First published in the Guardian on 8 May, 2015
It has not been the cheeriest spring season at Scottish Opera. Physical and psychological brutality prevail in MacMillan’s Ines de Castro, Janacek’s Jenufa and now Verdi’s Il trovatore, three operas dealing in infanticide and maternal trauma. Oddly, this production of Verdi’s dark tale — an old Martin Lloyd-Evans staging — opens in slapstick when a lone soldier gets a fright and tumbles from his perch, but the laughs soon fizzle as Ferrando recounts how a gypsy woman once threw a baby into the fire to avenge her mother’s death.
In musical terms Il trovatore is one of Verdi’s most conventional operas, a sequence of classic set pieces. And for all its moody lighting and starkly looming sets, this static production is as traditional as it comes, right down to hessian-clad gypsies hammering in time with the Anvil Chorus. There are plenty of shadows, all loaded up with symbolism: watch for the Leonora/Count power-play acted out in silhouettes. It would be a clever touch if it didn’t stunt the singers’ stage movements so much.
Caruso once joked that a successful Trovatore needs nothing more than the finest four singers in the world; here we’ll make do with one terrific soprano. Claire Rutter’s stoic Leonora has marvellous control, a dark-hued low register and a captivating ability to pull about a phrase while spinning out a sturdy Verdian line. Anne Mason is light-voiced for the old gypsy Azucena but her delivery is potent; Gwyn Hughes Jones’s Manrico is an enthusiastic troubadour, confident flinging out high notes if not always rounded. Roland Wood’s bellowing Count goes for decibels rather than nuance; the chorus makes a mighty sound throughout. In the pit, the crucial tactic is to ramp up tension through Verdi’s set pieces. Swedish conductor Tobias Ringborg keeps the orchestra crisp and the pacing neat, but it’s never electrifying.