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Andrew Quint
Fanfare, January 2009

This dazzling Covent Garden Il trovatore, a production well suited to show off the virtues of the Blu-ray format, is truly an international affair. The Royal Opera House shared this production with Teatro Real in Madrid; the conductor and set designer are Italian; the four principal singers hail from Argentina, Russia, Switzerland, and Chile. But, as José Cura is quick to point out in an “extra feature,” these singers have worked together before and this performance—taped on a single night in May of 2002—has none of the lets-throw-some-stars-together-and-see-what-happens quality that’s always a risk at the biggest opera houses.

Those four leads all do embody their roles convincingly. Cura and Dmitri Hvorostovsky are formidable adversaries; there’s some serious testosterone flowing during their first act duel. In Cura’s own words, the fact that he “looks like Che Guevara” helps him bring a “gypsy-Latino machismo” to his portrayal of the revolutionary Manrico. He’s vocally exciting as well, for example, in act III’s “Di quella pira l’orrendo foco/Tutte le fibre m’arse, avvampò!” And Hvorostovsky, singing the role of the Count for the first time in his career, is a menacing villain, utilizing his huge baritone to vent di Luna’s frustration with Leonora’s devotion to his rival. Yvonne Naef is a magnificent Azucena: her act II recounting of how she came to kill her own child is harrowing and, in act III, her story as told to her captors (“Giorni poveri vivea, Pur contenta del mio stato”) is quite moving. Verónica Villarroel’s soprano has a slight reediness to it, but she too has a commanding dramatic presence, and her singing gathers strength as the evening progresses. The smaller roles are covered effectively and the chorus—the “Anvil Chorus” and the soldiers’ “Or co’ dadi, ma fra poco Giuocherem ben altro giu’oco” at the outset of the third act, as they prepare for battle—are thrilling. Under Carlo Rizzi’s sure hand, the orchestral playing is assured.

Visually, the production is sensational. Director Elijah Moshinsky collaborated with Dante Ferretti, a set designer with extensive film experience (he’s worked with Fellini and Scorcesi, among others) who is definitely not the type to settle for a painted backdrop. Likewise, the costume designer, Anne Tilby, went for a kind of heightened reality. This all comes across phenomenally well at home thanks to the Blu-ray technology: the picture is crisp and sharp, with details easy to make out even under low-lighting conditions, just as they would in the theater. Sonically, the high-resolution surround-sound option delivers a pleasing dimensionality; Manrico’s offstage voice in act IV is realistically distant. Balances between stage and pit are ideal, and the orchestra is recorded with excellent weight. Subtitle choices are English, French, German, and Spanish. (The assumption must be that Italian speakers don’t need them, which is probably correct.) In addition to the usual plot synopsis, there are three substantive extra features. First is “The cast and their characters,” observations from the conductor and the four principal singers. Next is “Designing Il trovatore,” where we hear from the director and both set and costume designers about the challenges they faced in creating this production. Finally, there’s “All about Schläger dueling.” Director Moshinsky got the idea of opening act III with the Count’s men engaging in “German Student Dueling,” aka Schläger, a potentially dangerous (and now illegal) form of fencing in which the participants, armed with sabers, oppose each other without moving their feet; the goal is to scar your opponents face. How’s that for an “extreme sport.” It’s safe to say that most viewers will learn something new, at least from this feature.

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