Ordeal by Fire

from DW Griffith's Intollerance

From DW Griffith’s film Intolerance

Ordeal by Fire 

Il Trovatore, music by Giuseppe Verdi, conducted by Richard Farnes, Director David Bösch, Royal Opera House, 4th December 2016, first revival of David Bösch’s 2015/2016 production, reviewed by Leslie Jones

In our review of the 2015/16 production of Il Trovatore (see QR, July 5, 2016), the absurdity and incomprehensibility of Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto was noted. The Illustrated London News (29 March 1856) described the subject of the latter as “not only revolting in itself, but confused and obscure in its treatment”. Only outstanding vocal performances, it would seem, can make up for the deficiencies of the plot.

Il Trovatore is evidently not one of Verdi’s greatest operas, although as George Bernard Shaw pointed out, it tackles some stirring and elemental themes. We have immolation, infanticide, jealousy, the unquenchable desire for revenge (of Azucena and of Luna) plus the abiding love of a ‘mother’ for her (adopted) son. There is also the self-sacrifice of Leonora to Count di Luna (à la Floria Tosca) in a vain attempt to save her sweetheart Manrico, although, as she pointedly declares, “You will have my body but only as a corpse”.

In David Bösch’s (revived) production, the action is transposed to a contemporary war zone, possibly Yugoslavia during its bloody break up. We see snow, trees and a tank from whose gun barrel a hapless prisoner is duly hung. Trophy photos are taken when Manrico is captured. The caravan festooned with dolls: the pram: the motley crew in the gypsy encampment, including an oversized bride – how did we survive without them for so long?

The stand out performance on this occasion was unarguably mezzo soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, as Azucena. She has a rich, affecting and powerful voice and she deservedly received several spontaneous rounds of applause. The scene featuring Azucena and Manrico, performed by tenor Najmiddin Mavlyanov, was also compelling. Maria Agresta (Leonora) and Quinn Kelsey (Luna), after a somewhat tentative start, finished strongly and received generous applause.

Verdi’s disdain for the superstitious and intolerant elements of earlier Catholicism is another prominent theme of Il Trovatore, an idea taken up again by Puccini in Tosca. As Rachel Beaumont perceptively observes in the programme, “The music and libretto for Il trovatore are riven by allusions to fire”. For Director David Bösch, likewise, “every character is infected with this first image [of Azucena’s mother being burnt at the stake, several years before the start of the opera] – every character is wounded”. Intolerance of the “other”, an elderly gypsy in this instance, generates a self-perpetuating cycle of destructive emotions.

LESLIE JONES is the editor of Quarterly Review

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