I don't usually write about rehearsals because you don't necessarily get 100%-honed performances, and its not really fair to make public comment in those circumstances. But yesterday's general rehearsal for the ROH's latest run of Trovatore was so superb I feel a duty to spread the word. (And just in case Monday's opening night doesn't reach the same heights - but let's not go there yet).
We all know what Caruso said - that all Il Trovatore needed was the four best singers in the world. And with this cast - Roberto Alagna, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Sondra Radvanovsky and Malgorzata Walewska - it came as close as you could hope for.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky's Luna has been the highlight of previous runs of this production. Well, this time he's got stiff competition, but once again he sang with nobility and distinction. Just like he always does. And was it wishful thinking, or have his acting skills taken a dramatic (ha!) turn for the better? In recital, his natural exuberance is as memorable as his leather pants. But stick him in an opera, and he often looks as if he's reading from an autocue. Not in this show. Even the Egli era tuo fratello! at the end was, for once, not remotely tittersome - his quale orror! sent a jolt through the auditorium.
And here's my profound rumination of the week. Dima's snowy hair is absolutely perfect for every role he plays, whatever the character, whatever the period. So why do production designers neverever duplicate it for other singers? Does he have copyright hair or something?
The Angela-less Alagna seems back on top form. He sounds healthy, he even looks a bit slimmer. Manrico is a real test of his abilities, and while you never feel there's a millimetre to spare, ultimately there's no audible strain whatsoever. He just grabs every note and hurls it forth heroically. So much for his plans to chicken-out from half of the murderous Di quella pira, as the Daily Telegraph's recent interview claims. He belted out both verses like the champion of the tenor Olympics. If he naughtily slipped out of character to acknowledge the applause, who can blame him? And in the tender, lyrical moments that are more his home territory, wooing Leonora or soothing his dear old mum, the natural beauty of his voice shone through to heart-melting effect.
Sondra Radvanovsky wobbled a bit to begin with, but her supreme technical control soon became apparent. She spun her long lines out silkily and crested even the highest notes with liquid ease. Every note and every syllable was shaped and coloured in minutely-nuanced detail. Inevitably, it lacked the thrill of spontaneity - she's a sort of earthy Renee Fleming in that respect. I wasn't always convinced she was living the part either - her dedication to crafting the beautiful line often distanced her from the heart of the role. But I can't think of anyone right now who could sing Leonora better.
Malgorzata Walewska was a bit of a find as Azucena, with a rich lower register and a winning line in dramatic venom that more than compensated for some insecurities on top.
OK, that's your four best singers, but this production is immaculately cast top to toe. Mikhail Petrenko, a mahogany bass in the classic Russian style, has great presence as well as a fabulous voice - what a terrific Ferrando. Monika-Evelin Liiv's Ines more than held her own against Sondra Radvanovsky. And Haoyin Xue, who never made much of an impact on me when he was in the ROH's Young Artist programme, has matured into a fine, solid singer.
Despite the best casting it's ever had, and despite fine 19th century set and costume designs, the production is still as dire and inert as it ever was. It looks like some dredged-up '70's relic even though it can't be more than ten years old, and it makes the legendarily-'difficult' storyline even more incomprehensible and absurd. But more on that after the opening night.
And the audience weren't just the usual riff-raff. What a surprise to see sitting in a private box - Anna Netrebko and Erwin Schrott. She wore a loose beige geometric-patterned shift, chatted and signed autographs for her neighbours on either side, and applauded enthusiastically along with everyone else. A lousy phonecam shot: