Monday, June 11, 2012

Il Trovatore premiered in Brussels: Tcherniakov hits a big show again, Scott Hendricks too

Il Trovatore, La Monnaie/De Munt in Brussels, June 10 2012

Director ..... Dmitri Tcherniakov
Music direction ..... Marc Minkowski

Il Conte di Luna ..... Scott Hendricks
Manrico ..... Misha Didyk
Azucena ..... Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo
Leonora ..... Marina Poplavskaya
Ferrando ..... Giovanni Furlanetto

La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra & Chorus

 does it again. does a good job although I doubt Verdi is his niche.  of course rocked.  has a pretty voice.  is in the mezzo world what Krassimira Stoyanova is in the soprano-land.  was not at her best but she still managed.  is a reliable singer and he did well considering the size of his role in the show.

This opera was first performed at La Monnaie only three years after its world premiere in Rome, with a difference that in Brussels --in 1856-- it was performed in French for the first time, under the supervision of Verdi himself, who introduced quite a bit of changes with respect to the Italian version. That French version then became a model that Verdi used when revising the original score and it is a version we are given to see today.

Honestly, I never understood the fuss about this opera and the statement that Il Trovatore is one of the 25 most performed operas in the world is to me more of a testimony of bad taste (not to use a harsh term) of the opera crowd.

Il Trovatore is a prototype of what I call 'bad Verdi'. Other bad Verdi operas are his lesser known works, Stiffelio, Aida, La Forza del destino, Rigoletto... while in the folder of good Verdi operas I would put Falstaff, Otello, Don Carlo, Macbeth, La Traviata... The musical simplicity of Il Trovatore would not be irritating  if it was not regularly performed with outrageously intense pathos that would remain a paragon of bad taste until a few verismo operas saw the light of the opera houses. Worse of all, the libretto of Il Trovatore is downright racist.Maybe being racist was acceptable at the time Verdi composed his opera but that doesn't make it easier for us to stomach it today. McVicar's production of Il Trovatore that we could see last year live from The Met is an example how this opera should not be staged.

Libretto borrowed all the defaults from the bel-canto operas --it is badly sewn and the frame for  drama is defined in an opening aria...

And yet the opera was and still is a big success. For all the bad reasons, if you ask me! Today it is often quoted as one of the most challenging operas for Verdian singers. This never impresses me: I don't enjoy watching singers tearing themselves apart to hit all the top notes in full voice while shoveling all the low notes in pain.

Now, you may ask why the heck I would spend Sunday in Brussels to see the premiere of Il Trovatore if I evidently disliked the opera in question. Well, there are several reasons: La Monnaie is one of the 5 best opera houses in Europe and I knew  they would not allow a stupid production of Il Trovatore to be given on their stage. I bet Peter de Caluwe shares a part of my feelings for this opera except that  he recognizes its popularity with the public and wanted to meet the challenge -- stage it in the Best Opera House 2011 by making it better than it actually is [similarly Dietmar Schwarz confided Aida to Calixto Bieito in Basle about two years ago, and turned the opera I intensely dislike to one of my most memorable nights at the opera]. Peter de Caluwe opted for Dmitri Tcherniakov, one of the very best directors of our time, whose every show is positively `disturbing', who teaches us that opera is not dead art filled with stale productions -- but that everything can be viewed a little bit differently, that nothing is entirely what it seems... that life is more about our capacity to embrace differences then asserting our certainties.

Dima has courage to cut through the crap and for example turned the message of Les Carmélites that pretended there was something noble in the act of collective suicide for ideological, political or religious reasons. He made a twist and made the opera look as an act of celebration of human life -- which is so utterly right -- philosophically or even metaphysically [let me remind you that Tcherniakov's Blanche de la Force did not join the sisters in the collective suicide but instead came to rescue them, one by one]. So yes, Dima was my main reason to go to Brussels. Not lesser a reason was Scott Hendricks, who elevated the Warlikowski's Macbeth so high that even today this stands as one of my lifetime best operatic experiences -- that too happened in Brussels a couple of years ago. Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo must be a mezzo-equivalent to Krassimira Stoyanova: one of the most great voices in business, a lady who sings honestly and elegantly. Azucena  is a tough role to sing, and  I feared it might be too big for her, although I knew she would made it sound great. Misha Didyk is a very good tenor and Giovanni Furlanetto a splendid bass, so I knew the singing would be good, without shouting and mannerisms. Marina Poplavskaya is admittedly a controversial singer: you either like her singing or dislike it, but nobody can deny that her voice is big, that she radiates something special when on stage, something melancholic, tender... and that she incarnates the verdian roles the way no other singer can.

Scott Hendricks, Marina Pops Poplavskaya, Misha Didyk, Sylvie Brunet, and Giovanni Furlanetto

So yes, the singers were all very good, nobody was screaming or shouting, nobody was trying to make the show about him/herself. Everything they did or sang was for the drama. They all followed  the directions by Tcherniakov and in the end the opera looked and sounded great. It is the visual aspect that sets up the atmosphere, it is the theatrical brilliance of Tcherniakov that reminded us that even this opera can be a magnificent theatrical event. For the musical part the Oscar goes to... Marc Minkowski . This must be his first Verdi, and I loved what I was given to hear. He gave the score nuances and rounded the rough edges, put a special emphasis on its lyric and dramatic content.Minkowski is known for his renditions of Mozart opera, the French repertoire, and baroque. Verdi may not be his niche but this was simply magnificent.

Of course Tcherniakov kicked all the racist crap out of his show and --similar to his groundbreaking productions of Eugene Onegin and Don Giovanni-- organized the dramatic action on a single set, depicting a house of a wealthy woman (Azucena) who receives the guests for an evening of role-play that would eventually turn into nightmare. Let me briefly recount how it is actually structured as the theatrical genius of this man is mind-boggling.

So the invités were coming one by one before the music started. You could immediately feel the tension in the handshake between Manrico (a singer in a leather jacket) and a businessman Count di Luna (in a suit, coat). The arrival of Leonora corroborated the tension between the two men. Ferrando --in this production-- is Di Luna's father who is aware of his son's bad temper and who will constantly try and calm him down.

After all four of them arrived, the hostess --Azucena-- locks the door (the music begins!) and proposes her guests to play the roles in the given plot and thereby try to uncode the key of destiny that unites them all.

Three men sit around the table, get the sheets of paper with the plot and listen to Ferrando who reads the background story [Di due figli vivea padre beato].
All the other tableaux in the first part of the show are staged similarly. They play the roles to remember a given episode from Il Trovatore, and the game they play starts progressively mixing up with their real lives relationships.

Chorus is in the pit with the orchestra [no Muti and the huge pointless chorus scenes here! YAY] The episode in which Azucena sings Stride la vampa is preceded by the matron bringing a large jewelry box and, while singing, she takes out the pieces of jewelry and puts them all on herself. This is the only reference to her being a Gypsy.
Leonora is courted by Di Luna but is attracted to Manrico and will soon go with the singer to a room next door where we could see her making out with him. This inflamed the rage in Di Luna. He feels more and more uncomfortable, takes off his shoes, his jacket... the game went too far for his ego to handle...  and his father struggles to tame him.

Little by little  the line between the personalities they incarnate in the game and those who they are in their real life breaks down and the businessman becomes more and more Di Luna, the singer Manrico, the femme fatale turns into Leonora and the matron of the evening identifies with Azucena...  Di Luna drinks more and more and the moment he spills some wine of his shirt clearly indicated he was already drunk and the evening would end bad.

As the drama develops Leonora takes her sunglasses off, her wig too. She shows her real/true self. The game of role-play liberated a woman in her. She confesses that the singer (Manrico) is the man she loves, and she takes great pleasure in the wedding ceremony they play.

Businessman Di Luna cannot bear it any longer and he attacks the singer/Manrico phyically. Manrico punched him back and next we see Di Luna on the floor, checking up his jaw. This is where the part one ends.

At the beginning of Part Two we immediately see that Count di Luna completely lost it, keeps everyone in fear at gunpoint. The game has gone too far and there is no more bouncing back and forth: the drama is now real and takes place in the house.

Di Luna's father recognizes in Azucena a woman who killed his other son and --helped by Di Luna-- they take her to the corner of the big room and tie her to a chair. While she resisted, her wig fell off and she too feels her true face popped up, but tied up to a chair she's completely helpless.

Manrico is at first confused, then enraged (Di quella pira)  but incapable to do anything since Di Luna has a gun in the full room. Di Luna "controls" the situation. He is drunk and unpredictable. His father (Ferrando) tried once again to reason him, but this time Di Luna wouldn't listen at all. The gun gave him a limitless power and he shoots his father in the head. Other three in the room are absolutely terrified. [Thriller... where are your popcorns?]

Di Luna then ties Manrico to a chair too and puts him in a closet. This is when Leonora sings D'amor sull'ali rosee. She's heartbroken, terrified, but --aware that only she can solve the situation they are all in-- she decides to talk to Di Luna, to offer herself for the life of the other two. During her aria(s) Di Luna puts Manrico's jacket on, waits for Leonora and stares at the counter full of empty bottles of wine, crisps... Finally Leonora comes and  proposes a deal which he accepts -- and accepts to release Manrico.

In the next scene on the right part of the stage we see Di Luna sleeping next to Leonora. Manrico rushes out from his confinement to help Azucena. The doors of the house are finally open and a daily light enters the room. The cadaver of Ferrando is still lying at the center of the stage. Leonora wakes up and joins Manrico and Azucena. Manrico figures out why he was released, why the door of the house is wide open, and unfairly insults Leonora who desperately tries to calm him to spend a few last moments with him before dying of poison she drank before giving herself to Di Luna.

Di Luna then wakes up too, not drunk anymore, but when he comes to join the others he sees Leonora dying in the hands of Manrico, his father lying dead... Sudden anger and he shoots Manrico in the head... twice. Azucena screams in horror and tells him that he made a big error and that it was him who killed everyone including his own brother. On this words Di Luna dies of heart attack and the opera ends with Azucena as the only survivor.

The way the drama swings between play and the real life is absolutely impeccably organized stagewise. Tcherniakov tells us once again that life is theater, and theater is life. This outstanding theatrical work would never be possible without these singers/actors who gave absolutely all they've got. Scott Hendricks proved here once again why I keep saying that he's the best opera artist today. Fantastic singer whose singing is defined by his uncommon acting skills. Without him the show  would not be as big. Sylvie Brunet sings wonderfully. Her Azucena is noble and not pathossy. Poplavskaya is definitely a magnificent asset to any production she's in. For the most part she sang very well too, but even a few imperfections made her personality more vulnerable, and more poignant at the same time. Brava! Misha Didyk was obviously very well guided by Tchernyakov and acted exactly what was necessary to make the character look and sound three-dimensional. Furlanetto was remarkable, despite his relatively short singing part. Tcherniakov eliminated Ines, Ruiz and other two little roles. Those parts were sung by either Azucena or Ferrando.

And so finishes one of the most fascinating shows this year for me, staged by the total and absolute genius among the opera directors today. This is regie for intelligent people.
Sadly, during the intermission, some people complained in the walkways that this back-and-forth  bouncing from fiction to reality was too confusing (can't you see me eye-rolling!)
In the end, however, there was not a single boo for Tcherniakov -- which must have surprised Dima too. I, obviously, was shouting my lungs out with BRAVO!    

Dmitri Tcherniakov and Marc Minkowski

A huge thanks to everyone involved in this superb show: to Dima for being the way he is and for loving opera in the way he does, to Peter de Caluwe for rescuing opera from the standards of the HD  broadcasts from The Met, to the most wonderful singers/actors for giving life to this all, and of course to Maestro Minkowski, chorus and the orchestra for a splendid operatic evening.

If you can possibly go to see the show live, it is not to be missed! If you cannot, good news is that it will be live broadcast on Mezzo TV next Friday, June 15 starting from 20:00 (cet). I doubt the camera will capture more than 50% of the nuances happening on the stage (all singers/actors  are 100% of the time on the stage in this show) but hey...

Production photos are in a separate post. All the photos in this post were taken by yours truly.

Scott Hendricks and Marina Poplavskaya

The only relatively not blurred photo I took with Misha Didyk in it

Félicitations à Marc Minkowski et à Sylvie Brunet (in the b/g)

Video made during the rehearsals can be found here.


  1. you say this is a production for intelligent people. I find this quite offensive: do you mean that one who doesn't like this production is stupid?
    One goes to the opera for a theatrical experience , but one also goes to see and hear what the composer and the librettist (very important) wanted to tell us.
    Please don't go to see Verdi#s operas if you hate them so much, just as I avoid going to see Cunning Little Vixen or Lulu

  2. Not really. This is not an exclusive statement and you should not get offended that easily, unless...

    If you read carefully you would have noticed that I considered SOME operas by Verdi to be truly bad (with terrible librettos, dazu), and SOME I like a lot. I even mentioned the great ones: Falstaff, Otello, Macbeth, Don Carlo...

    If you go to opera to see what the librettist of Il Trovatore had to tell you, I let you enjoy your party. It's a free world.

  3. I have my own , very biased, reason to hate this production with a vengeance. Having said that I suppose you could consider this as an interesting Strindberg approach to opera, which might work when you have a formidable singer/actor like Scott Hendricks in the main role. And you can avoid the BANAL folklore with placing the chorus in the pit instead of rising to the challenge and find a way to use them on stage. I would, however, still like to think that there has to be a show for everybody, not only for those who are seated in the front rows. The people I know who have seen this and were bored out of their minds are maybe not intelligent enough - or maybe just not seated well enough to really experience the intimate drama. I don't mind new approaches to opera at all. It is necessary and the only way to keep the genre alive. I think this production is rather old-fashioned and definitely the wrong format for the stage...

  4. Old-fashioned?! Oh my... To qualify as a "Banal folklore" (which I fail to understand, btw) the fact that the chorus was placed in the pit is... well... what did I say above?!

    Bottom line is that today, practically 95% productions of this opera are given in a narrative/traditionalist way, exacerbating the shabbiness and exposing the racist thread of Il Trovatore.

    You enjoy your 95% productions that kill every ounce of whatever artistic still remains in opera. I, instead, will admire this (and similar) approach(es) to this (and other) opera(s). And so until the traditionalists and anti-artistic brigades kill the precious creative spark in opera producing.


  5. I've always found funny how tradicionalist and modernist (?) "factions" accuse each other of killing creativity.

    Well, I must confess that, even if I'm not an enthusiast for Minkowski or Tcherniakov, I'm very curious about this Trovatore, so thank you for your review... and waiting for the broadcast. Didn't like his Don Giovanni for example, but we'll see... About placing the chorus in the pit... well, yes, I also like the Anonymous poster above find this decision old-fashioned. Almost like in a concert-performance. But as you said, it's a free world.

    Do you find the libretto pure nonsense? I don't know what you'll say about the original play by García Gutiérrez, which is more complicated and with more characters. So thanks Cammarano for getting rid of Leonora's brother for example. "El Trovador" is the epitome of the romantic drama. A contemporary of García Gutiérrez - Mesonero Romanos - mocked this kind of plays that "taked place all over Europe and lasted one hundred years". As for the racism, I've always seen Azucena's - and her mother's- fate more as a result of injustice and fanatism. From the play's characters of course. Or the opera if you want. Fanatism and injustice leads to her - probably innocent - mother's horrible death, and fanatism lead Azucena to revenge. Perhaps we should avoid cronocentrism and not judge a work of the 19th century - and about Middle Ages, or rather Gutiérrez's wiev of the Middle Ages - for our own moral standars.

    Always interesting to read you, even if I don't partage many of your views about opera.

  6. Dear Opera Cake, I enjoyed your review immensely. Maybe I'm the only one, but I understand what you mean by kicking the racism in the arse, so to speak. I believe you are saying that the libretto was racist to begin with using a gypsy and the idea that they are murderers (aka baby killers) and thieves. I can see how the entire thing can be construed as racist as the librettist certainly exploits these ideas. I can't comment on the quality of the original libretto, however.

    I would love to see this production. I have seen his Don Giovanni, which on the first go-round didn't set well; however on closer inspection with a second viewing, I absolutely adored it, especially Ketelsen's performance and that of Bo Skovhus. Now there was some biting satire to be sure. I have also seen Dialogues of the Carmelites on DVD (because I adore that man Bernard Richter and also admire Susan Gritton). Surely these nuns were the fanatics and Mere Marie a manic lunatic.

    Anyway, thank you again. I learn a lot by reading your reviews and understand the absolute necessity of Tcherniakov's work and that of other Regie directors. I especially loved Kušej's production of Rusalka probably more than anything I have seen lately. A COMPLETE synthesis of drama and Dvořák's music IMHO. Keep up the good work!

  7. Thanks for the detail of both description and analysis! This sounds like a fascinating production indeed. The changing of the usual power relations strikes me as really interesting... I take it you didn't feel that there was a conflict with or adverse effect on the musical characterizations of the opera's "two worlds"? Although there are of course racist elements in the plot, I've always thought of the division between court and mountains as being at least as much about class (and borne out in the melodic characterizations of the principals.)

    As a side note, re: your tendentious categorization of Verdi operas into good and bad ones, I would like to speak up in defense of Forza. I love the music, but also think the plot--with all its complications and ambiguities--offers some of the most interesting opportunities to a director.

  8. I won't be able to see this production and judge for myself so I appreciate your detailed description, but it's difficult to understand how the turgid and unlikely scenario (as described by you) that Tcherniakov layed over the opera is any more admirable than the outdated melodrama you claim to deplore. Seems like the need for suspension of disbelief is about equal in both.
    Plus, you'll need to describe what you mean by "racist crap". I don't get it.

  9. I´ve seen this evening´s broadcast on Mezzo and was deeply disappointed. I was expecting something new, modern, fresh but I found a boring and dull production instead. There was no pathos at all but on the whole it was pathetic, regarding the setting and the acting. An absolute lack of creativity. I find this production does not in any way enrich the original intention of the composer.

    What is the point of conveying another psychological insight of the characters when this only applies to the form? The characters might as well have acted Waiting for Godot with Verdi´s music and
    there wouldn´t have been any difference. IL Trovatore was found nowhere and the same applies to the spirit of Verdi.

    I don´t understand the "racist" point. Azucena is a victim as much as a villain, whether a noble or a Gypsy, only that technically, being a Gypsy fits the singing perfectly. Should we also replace the evil Shylock, a Jew, in Shakespeare´s Merchant of Venice?

    Finally, I respect but do not share your classification of Verdi´s good and bad operas. R. Muti is also a great conductor who knows and feels Verdi´s music.

  10. Thanks to your explanations I could enjoy it much more last Friday.

  11. Thanks for your review, but I am disappointed by Tcherniakov's Il Trovatore. I really enjoyed his previous works, but here the concept isn't working for me at all - as it worked in DG and Onegin. The main question is: who are all these people before they taking Azucena's game? What are their motivations? The explanation that they try to uncode the key of their destiny isn't compelling. But I don't think this production is totally unsucessful. I appreciate good singing, marvellous acting and surprisingly great conductong (as you mentioned, I've never considered Minkowski as a Verdi specialist). It just left me with a feeling that something was missed or underdeveloped.

  12. here you can watch this production.