Verdi has a reputation for presenting strong subjects focussing on marginalised characters. Il Trovatore blends a melodramatic story of the battle of Count di Luna (Maim Aniskin), and Romani troubadour Manrico (Yonghoon Lee) for the heart of a woman, Leonora (Leah Crocetto) with a second narrative about the persecution of Romani in 15th century Spain.
In the opening scene, Ferrando (David Parkin), recants the story of a Romani woman who cast a spell on the Count’s son and was burned at the stake for her supposed crime. We later learn that Manrico is the adopted son of the Romani woman’s daughter, and that her own child also died in the fire.
Romani people have a long history as a persecuted minority in Europe. At the time Il Trovatore was written their itinerant lifestyle was viewed as romantic and mysterious, but also distrustful and undesirable. They were both fortune-tellers and spell-casters, and inspired intrigue and fear in equal measure.
Opera Australia’s decision to transpose the opera to the Spanish civil war of the 20th century is understandable, and indeed they have set opera in the period previously. However, director Davide Livermore adds a further twist.The Spanish civil war took place in the turbulent years leading up to World War II, and Spain’s head of state, Franco, was a Nazi sympathiser. The Nazis viewed the Romani as racially inferior and estimates put the number murdered in the period at between a quarter and a third of their population.
Livermore says there is no room in his production for romantic idyll. He wants to hold a mirror up to nature and ‘drown us in horror’. Fairground jesters and a drumroll announce the opening act. Behind them, large digital screens emerge from the wings. The panels nearest the audience display a series tarot cards, and a raggle-taggle circus troupe highlight the Romani culture. The screens behind display a dystopian landscape of burnt out buildings and a ruined fairground.
The imagery is dark and malevolent. Monochrome war-torn and desolate landscapes contrast with red flames and blood. The colours echo the red, black and white of the Nazi flag, and the flame and blood remind us of both the 15th century burning of Romani as witches, and their mass murder in 20th century Europe. The effect is disturbing and unsettling, brutal and uncompromising.
Verdi’s dramatic orchestral score alternates between lyrical cantabile and rhythmic cabeletta, and singers need to be vocal gymnasts to master it. The talented Yonghoon Lee, who plays Manrico, would normally have been up to the challenge, but on opening night he appeared to be struggling with vocal issues. He looked visibly in pain, and in the first half his voice faltered a few times. Leah Crocetto, as Leonora, admirably took up the slack in the duets, but it was obviously unsettling for the cast to have to perform on opening night with one of the lead vocalists only able to give a less than optimal performance.
By the second half, the production steadied. Maxim Aniskin as Count di Luna was menacingly cold and frightening, and Elena Gabouri powerfully delivered the guttural emotion of Azucena. David Parkin as Ferrando presented the narration of the story with confidence.
Conductor Andrea Battistoni and the talented musicians of the Opera Australia Orchestra keep the opera moving at a pace, expertly moving between the dramatic changes in emotion. The chorus, including dancers and acrobats, convey the tension between the Romani circus troupe and the men in grey suits of the state forces with passion and zest.
The challenge for opera is to make it accessible for a contemporary audience while remaining true to the original intention of the piece. Opera Australia’s production of Il Trovatore is not always comfortable to watch, and its stark interpretation of Verdi’s message may not be to the taste of audiences who prefer a more traditional approach, but many will see it as a bold, uncompromising and relevant re-imagining of the text.
Il Trovatore, Opera Australia
Sydney Opera House
Director: Davide Livermore
Conductor: Andrea Battistoni
Set Design: Giò Forma
Cast: Leah Crocetto, Elena Gabouri, Yonghoon Lee, Maxim Aniskin, David Parkin
Tickets: from $79
Il Trovatore will be performed until 30 July 2022