Il trovatore, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture

You do not feel that Calixto Bieito, the director of Hanover State Opera's Il trovatore, has any real vision for the piece.

You do not feel that Calixto Bieito, the director of Hanover State Opera's Il trovatore, has any real vision for the piece. When Jonathan Miller transferred Rigoletto to Little Italy for the English National Opera, it made sense because Italian-American gangsters had a strict hierarchic code of honour, just like Verdi's characters. But Bieito's scenes of low life are really just embellishments. The cast are hoodlums and bully boys, tarts, slags and layabouts. They tear around, beat each other up, climb over the scenery (a two-level framework like a building site) and fall about drunk. There is sex and masturbation, nudity, torture, and a man is set on fire.

None of this is relevant to the opera, but it generates lots of opportunities for virtuosic stage direction. The opera turns into a kind of university of bright ideas. The Anvil scene (though without anvils) foregrounds the vibrant acting of Leandra Overmann as Azucena. This artist has a truly odd voice - piercing the eardrums in the top register and breaking audibly across into a barking chest tone. But she surrenders everything to a wild, disorderly characterisation of the gypsy as a vengeful fury.

Directorial bravura is not so successful with Romantic emotion. Near the climax, Azucena's nostalgia for her homeland ("Ai nostri monti") is sung in a little child's voice. And none of Verdi's sublime melodies come off. Most of the singers were quite clearly second rate, but you could imagine Tito You, the elegant baritone who sang the part of Luna, in a more glossy cast. Nevertheless, his shapely "Il balen del suo sorriso" was sung to a mannequin from the window of a fashion shop. This joke deprived the piece of any sincerity. Similarly, "D'amor sull'ali rosee" - which is of course a soliloquy - was sung by Leonora (Francesca Scaini) to a drunken policeman. This Leonora looked like a brassy waitress and sounded laboured, uneven. You just had to give up any idea of the opera as a drama of noble passion.

Manrico (Ki-Chun Park) looked like Elvis Presley. His voice was a capable tenor, but it made you screw your face, like acid on the tongue.

This opera ends with a passage of heart-tearing tragedy. It worked. Azucena, drugged and covered in blood, looked terrible, imprisoned in a goods container scrawled with the words "gypsy whore". Manrico threw Leonora around and banged her head against the wall. You wept for the characters, and even more for the artists, subjected to this regime of abuse. But you gripped your seat, too.