Welcome to the Darkness. Bayerische Staatsoper’s Il Trovatore

The view from my seat, Il Trovatore at Bayerische Staatsoper

The view from my seat, Il Trovatore at Bayerische Staatsoper. It seemed closer in reality! (something with my camera makes everything look farther away)

Three weeks ago, I was sitting excitedly in my seat at the Bavarian State Opera, waiting for Verdi’s Il Trovatore to begin. All four performances in this short run during the summer Opernfestspiele (Opera Festival) had been sold out for months. In fact, I heard  that they could have sold tickets ten times over. I had (literally) the luck of the draw and was able to buy one ticket–the whole reason for my trip to Munich this summer.

Welcome to the Darkness.

Looks traditional enough. Manrico & dying Leonora.

Looks traditional enough. Manrico & dying Leonora.

Welcome to the Darkness. Apparently these were the first words of director Olivier Py as his cast reported for the first rehearsal of his new production of Il Trovatore for the Bayerische Staatsoper. And dark it certainly was–but then so is the plot of one of Verdi’s most popular operas.

I complain about reviews that spend paragraphs on the production and a few sentences on the singers, but since I don’t have the kind of knowledge that would allow me to critique a performance–and you all know I’m in awe of professional singers anyway–let me just say right up front that I loved the singers, so I’ll talk about the production. Oh the irony.

I’m not usually a believer in an opera production that requires a long introduction by the director for me to understand it. Nor to I go to the opera in order to be challenged, as many do. I go to the opera (or any musical performance) to be moved by the music and the story–because from earliest childhood, music has had an emotional effect on me, and that’s what I love about opera.

But I’m also not going to condemn a production on the basis of photos before I’ve had a chance to see it myself.

So I read as much as possible, watched/listened to interviews, and even was able to attend a panel discussion at the Bavarian State Opera to prepare myself for this opera. And it must have paid off, because I liked the production: dark, nightmarish, magical, always asking is this nightmare or reality? And yes, if trying to figure out the meaning of some of the symbolism is ‘challenging’ then I was also challenged! 😉 The singers showed great commitment to the production as well.  I saw three books on theater by Py at the BSO bookshop so clearly there is thought and experience behind his production.

The wheel of Fate, the never ending moving wheel of industry, or the circus ring?

The wheel of Fate, the never ending moving wheel of industry, or the circus ring?

Here’s what the program book looks like. (It’s a lot more silvery in reality)


It has 160 pages (!), pictures of art that inspired the production design, four essays, a gallery of rehearsal photos (full-color), and a full libretto! It’s beautifully designed and cost 7 euros (about $10). Amazing.

I had only seen Il Trovatore once before–the DVD of the Met’s production, which was overly melodramatic for my taste, so I was looking forward to a production that was not traditional. The plot of this opera is a Romantic/Gothic/melodramatic story of extremes. It’s the extremes of emotion and events that Py has chosen to emphasize (at least that’s how I saw it) in his production which is part circus, part dream sequence, part nightmare, part melodrama, but all darkness.

I’m not even going to attempt to summarize the plot. Not because I think it’s silly (really, don’t similar events take place in Greek drama?) but because it just takes too long to summarize. There’s a good synopsis here. I’ll write about my impressions and assume you know the story.

One of the striking things about Trovatore is that although there is a great deal of violence, in the best classical tradition none appears on stage. Instead, violence happens offstage, and we’re told about it later. Actually most of the action takes place offstage too, which can make it difficult to follow the plot. The very basis of the plot happens years before the beginning of the opera and all that backstory is told during the opening aria by Ferrando. Leonora tells how she met her lover Manrico in a story. Azucena re-tells the story Ferrando has related, but from her point of view. Manrico tells what happens between the scenes in Act 1…and so on, and so on. I believe Py’s idea is to ask if these are stories, dreams, or nightmares. Certainly seeing your mother burned at the stake is the stuff of nightmares. And much of the action takes place at night (darkness).

Set during a revolve. Some of the different stages/rooms

Set during a revolve. Some of the different stages/rooms

The stage is a black cavern filled with stylized machinery of the early Industrial Revolution–for Py, a hat-tip to the fact that Verdi railed against the arrival of industrialization in his home town. The revolving set contains dark industrial areas, a brightly lit box, a stage similar to those used for Punch & Judy or Commedia dell’arte,  barren trees that appear to be the aftermath of a winter battle…putting you in mind of a three-ring circus with its non-stop action. Extremes of black and white. Constant movement–and constant noise according to some friends sitting in a different part of the house. I didn’t hear it from my seat. At first the constant movement of something on stage (wheels if nothing else) was distracting but very soon I didn’t notice it.

The four-story areas to the left and right also can be turned and changed. Sometimes the action of the opera takes place on one of the mini-stages…other times the content of a ‘story’ being told is acted out in a stylized way by dancers on the smaller stages. (Male dancers with a dog’s head mask and a bull’s head mask represent Manrico and Count di Luna during the opera, and dance several of their interactions.) And sometimes the stages contain nightmare images (giant-head dancing babies anyone?)

Anvil Chorus. Yep the gypsies are apparently slaves to the machine.

Anvil Chorus. Yep the gypsies are apparently slaves to the machine. And they have suitcases because they are gypsies.

Granny's ghost, ever-present (almost), her daughter Azucena, and 'son' Manrico

Granny’s ghost, ever-present (almost), her daughter Azucena, and ‘son’ Manrico

Many objects appear that beg for interpretation. Here’s what I thought of some of them. While the overture plays, a naked old woman with red coils of rope around her neck appears on stage, writhes and grasps, then seems to call for revenge. This is ghost of Azucena’s mother, whose call for revenge as she burns to death is the spring of the entire plot. She is shocking, but then being burned at the stake (which of course we don’t see) is shocking. She appears in the background throughout the opera, as she is the lynchpin of the whole plot. She wears coils of red rope around her neck, which we learn through the course of the opera are ‘the ties that bind’ –umbilical cords, the cords of family, the cords of the command to revenge. They bind Azucena to her mother, and Manrico to Azucena. They bind Azucena’s mother and Azucena to the pyre for burning.

Azucena first appears with a top hat. Is she the circus master? She’s the only one who knows the full story not only of what happened to her mother, but of what happened to the di Luna brothers. In this production, I understood that Azucena raised Manrico for the sole purpose of revenge upon the di Luna family. (I like this interpretation because she could have saved Manrico’s life at any point by revealing his true identity but never does.)

Orphan Manrico is completely fixated on her, and indeed the red coils bind him closely. When he attempts in turn to bind Azucena to himself and take control, the coils are removed by the ghost of Azucena’s mother. I like the idea of Manrico being so bound to his ‘mother’ because it makes his leaving Leonora at the altar in order to rescue Azucena somewhat (!) more believable.

Mommie dearest. The ties that bind and the top hat are there. Manrico brings his pillow with him later in the scene. The blood-stained walls are a cool touch but I didn't notice them in the theater--too much going on!

Mommie dearest. The ties that bind and the top hat are there. Manrico brings his pillow with him later in the scene. The blood-stained walls are a cool touch but I didn’t notice them in the theater–too much going on!

Manrico is dressed conventionally (modern) in every scene except the scene with Azucena at the gypsy camp. There he wears a sequined vest that put me in mind of Harlequin. Or maybe it’s because he plays a crazy-quilt of roles: He thinks he is a gypsy, he wins tournaments as a knight with his face & name hidden, he is a troubadour, he is a rebel leader…the first line he sings is Deserto sulla terra / Alone upon this earth, and he later has cause to ask Azucena E chi son io, chi dunque? / Who am I then?

The tragic thing is that he never finds out who he really is. He goes to his death not knowing. In the scene above, when Azucena sings Stride la Vampa and tells Manrico the full story, he acts as if he has been awoken from a nightmare–or perhaps he is living a nightmare. Clutching his pillow, he asks Who am I? In the final scene, when Manrico is supposed to be singing Azucena to sleep, he actually ends up being persuaded to sleep by her:

Screen Shot 2013-07-05 at 11.38.27 AM

I like that Azucena isn’t grandmotherly. If you think about it, she could have been 15 or 16 when the events related by Ferrando occurred. She could be just 15 years older than Manrico. Her costume never changes, her desire for revenge never changes, her role never changes. Azucena lives only to fulfill her mother’s demand for revenge.

Count di Luna is, as he explains himself, driven mad by his love for Leonora. Some clever touches (he caresses her dress that he’s taken from Inez) show him to be almost a modern stalker and truly obsessed–I’m sorry they didn’t make more of this. Or maybe the director wanted more of a stock portrayal? I didn’t get the impression that any depths were searched out in the character, and it seems to me there could have been…

Ah, Leonora. Anja Harteros was the surprise guest at the end of the panel discussion (all men, of course) and was immediately asked by Bachler (Munich general director), when she came in and sat down, about playing Leonora, Elsa, etc. all women who basically do nothing but die prettily onstage. Well! She did a pretty good job of ascribing agency to Leonora–yes she falls in love at first sight but she chooses to try to rescue Manrico, she chooses death in order to rescue him–something Manrico has also chosen, risking death in order to see Leonora earlier in the story. I give her props for standing up to a panel of 5 men in suits, even if I can’t remember everything she said! Leonora is blind in this production and Py talks about how Leonora lives only for voices–Manrico’s, God’s, angels. He also thinks she is an abstract character about whom we know nothing–nobody tells any stories about her. Still, I think Harteros gave her personality and emotion.

Of course there were many things I never understood. There is a life size (sex?) doll of (I thought) unspecific gender throughout. An angel (or bird?) of death dances with Leonora in the scene in which she decides to give herself to di Luna in order to save Manrico. The death-angel gives her a goblet of poison. I can’t say I thought much of this or some of the other choreography/movement.

And the most fun: at the end of the interval, a box is rolled onstage, Manrico climbs into it, Azucena has at the box with a saw (fairly unsuccessfully), and then two men come in with slicers, as Manrico is sawn in half. More circus? It’s an old trick but a fun trick and no, I didn’t consult the internet as to how it’s done, but I’m guessing Kaufmann’s yoga flexibility made it possible. Great laughs from the audience.

So. Bottom line: I enjoyed it very much. I think the production (like most) worked better live than on screen. I’d still love to see a serious take on this. There are many tragic aspects to the story and it would be great if all the characters could be fleshed out. Not necessarily in a traditional setting (16th century Spain), but with fewer distractions and more focus on the characters and the acting. Maybe I’m putting too much weight onto a melodrama, though.

Here’s a link to the wonderful trailer from the Bayerische Staatsoper that gives you an excellent idea of the production. (I love their trailers!)

And if you want to practice your German, here’s a longer (10 min) feature on the production:

I swear every time I hear that Linde theme, I’m like one of Pavlov’s dogs: I start drooling for the upcoming treat! It’s rumored that Bachler will go against his oft-repeated mantra of “no more DVDs from BSO” and that this will be released on DVD. I’ll be first in line to buy it if so!

PS. It’s fascinating to see the press photos and the trailer that were made during dress rehearsal–and to notice what things were changed by the time I saw it (2nd performance in the run of 4). I would never have believed (until Laurie explained) that yes, they do make changes, sometimes significant, right up to the last minute!

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2 Responses to Welcome to the Darkness. Bayerische Staatsoper’s Il Trovatore

  1. I like that you approach this production with an eager curiosity rather than an eagerness to just dismiss it. I wish I’d seen more than the first half of the webcast, but at some point will surely see the rest. At first, incomplete viewing I definitely liked the look of it more than the actual staging.
    Oh, and I rather enjoyed the recent Met McVicar production on DVD. Did you see that one, or the older one with Pavarotti?

  2. Pingback: Harteros/Kaufmann Il Trovatore on BBC radio | The Eyes Have It

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