It may be among Verdi’s most popular operas, but “Il Trovatore” has suffered one bad staging after another at the Met over the past 40 years. This latest version, a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago and San Francisco Opera, finally breaks the curse. In his Met debut, director David McVicar gives us a production that deftly avoids the pitfalls of its own legendarily bizarre libretto. Preserving the Spanish locale but transposing the time frame from the mid-15th century to the Peninsular War of the early 19th century, McVicar delivers a version steeped in haunting Goya-esque imagery.
In fact, Goya’s fearsome world is the first thing one sees upon entering the auditorium: In place of the traditional proscenium curtain is an enormous show curtain depicting a detail of the tortured faces in the artist’s “Pilgrimage to San Isidro.” McVicar’s vision of “Trovatore” has little of the traditional romantic aura; it plunges us into war at its most brutal.
Set designer Charles Edwards depicts slate-gray, crumbling walls against brooding skies, with the debris and detritus of battle accumulating in every scene. Through the use of a turntable that revolves in full view of the audience, McVicar and Edwards are able to move quickly through scene changes and maintain the plot’s breakneck pacing over four acts now played as two. (The only drawback on opening night was that the turntable was not always silent, particularly when weighted down with the Met chorus and a full complement of supernumeraries.) Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s monochromatic costumes fit perfectly into McVicar’s dark concept; even the gypsies have a subdued color palette.
Centering on a long-running feud between gypsies and the Spanish nobles who oppress them, the opera calls for singers able to throw themselves wholeheartedly into a far-from-believable storyline. Few performances deliver that, but in McVicar’s hands, “Trovatore” benefits from the go-for-broke emotional involvement of a fine cast.
Most remarkable is soprano Sondra Radvanovksy as Leonora, a character who often seems little more than a pawn between rival suitors. Not this time around. With her intensely physical, near-hysterical performance, Radvanovsky turns Leonora into a spirited, feisty heroine. Her idiosyncratic timbre — warm, earthy, yet not traditionally beautiful — seems ideally coupled to the wildness of her interpretation. She doesn’t stint on the vocal embellishments Verdi wrote into this difficult role, and she shows exceptional command of dynamics.
In the title role of the troubadour Manrico, tenor Marcelo Alvarez takes the first half of the evening to warm up his voice. Although he does not have a truly distinctive timbre, he wields it reasonably well, particularly during the softer moments of acts three and four. Ultimately, however, his sound and stage personality seem a size too small for this muscular, swashbuckling role.
Dolora Zajick once again brings her commanding voice and steely authority to the part of Manrico’s mother, Azucena. In an age when dramatic mezzos are in short supply, Zajick truly owns this part. A high C emerged unsteadily on opening night, and her middle range didn’t equal her thrilling upper register and booming chest tones, yet there remain few singers who can match her in this signature role.
Dimitri Hvorostovsky’s vivid presence and rich baritone emphasize Count di Luna’s swings between hell-bent vengeance and romantic obsession. Barring the occasional gulp, he rolled out his rhapsodic aria “Il balen del suo sorriso” with ease and elegance. Bass Kwangchul Youn sings the role of Ferrando lustily, albeit with signs of a wobble on sustained notes.
Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting is serviceable, but he fails to give this score the extra edge of propulsion that makes it crackle. Still McVicar’s memorable staging survives the slackness. It’s good to know that for the first time in 40 years, the Met finally has a “Trovatore” to be proud of.