Il Trovatore, Opera Holland Park, London<br/>La Fanciulla del West, Grange Park Opera, Hampshire

An armoury of visual aids and one invisible lady: This year's open-air opera season kicks off with an all-Italian fixture, and an easy win for Puccini
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Lampooned by the Marx Brothers and famously difficult to cast, Il Trovatore was always going to be a risky season opener for Opera Holland Park. Cursed with a lurid back-story of burning gypsies and abducted babies, and hampered by a love-triangle that Verdi saw as a hackneyed distraction from the central tragedy, the opera strains under the weight of its themes: maternal love, fraternal love, freedom, duty, superstition. What Il Trovatore needs on stage is clarity and pathos. What it gets in director-designer John Lloyd Davies's unsteady production is obfuscation and bathos, 19th-century gypsies, 20th-century soldiers, a split-screen postmodern set, and a little rag doll.

The doll is the first of several crude visual aids to be used in retelling the horrible history of the di Luna dynasty. Unfortunately, Lloyd Davies has paid so much attention to illustrating what has already happened in the plot, that what is happening in the here and now is altogether less clear. As the Conte di Luna, Stephen Gadd sings with cold, determined glamour while projecting the personality of a man who colour-codes his sock-drawer. His passion for Leonora (Katarina Jovanovic) is notably tepid, as is that of Rafael Rojas's coarse, swaggering Manrico. Plain and sturdy, with ear-battering vibrato above the stave, poor Jovanovic is comprehensively stitched up with a woefully unflattering costume and movement direction that turns an already inelegant account of "Tacea la notte placida" into a comedy routine.

Amid the horrors of roses clenched between teeth, tarot cards thrown to the floor, cantilevered cleavages, brandished pistols, narrowed eyes, squalling top notes and traffic-cop gestures, the big set-pieces for the choruses of nuns and gypsies and soldiers are characterfully sung. Rojas's "Di quella pira" packs a heavy punch, and Stephanie Corley makes a pert company debut as Ines. Under Brad Cohen, the City of London Sinfonia underlines the suavity and variety of the score, playing with an alluring tone and tight articulation – each section a jewel, from the honeyed clarinets to the incisive upper strings. Still, the most persuasive reason to see Il Trovatore is Anne Mason's Azucena: the moral heart of the opera and a performance of subtlety, depth, musicality and candour.

Winningly conducted by Rory Macdonald, handsomely designed by Francis O'Connor, and exquisitely lit by Chris Davey, Stephen Medcalf's Grange Park production of La Fanciulla del West plays a fascinating game with artifice and naturalism. Whether inspired by the Wild West orchestration, the plot-holes in Carlo Zangarini's libretto, or playwright David Belasco's later career in Hollywood, Medcalf frequently alludes to early cinema, stopping just short of suggesting that everything that happens from Act II onwards is a silent-movie fantasy of Puccini's least believable heroine.

Perhaps it is. It's a strange work in which the leading lady becomes less real as time passes, and the neurotic contradictions in Minnie – a confident and respected gold rush saloon keeper who gives Bible classes to the miners, keeps order with a gun, comforts the homesick emigrés, challenges the sheriff, loves to read yet pronounces herself ignorant, has never been kissed yet invites a virtual stranger to share her bed for the night – are made more glaring in Cynthia Makris's brittle performance, while John Hudson (both pictured below) fares little better as the enigmatic Ramerrez/Dick Johnson.

More believable are Olafur Sigurdarson's rough-mannered, bodice-ripping Rance, Tim Dawkins's emotionally detached Ashby, Richard Coxon's observant barman Nick, Wynne Evans's cheery Harry, and, indeed, Nina Micheltorena: the scarlet woman we hear about but never see, and one of opera's great unscored characters. Excellent work from the all-male ensemble, though, and oh, what a score.

'Il Trovatore': Opera Holland Park (0845 230 9769) to 20 June; 'La Fanciulla del West': Grange Park Opera (01962 737366) to 4 July