Jealousy, obsession and ancient rivalry, churning around like toxic vapours, make Il trovatore one of Verdi’s most dangerous and combustible works. It requires exceptional singers – chorus, as well as soloists – of rare stamina and virtuosity. The story is muddling but passions are stark and raw. In a new staging for the Royal Opera House, conducted by Antonio Pappano, the director Adele Thomas has deftly lassoed the work’s wildness into a new coherence and invited us into a parallel world of storytelling. Leave behind preconceptions and rationality and travel with her, or be frustrated.
With designs by Annemarie Woods and choreography by Emma Woods, the production – first seen in Zurich in 2021 – finds echoes in the hellish fantasies of Hieronymus Bosch, as well as in the dark materials and omnipresent daemons beloved of Philip Pullman. The approach is fresh, highly professional and nothing like any other Trovatore you might have encountered. Pappano encourages the richest, most melancholy sounds from the orchestra – that ominous bass drum and timpani roll at the start; the ever loquacious woodwind, notably clarinets. Equally, he allows the heaving oompahs of the Anvil Chorus, one of the work’s many familiar tunes, to surge and swing with gusto.
In the four key roles, the Royal Opera has found a cast-iron vocal team: Marina Rebeka, peerless and assured as Leonora; Riccardo Massi all but unfazed by the high-note demands of Manrico (the troubadour of the title); Ludovic Tézier credible and sonorous as Count di Luna; and, above all, Jamie Barton as the elusive, volatile “old Gypsy woman” Azucena. The interactions between these characters are handled with sympathetic insight, especially in the case of Azucena and Manrico, Massi’s rigid style of acting offset by Barton’s generous, unshackled fluency.
The action takes place on a staircase that fills the stage. Three frames surround it, as if to contain the vying tales of witchcraft, love and religion. Chorus, superbly drilled and highly physical, are dressed as Bosch-like deviants, or as crusader-style soldiers who move jerkily behind their shields. You may see it as a flippant take on the opera, or – as I did – a serious attempt to express the concerns of Verdi’s 19th century as well as the story’s 15th-century setting. Monsters and sprites are part of life’s brittle impermanence; we disregard them at our peril. Musically it’s unmissable. See it live in cinemas on 13 June or repeated on Sunday 18 June.
Bold Tendencies, nicknamed the concrete concert hall on account of its south London car-park setting, opened its 2023 season last weekend with Gustav Holst’s The Planets, performed by the Philharmonia and conducted by Finnish rising star Emilia Hoving (b.1994). Each year, this pioneering enterprise makes improvements to the acoustic, and pushes yet further the boundaries of its programming. The orchestra, returning for a third year and now attuned to this semi-outdoor venue – street noises, trains and, if you’re lucky, sunsets adding to the ambience – played the Holst with exciting vigour. The proximity and enthusiasm of a youthful audience seemed to add an extra shot of adrenaline.
The first of the seven movements, Mars, reminds us immediately of Holst’s ingenuity, the movement’s bellicose menace characterised by string players using the wood of their bows; rhythms and keys behaving with alarming anarchy before the enormous orchestral forces – 97 musicians listed – march, united, to a dissonant climax. Here, the players faithfully met Holst’s quadruple forte request. Hard to imagine anything louder. Venus, the Bringer of Peace – solo horn and violin each excelling – came as balm. The youthful Hoving judged Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, with particular assurance and perception, from the mournful, hymn-like beauty at the start to the jangling chaos of tubular bells before a gentle end.
When the hidden choir of women’s voices (Philharmonia Chorus) joined in for the final bars of Neptune, to a ripple of harps, organ and celesta, the effect was ethereal, if not extraterrestrial. Some of the many children present – lasting only an hour and in daylight, the event was ideal for a trial concert run – looked round and up in astonishment to see where the sound came from. (In fact the singers had gathered, walking up and down to create a near-far effect, on the car park’s level 7 ramp, alongside the ever celestial Sevenoaks via Nunhead train line.)
The season ahead includes two Philip Glass concerts, a children’s opera by Shostakovich, the Multi-Story Orchestra and Davóne Tines: a cross-section of classical music that stretches mind and imagination.
An even younger audience turned up, earlier the same day, at the Royal Festival Hall. I was one of the few not dressed as Dennis the Menace or requiring a booster seat. Performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra and conductor George Jackson, Dennis & Gnasher: Unleashed at the Orchestra, was themed around 85 years of the Beano comic, complete with live narration by 11-year-old Asha Sthanakiya, with Nina Wadia (EastEnders, Goodness Gracious Me) as the Groan Up.
The percussion maestro Colin Currie, in Dennis-striped jumper, dazzled us with several showpiece percussion works, of which a world premiere by the British composer Gavin Higgins, Beano Concerto, was the centrepiece. Starting like an improvisation and then bringing in orchestral players, it featured marimba, slide whistles, kazoos, dustbin lids, squeaky dog toys and plates being smashed, the whole work building to a spellbinding climax. A future broadcast is promised on Radio 3.
The organisers missed a trick in letting the animation (out of sync, unfortunately) lead the show, rather than giving priority to the musicians, who felt more like accompanists, or to the real live composer sitting in the audience. But spirits were high and surely, after seeing the inspirational Currie, at least one child present may pick up some drumsticks. To finish, Wadia led a conga around the Festival Hall and the audience joined in, as you do.
Star ratings (out of five)
Il trovatore ★★★★
The Planets ★★★★
Dennis & Gnasher: Unleashed at the Orchestra ★★★★
• This article was amended on 12 June 2023 to correct misspellings of Emilia Hoving’s surname.