OPERA / Gypsy spell: Raymond Monelle on Scottish Opera's production of Il Trovatore in Glasgow

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The Independent Culture
IT MAY be that Il Trovatore, with its improbable plot and lavish music, is best served by an unobtrusive production. Mark Brickman's version for Scottish Opera was neither elaborate nor original; it used the device, now common enough, of combining plain sets, curving timber walls that were shifted around from scene to scene, with costumes from a historical pageant, long guns and suits of armour.

The designer, Tim Hatley, put the Aragonese in black and grey, the Gypsies in red and orange; with the White Nuns in Act 2, this made a convenient colour code, but it had no other obvious point. There was a liking for strong side-lights that glanced and flashed on characters who ran through them (lighting designer, Ben Ormerod), sometimes giving the effect of a lantern show.

Apart from this, the production had very little to say. In fact, simple points were often missed: this opera is full of coups de theatre, but there was seldom any sense of surprise - when Manrico's followers overpowered the Count's men in Act 2, or when Leonora encountered the Count in Act 4, for instance. Occasionally, you sensed that simple events had been fudged: people lost their way and almost collided in doorways.

The effect was to leave the evening firmly in the hands of the conductor, Richard Armstrong, who responded by setting his eyes on the road ahead and driving for all he was worth. This suited the artists, especially Lisa Gasteen as Leonora; she could sound exquisitely fragrant and pearly in the cavatinas, placing each note clearly, delicately shaded and coloured, without vibrato, though she lacked fire in the cabalettas. This new singer (the 1991 Cardiff Singer of the World) should be watched; she has high refinement and musicality.

The excellent Kenneth Collins, too, was happy to move briskly forward. His Manrico was vivid and heroic, but he did not waste time on high notes and the notorious top C in 'Di quella pira' (a spurious addendum not written by Verdi) sounded like a routine gesture.

In many ways, this opera relies heavily, not on its leading couple, but on the Gypsy woman Azucena, who has set everything in motion. This was where the production scored, for Ludmila Nam is one of those mezzos who dredge every note up out of a fierce, rasping low register, blasting off into a mid-atmosphere of terrifyingly focused tone. Her eyes blazed, she shook both fists and dominated the scene; it mattered little that she was almost without middle range, the voice snapping across from chest to head like the break of a piano wire.

Another Russian singer, Vladimir Redkin, portrayed the Count of Luna as a determined, generous man, moved to cruelty only by warmth of passion. The voice was dark and firm in the centre, less effective below, but there was a curious uncertainty of pitching of notes: 'Il balen del suo sorriso' failed to convince because it drifted unpredictably. But, as with Miss Gasteen, there was a promise of future great things.

The chorus had been augmented for this opera, with its predominant separation of males and females. They sounded virile and fragile in turn, projecting the big ensembles, without covering the principals.

It was not a Trovatore that will be remembered, but there were memorable vocal moments, and a feeling that the Scottish company is at last in the hands of a conductor with purpose and energy.

'Il Trovatore' continues in rep at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow (Box office: 041-332 9000).

(Photograph omitted)

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