloratura, and Puccini s lyrically sweet-toned Mimì have evolved into a full-blooded operatic heroine with an emotional breadth that subverts and transcends all the usual operatic clichés.
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First, the ridiculous: The set is an open ended cube of stone walls. Count di Luna and his troops are costumed in solid black Restoration garb. The women of the castle and the "gypsies" seem to have wandered in from a commedia dell'arte production. The confined set also limits the scope of action and acting that can take place under these circumstances. But enough of that...
The sublime: First and foremost, NETRBKO !!! She has really grown vocally lately, and absolutely nails this difficult Verdi role. I can't wait to see her in the Met's MacBeth. Or for that matter in any Verdi role you could imagine, Amelia, Desdemona, Aida, Leonora(Forze), whatever -- bring it on. This is a must-own recording for her performance alone. She is more than capably partnered by two of her colleagues, both of whom were unknown to me before. Rivero is an ardent, beautifully-voiced Manrico and Prudenskaya is stunning as the demented Azucena. The problematic casting is Domingo as DiLuna. His tenor voice may be dark in color but it's not a baritone, and this performance is the weak link in this production. That said, Domingo always gives an artistic performance and it's somewhat amazing that the great tenor at this point in his career would even attempt this role. It's not what you want in an interpretation of DiLuna, but it's not boring.
Anyone who is a fan of Netrebko and has a high tolerance for wackiness should enjoy this production.
The Staatskapelle Berlin's December 2013 performance, conducted by Daniel Barenboim with Anna Netrebko and Placido Domingo, approaches that dual achievement.
From Adrian Sâmpetrean's opening "All'erta," directed not to the chorus of soldiers but to the audience, it's clear we're in for no ordinary Trovatore. This Ferrando and chorus are dressed in costumes straight out of the 17th century paintings of Velázquez and move with stylized deliberation. To detail the fantastical features of Philipp Stölzl's entire production would be tedious, besides spoiling the adventure. In addition to other reviews posted here (the ones that actually apply to the Berlin Trovatore), you can do a Google search for "Il Trovatore, Opera News, March 2014, A. J. Goldmann" and "Philipp Stölzl's Il Trovatore has successful Wiener Festwochen test-run on bachtrack June 6, 2013" for informed opinions. For myself, I'll say if you're capable of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief, you will see Trovatore as you've never seen it before -- not just on the surface, but through the outward appearance into the maelstrom of emotions that drives the characters. And you will hear a wealth of fabulous singing.
I bought this after watching Netrebko in the 2014 Live from the Met broadcast of Verdi's Macbeth at a local movie theater, and even after that experience, her performance in Trovatore floored me. I would never have expected her voice to mature into the force required to deliver such a Leonora. But it has and she does. Netrebko alone makes this worth seeing and hearing. Hers, however, is not the only great voice here, nor is she the only singer who can act. Domingo, 72 when this was filmed, sings and executes the role of the appropriately named Count di Luna with a virility that belies his age. Belaboring the point would insult the man who has given the opera world so much and who excels yet again.
The big surprise for many viewers will be Marina Prudenskaya's tour de force as Azucena. Her voice packs every ounce of the requisite power (she's the mezzo in the Verdi Requiem Giuseppe Verdi: Messa Da Requiem [Blu-ray] conducted by Mariss Jansons), and her presentation of the gypsy's role leaves nothing to be desired. Into such company ventures young Gaston Rivero, a last-minute replacement for Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko. Given Domingo's history in the role of Manrico, it must have been intimidating for Rivero to fight a duel on stage with him, but the kid does good. If Rivero lacks the physical stature and stage presence of the other three, he can nevertheless sing the part.
It doesn't matter to me that no anvils are on stage at the gypsies' camp, but two of Stölzl's decisions are questionable. Instead of ordering Manrico's execution at the end, the Count kills him with his own hands. More bothersome is having Leonora stab herself instead of taking poison, and Netrebko spends a large part of Act IV with a bloody stain on her dress. Perhaps Stölzl thought the visual impact was needed. I wonder whether most viewers will agree. But the singing still reigns.
If I'd attended this performance, I'd feel I'd been blessed with the occasion of a lifetime. At considerably less cost, the Blu-ray is a bargain. I don't think it should be anybody's first or only Trovatore. But the video catalog is not overflowing with high-grade productions of Verdi's masterpiece, and the exceptional musical quality and insightful production features of this one lift it above run-of-the mill versions. I've watched the Berlin Trovatore front-to-back three times, and it holds up well. Whether it will do so a fourth time -- or how high it might rank in five years -- well, trying to predict that would be lunacy.