Oh my. If ever you were in search of drama, we’re talking high octane, melodramatic, real toss-it-out-there stuff, Il Trovatore is for you. Composer Guiseppe Verdi, renowned for his penchant for the dramatic, went all out on this one. With an equal proclivity for marginalised characters, (think courtesan in La Traviata, the hunch-backed jester in Rogletto, or the enslaved Ethiopian princess in Aida) he revels in the persecution of a whole ethnic group, one still largely vilified seven centuries after the opera debuted in Rome in 1853.
Like your usual run-of-the-mill operatic tale, there is unrequited love, sacrifice, argy bargy, a scorned love rival, a cesspool of grudges and yes, of course, someone dies (actually, several do), but Verdi’s Il Trovatore steps it up a notch, tossing in witchcraft, savage, brutal revenge, the barbaric murder of an infant and fratricide.
It’s a blockbuster of a yarn, a veritable Game of Thrones of the 19th Century.
It’s complex, and I suggest you read the cheat sheet available at opera.org.au prior to curtain, or you could get lost in the detail. Trust me, this is an opera where you have to concentrate. Hard. It’s set in 15th Century Spain during a civil war and the Captain of the Royal Guard Ferrando (David Parkin) keeps his troops awake by recounting the horrific story of a gypsy burned at the stake for bewitching the infant brother of the Count Di Luna (Maxim Aniskin), who is obsessed with Leonora (Leah Crocetto), a lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Aragon, who is in turn obsessed with Manrico (Yonghoon Lee) a troubadour and officer in the rebel army. Keeping up?
And that’s just setting the scene. Along come the gypsies, or Romanis, shrouded in mystery and widely derided, there’s also a daring rescue for love, an arrest of our hero, a misguided suicide and unrelenting bitterness. As buried secrets are dragged to the surface to reveal a tragic and overwhelming twist, you realise this ain’t no Hollywood ending. And that’s just the story.
This particular performance of Il Trovatore is catapulted to a new level of darkness with Director Davide Livermore fast-forwarding the tale from the Middle Ages into the mid-twentieth century and the Spanish Civil War. While this is not the first time this has been done, Livermore ups the ante using seven-metre-high digital screens gliding seamlessly across the stage to reflect burning war-torn skies, shattered ruins of apartment blocks and bleak, scorched landscapes. All dramatic and confronting, but easy to interpret. What wasn’t so clear were the graphic images depicting ethnic cleansing and at times I found myself distracted by the morbidity of skulls and skeletons and a huge restless eye. It was a gory visual overload. While digital imagery is the set of choice for modern theatre, the craving to be creative and clever can detract from the talent on stage. Less is often more.
There were delightful moments untouched by war and carnage such as the opening of the second act when the circus gypsies swarm on stage, a merry band of contortionists, jugglers and acrobats, to the colourful Anvil Chorus (think Babe: Pig in the City). As usual, I know my limitations, so I won’t pretend to know much about the singing, although I’m getting more and more familiar with the splendour of Yonghoon Lee who’s become a familiar and welcome face about town. To my untrained opera ear, it’s all about entertainment. And Il Travatore is entertaining, a great yarn, definitely not a feel good one, but drama at its Verdi best.
- Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
- July 28 and 30
- Sung in Italian with English sur titles
- Contains adult themes, violence and live flame effects, and a bright lighting effect during Act 1
- Tickets available here
Don’t forget Verdi’s La Traviata is also staging at the Dame Joan Sutherland Theatre
- July 27 and 29
October 22, 26, 28 31 and
November 02 and 04
Tickets available here.