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Could you explain that again?

04/09/2001 -  and 12, 19, 21, 25, 28 April, 5, 11 May
Giuseppe Verdi: Il trovatore
David Kempster (Count of Luna), Clive Bayley (Ferrando), Sandra Ford (Leonora), Claire Weston (Inez), Sally Burgess (Azucena), Julian Gavin (Manrico)
Paul Daniel (conductor/director), Nicholas Payne (director)
ENO chorus and orchestra

Il trovatore is a rarity in London these days, but the main interest of this new production at the ENO is that it is directed by Paul Daniel, the music director of the company, and the general director Nicholas Payne. They have been enthusing about their task in the press, but others might have a sense of foreboding. Daniel has a vast experience of opera as a conductor, but no directing experience; Payne last directed anything in the 1980s. On the other hand, the cast is strong, and nobody really expects much from a production of Il trovatore anyway, except in some quarters not to be outraged by an outré concept. Daniel and Payne in fact deliver much what you’d expect, Verdi’s work doesn’t come to any harm and most paying customers seem to enjoy it.

The plot of Il trovatore is famously incomprehensible, even though a fair proportion of the opera consists of people explaining it for no apparent reason. This production doesn’t start to try to clarify it, by characterisation, thematic pointers or even action. The programme notes include an even more incomprehensible (and irrelevant) outline of the historical of the action, though the set is minimal (bare red walls, a couple of lumps of something, a projection of water and a red spot) and the costumes are timeless, with Noh drama perhaps the strongest cultural allusion in a couple of characters, and that not very strong. A summary of the story of Cain and Abel hints at a big theme that doesn’t materialize, unless the physical similarity of Manrico and Luna means something more than the fact that the singers are both big and square. A lot of the singing is also (charitably) Noh-style straight to the audience, far less successfully than the similar approach in the semi-staged Rheingold earlier this year.

Other aspects of the staging defy charity. You might guess that the directors though having the chorus stand around in a square or circles of various sizes was simple and undistracting, but it just looks inept. As does the anvil chorus, which begins with the chorus walking down stage and some of them then turning around and going back. And at the beginning, a stool in the red spot seems to represent a brazier, since Ferrando is walking around it and apparently warming his hands at it, but then that he sits down on it for the narrative.

But the performance of the music itself was as good as any of the ENO’s recent Verdi. The orchestra, directed by Daniel in his more usual mode, delivered the clarity that the production aimed for and failed. There was no bombast, and not a trace of oompah. The singing was also generally on the austere side, by Verdian standards, but always committed and musical. Julian Gavin as Manrico and Sandra Ford as Leonora probably suffered most from the lack of a production. (Ford was saddled with a slimy-looking blue dress, implausibly slit to the thigh, that might have come from Top Shop around 1976.) They both adopted angular-and-flat poses and sang away intensely. Both had the odd rough moment, and neither has a particularly beautiful voice, but both were well inside the music and understood how to get the set pieces over. David Kempster didn’t have quite enough force as Luna, but Sally Burgess was scary as Azucena, at times suggesting a female Lear. None of them quite matched the force of Clive Bayley’s performance of Ferrando’s opening narrative.

The audience applauded after almost every number, which is very rare in London. If there was nothing quite as stirring as Peter Rose’s Silva in Ernani last year, or as surprisingly lyrical as Alan Opie’s Carlo in the same production, or as deranged as Alistair Miles and Lauren Flanigan in Nabucco earlier this season, there was plenty that Verdi would have recognised. Including, perhaps, a turkey of a production.

H.E. Elsom



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