It’s saying a lot that Verdi’s Il trovatore has one of the silliest stories in all opera. Vengeance from all quarters, cackling gypsies, ancient curses and the wrong baby chucked on the bonfire all contribute to a melodrama with little in the way of genuine pathos.
It’s hardly surprising that the Marx Brothers chose this work to send up the art-form in A Night at the Opera. Even played straight (very straight in Elijah Moshinsky’s 2002 production), it is difficult to empathise with any of the characters or identify with their dilemmas.
I don’t know how this run compares with the previous three (yes, there have been four in just eight years) but, with the current quartet of principals as the evening’s main strength, it’s unlikely that frequency has been a damaging factor.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky brings characteristic swagger and charisma to the evil Count di Luna. Apart from his manic dance of delight as his enemy, the gypsy-witch Azucena, is dragged off in chains, it’s a performance of great dignity. Sondra Radvanovsky, singing Leonora for the first time at Covent Garden, is beautifully controlled and dramatically alert. Their scenes together are the sharpest of the night.
Polish mezzo Malgorzata Walewska, in her ROH debut, is a youthful and handsome gypsy, particularly rich at her bottom end, while Roberto Alagna, in a relatively rare appearance in the house, is sturdy and big-voiced, if never thrilling.
Moshinsky can usually be relied on to produce traditional representations of great dramatic weight and integrity but this flimsy drama eludes him much of the time, with solid but uninspiring sets by Dante Ferretti making for a dullish staging. The truthfulness that this director usually manages to inject into his work is confounded here by some particularly naff business in the crowd scenes.
Carlo Rizzi conducts a fairly routine, and at times ragged, performance from the Royal Opera Orchestra. Even the usually sure-fire rabble-rouser of the Anvil Chorus fails to raise sparks.
The excitement factor is largely missing from this charmless performance and it’s unlikely to convert any opera sceptics. If your favourite singers are among the line-up of leads, or if you’re looking for something safe and reliable, it may be a satisfactory night at the opera.
Otherwise, you might well find yourself, long before the final chords, praying for Chico and Harpo to come swinging from the flies, dragging the scenery with them.