Il Trovatore, New Theatre, Cardiff

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The Independent Culture

With its interesting and in many ways impressive Parsifal in the bag, Welsh National Opera has followed it up with another fresh import from Scotland, Verdi's Il Trovatore, briskly directed by Peter Watson.

I grumbled about the stage bric-a-brac in Purcarete's Parsifal. This Trovatore, which opened in Cardiff's New Theatre on Friday, looks like the designer's, rather than the gipsy's, revenge: an array of tall, dark, featureless screens apparently devised by Tim Hatley to make sure the singers stand in the right places and leave by the correct exits. They suggest almost nothing about the action, except its prevailing gloom: no palace, no convent, no blazing fire to ignite Azucena's horrible memories. The production might have been inspired by Gabriele Baldini's theory that Trovatore is a phantom story engulfed by its music.

It's a viable approach, but one that demands the strongest possible singers - if not the four best in the world, as Caruso thought. On this measure, the WNO cast is still raw in some departments. I like very much the young Russian soprano Elena Lasovskaya, whose Leonora is her British debut. In comfortable registers she has a lovely, burnished timbre and a youthful freshness not so common in this quintessentially "operatic" music. But she doesn't yet have the courage of her ability. She consistently came off the top Cs that Verdi scatters around with careless abandon, and seemed to lose her nerve altogether in the closing stages of her fourth act cabaletta. There was a lot to enjoy here, but far from complete security.

The more experienced di Luna, Yuri Nechaev, also had an uneven night. "Il balen" was frankly poor; nervy and unfocused. And while he steadied later, he never seemed at ease in a production that mostly left him to stand around - lank-haired and morose - with a disagreeable look on his face. At times, one might almost have wanted his dependable aide, Ferrando (Iain Paterson), to take over. Much of this show seemed to belong in some aged Trovatore of long ago. David Rendall was his usual sturdy, musicianly self as Manrico, Patricia Bardon an assured, if not powerfully engaged, Azucena. But under-production kept the drama at bay. The programme credited a Fight Director; yet any fighting was purely notional. No doubt Spanish honour, which permits the burning of gipsies, prohibits the killing of enemy soldiers en route to their stage-positions. Or am I being stupidly literal-minded?

After their dodgy moments in Parsifal, it was good to hear the orchestra - like the splendid chorus - in such lusty form under Alberto Hold-Garrido. His direct, no-fuss style - strong attack, incisive rhythm - was the real justification for the low-profile staging; and it will work even better when he pays slightly more attention to stage ensemble and balance.

Performances to 17 October, then on tour. Information from 029-2046 4666; box office 029-2087 8889