Verdi: Il Trovatore
BBC Worldwide // Unrated // $45.98 // August 26, 2008
Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted September 5, 2008
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The Movie:
If there were ever an opera which deserved the not always complimentary adjective "operatic," it is without doubt "Il Trovatore," Giuseppe Verdi's mid-19th century chestnut which is now the latest in Opus Arte's high-def re-releases of previously available product, some of which also saw the HD-DVD light of day. This 2002 Royal Opera House production sports an adequate, if minimalist, physical production and some great star turns, notably Jose Cura as the passionate Manrico and Yvonne Naef as Azucena, the revenge fixated gypsy woman who pretends to be Manrico's mother in order to exact her pan-generational plan for justice.

For those to whom "Il Trovatore" is not well-known, a concise plot summary is beyond the means of this reviewer. I hope I do not offend Verdi's legions of operatic followers when I say that the plotline of this particular piece has been known to make me devolve into helpless giggles, even in the face of the mounting tragedies which dot its storyline. Let's just say that the plot involves two warring factions, one led by the second Count di Luna (Dmitri Hvorostovsky in this production), the other by Manrico, with an unwittingly internecine twist as Manrico is actually the kidnapped brother of the Count. There's the usual operatic starcrossed love affair, this time between Manrico and Leonora (Verónica Villarroel), as well as the twisted relationship between Azucena, attempting to avenge her mother who was burned at the stake for "bewitching" the first Count di Luna's infant son, and Manrico, whom Azucena has raised since his abduction. Silly? Patently--especially when you consider the first 15 minutes or so of the opera is a monologue by Ferrando, an officer of di Luna's, giving the backstory of interwoven events that occurred before even the opera's opening scene. The libretto even famously states in an aside something akin to "Well, thank goodness that's finally over, now on to the actual plot." But that's the stuff of opera, and you get it all with Verdi's sometimes anachronistic bouncing accompaniments, but always overwhelming melodic sense.

This production is highlighted by the incredible tenor of Jose Cura, a dashing and magnetic star in the Placido Domingo mold (and of course Domingo has made his own mark on this role). Cura's smoldering good looks and fine upper register make him a natural for this role, and he makes the most of it. While Villarroel's Leonora is haunting and beautifully sung, there's simply no escaping Naef's Azucena as the woman you're never going to forget in this outing. Naef's commanding mezzo overpowers the stage at virtually every opportunity and it's hard to take your eyes (and ears) off her. The rest of the supporting cast, notably Hvorostovsky, do excellent work, though I personally found Tomas Tomasson's Ferrando completely underwhelming, with a splattered tone and lack of focus (especially in his lower register), with one of those meandering vibratos that makes a mockery of Verdi's fine melodies. Strangely in his upper register he seemed fine. Maybe it was an off night. The choral numbers are all exceptionally well sung, especially the beloved Anvil Chorus at the start of Act II.

There's really not much to the physical production, with barely existent sets and fine if unexceptional costumes. Multi-camera coverage is good, though I would have preferred no cutting to the orchestra between acts--it drew me right out of the drama and actually added to the artifice, something that "Il Trovatore" really doesn't need any adding to.

The Blu-Ray Disc

This is a pretty soft looking MPEG4-AVC transfer, and I had to keep wondering why Opus Arte did the Blu-Ray treatment on this title to begin with. A lot of the piece takes place at night, or in darkened environments, and while black levels are strong and consistent, there's simply nothing much to look at here. Add in the mist shrouded environments that open the piece, and you have a pretty lackluster video presentation. If you have the standard def release, I can't imagine you'll want to upgrade. If you're new to Blu-Ray, I similarly can't imagine you wanting to shell out $45 for something that won't knock your socks off. There's nothing wrong here, don't misunderstand me--there's just nothing worthy of a high-def release.

Opus Arte gives us PCM 5.1 and 2.0 Italian soundtracks. Fidelity and separation are both exceptional, with Verdi's thundering brass lines especially well detailed in the 5.1 mix. The balance between soloists and orchestra is excellent; strangely, a couple of choral moments get buried in the mix, but they're very brief anomalies. Subtitles in English, French, German and Spanish are offered.

As in other Opus Arte releases, there are some nice extras, including their patented "illustrated synopsis," which in this instance is sort of humorous, considering the amount of information the hapless narrator is attempting to get through in just a couple of minutes. There's also a nice featurette with the stars, proving that opera singers can be kind of goofy at times, as well as another piece on designing the show.

Final Thoughts:
"Il Trovatore" is of course a timeless classic of opera. This production is exceptionally well sung and handsomely mounted in an understated way. However it's simply not necessary to have a Blu-Ray release of this source material. If you're curious, I suggest you Rent It to see what you think.

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