The role debut of a world-class singer is always a time of great anticipation, hopefully to be followed by celebration, if not unbridled jubilation. When two world-class singers premiere roles on the same night an operatic apoplexy is not unknown amongst the devoted. The theater’s infirmary stockpiles tranquilizers and the bar enjoys a brisk trade in all manner of festive libations. Now, gently fold into this mix one of the world’s greatest conductors who hitherto hasn’t shown much love to the Italian wing and then a stage director with a touch for the deranged and all bets are off.  

Recorded by our dear friends at Deutsche Grammophon in December of last year at the Berlin Staatsoper, what we have here is a production of Verdi’s seminal masterpiece Il Trovatore conducted by Daniel Barenboim and starring Anna Netrebko and Placido Domingo in their role debuts as Leonora and the Count di Luna.

The wildcard here is film and video director Philipp Stölzl who has produced the odd opera here and there (pun intended) including a Star Wars themed production of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini at the Salzburg Festival that had even the normally regie-proof Austrians thinking,”what the..?”

Herr Stölzl first came to prominence as a director of music videos for the German industrial metal band Rammstein. They have a strong fondness for ink, piercings, blood, torture imagery and stage-scorching pyrotechnics. This tidbit of information coupled with the photos I’d already seen of this spectacle gave me much pause as I slipped the dvd into the machine and pressed play.

Maestro Barenboim parades into the pit and begins what turns out to be a very purposeful and driven account of Verdi’s opus. The strings especially play in an almost rough manner. They are the catalysts in this piece and they are where the fire, the most common    metaphor in the libretto, resides in the score. The maestro gives special attention to rhythms and dotted notes almost to the point of exaggeration. The only problem is that Barenboim tends to think in sentences and phrases rather than paragraphs and scenes. As the evening progresses his foot manages to find the bel canto pedal with a tad more consistency but it’s a bumpy ride at times.

Stölzl and his co-set designer, Conrad Moritz Reinhardt, have placed before us a large wooden box comprised of other wooden boxes.  Half of these we see on the stage with the full square floor extending out over the pit and a clever enclosure at its apex for the prompter. Doors, trap and otherwise, fly open at various levels and at various sizes. Some, either real or projection based, allow for exits and entrances or for the display of some nifty computer imagery bursting with colorful dreamscapes. Much of the lighting is up from the footlights giving everything a grotesque “monster-movie” look

Things start very promisingly with the entrance of Adrian Sâmpetrean as Ferrando. With his skull shaved clean and a scar diagonally across his face, he makes an appropriately menacing figure as he launches into the tale of the gypsy’s kidnapping the old Count’s son. His voice is excellent and is Italian acute. He’s very exacting in all of the tricky writing in this part even if his trill escapes him at times because Barenboim’s taking it all at a fairly rapid clip.

Costume designer, Ursula Kudrna, has everyone bedecked in a very poetic combination of Elizabethan and Edwardian frocks which makes most of them look like refugees from Tim Burton’s film of Alice in Wonderland.  Ferrando and his guard are got up in breast plates made out of leather with fanciful spears stolen from the Wicked Witch of the West’s guards. Neck and wrist ruffs with top hats abound. There’s quite a bit of group movement going on for the Guard, courtesy of co-director and choreographer Mara Kurotschka, as Ferrando spins his frightening tale, and it’s charmingly executed. I’m thinking Cirque du Soleil on hallucinogens or is that redundant?

As the tower bell strikes the witching hour they hurriedly disperse and Ms.Netrebko whirls on like Offenbach’s Olympia to enjoy a fainting spell center stage before the music of the second scene commences. Gentle Ines is found peaking out from behind a door looking for her lady and their conversation in recitative begins. (Ines does indeed look like she just escaped from Dr. Suess’  Whoville due to her three-tiered hairstyle, accessorized with CInderella’s powder blue ball gown. Oh, and makeup courtesy of Ringling Bros. for everybody.)

Ms. Netrebko is done up like a large human doll with platinum blond curls, an enormous Elizabethan skirt supported by a great farthingale and ruff waist and cuffs. Her very gothic makeup plot includes, in a very charming pantomime conceit, the tiniest sequin at the outer edge of each eye which gives the impression of her just having cried.

Leonora bids her lady closer to tell the story of the fateful day and how she met the Troubadour. Ines plops herself down on the stage with a wildly comical “here we go again” look  that elicited an actual guffaw from me on my couch. Then Ms. Netrebko takes up “Tacea la notte placida” and are no longer at the circus.

As a (rabid/foaming at the mouth) Leontyne Price fan I’m more than happy to sit back and watch some pretender to the throne double-clutch her way through the role of Leonora while Mama sits quietly somewhere polishing her crown. I’ve found some sopranos to be even more than adequate. Ms. Netrebko is in the Pantheon now.

Her legato line is so abundant with color and substance and with balance from top to bottom as to define the meaning of bel canto singing. The level of her control extends to feminize the ends of the proper phrases with a delicate decrescendo. The fabric of her tone becomes so rich at the climaxes it’s almost overwhelming. I looked in vain for the oxygen tank she was hiding in the folds of her skirt.

Quibbling, I say her cadenza at the close of the cavatina is a little rushed and doesn’t appear to reach quite as high as she would have liked. She does manage to finish it off with great delicacy (she got it right in Salzburg that summer). Then she really starts singing.

I recall a while back in these pages that there was a discussion as to whether or not Ms. Netrebko could actually trill? This line of questioning can now come to a definitive close. During the cabaletta she trills like a tommy-gun. But only when she isn’t pounding out staccatos like a drill press. I venture to say that she trills in spots Verdi wrote where you perhaps haven’t heard a soprano trill in quite some time.

Her staccatos are all each one full, complete, note. Not the balance of one long breath and a repeated stop and start of the larynx. She also sings all the words. All of them. On the proper notes regardless of where they appear in the vocal line.  None of that lazy vocalizing on ascending/descending scales on a comfortable “ah” vowel for our Anna.

Now, don’t let me give the false impression either that I find her performance in any way mechanical. Her mastery of all of the components of her artform are the nascency of her organic and spontaneous delivery. Her forward momentum is so vital it’s hypnotic and singing on some level really is about mesmerizing your listener. Oh, and both verses of the cavatina and the cabaletta with stretta for those keeping score.

Ms. Netrebko is then pulled from the stage, awash in audience hysteria, by gentle Ines of Whoville and Domingo as the Count di Luna enters and launches his opening recit. Now, I know there is some general disagreement as to how old the oil painting in Maestro Domingo’s attic actually is. Di Luna, as written, is a fairly high role for baritone so it’s a surprisingly good fit for his gifts.

He starts gravelly, however, and mostly stays there. He’s also, oddly, far better in faster music than slow. His “Il balen” in Act II isn’t going to put Dmitri Hvorostovsky out of business anytime soon. Yet during the Act I trio, the final act duet with Leonora or anywhere where the pace quickens he’s very rhythmically alert and dramatically responsive. He’s certainly game for whatever the director throws at him and moves easily on stage even down to his knees. If my review of his performance is starting to sound more like a geriatric diagnosis he’s not singing from his hospital bed just yet but, at this point, it is the remains of a great voice.

Then in the dark we hear the dulcet off-stage serenade of Uruguayan Tenor Gaston Rivero as Manrico and he arrives looking almost exactly like Edward Scissorhands minus the shears and it’s equal parts charming and sad. It’s not that he’s a full head shorter than Ms. Netrebko that’s bothersome because he isn’t (only half a head and she knows how to do the famed “Soprano Slouch.”)

He is, however, a full head shorter than Mr. Domingo and also a few decades younger and the plot, if you’re familiar with it… well, never mind. It looks like in subsequent performances his costume and makeup were considerably butched up to much greater effect. In the meanwhile he does arrive with a lute strapped to his back so someone, somewhere, is paying attention.

Much is made in the liner notes about Mr. Rivero’s “bright” sound in contrast to Mr. Domingo as left-handed apology for his having to share the stage with the operatic Zeus. (Surely the last place on earth any tenor would like to be singing Manrico would be right in front of one of its former foremost exponents.) Mr. Rivero’s is a lyric instrument with some ping at the top but frankly the concluding trio of Act I, which can get very competitive, sounds more like a duet between the Grand Signor and Big Mama and that’s not necessarily his fault. The duel that ends the act is completely unexpected, I’ll say no more.

Act II starts with the whole freak show cavorting about including a dancing bear (with ruff collar). Our Azucena for the evening is the uncommonly youthful Marina Prudenskaya. She’s got up in a female clown costume with Raggedy Ann makeup and hair. With everything going on around her she makes it work. She has a splendid voice (for Amneris) but she’s young for this assignment and certainly doesn’t seem old enough to have birthed Mr. Rivero let alone, if you’re familiar with the plot… well, never mind.

Although she doesn’t have Ms. Netrebko’s trill she does have a very clean, bel canto, way with the music which is much appreciated. Unfortunately the director plays her big scene with Manrico almost for laughs and it contradicts a lot of its gravitas. Also Barenboim starts channeling Wagner during “Condotta ell’era in ceppi” which is certainly exciting except for the parts where Ms. Prudenskaya gets swamped and he should know better.

The second scene with the abduction from the convent is Vvry creatively staged with brilliant lighting changes: the guard in black and the nuns in white and red accents and some very stylized stage movement for everyone. As silly as it may look at times it’s a staging where all the characters are reduced down to their archetypes and it’s a treatment that Trovatore can certainly freight and still succeed.

Top of the third act finds us with a dancing guard encore and I don’t know why it seems so appropriate with this music. Echos of the Policemen in the Joe Papp Gilbert and Sullivan Pirates of Penzance (I’m sure at least one reader just gasped in horror at the thought).  They wheel a full size cannon onstage and I suddenly had a little Rammstein P.T.S.D., because that band has been known to burn venues nearly down to the ground, but it all ends well enough.

Then Ms. Pudenskaya is dragged on all ready to be hog-tied and she acquits herself in spirited fashion in spite of having a few minor tempo disagreements with the pit. In the wedding scene that follows Mr. Rivero gives us a heartfelt “Ah, si ben mio” and one verse of “Di quella pira” with stretta and top ‘C’. No playing around with the pitches. Bravo.

Act IV scene one is what we’ve all been waiting for even if you didn’t know it. Ms. Netrebko enters. like all good divas after the interval, in the identical black and white costume only with the colors reversed. She’s completely in the groove during “D’amor,” an absolutely stunning interpretation although I wouldn’t advise following along with a score and a metronome. She’s very free with the music and even seems to take Barenboim by surprise once or twice.

She polishes off the “Miserere” with no trouble and then gives us but a single verse of “Tu vedrai,” but I forgive her. Meanwhile the director has been altering the timeline of events, oh so slightly, and it does add a little extra suspense to the proceedings. She and Domingo make short work of the duet and my only quibble with the final scene is that they actually have to alter the text at a climactic moment to accommodate the staging.

If only for Ms. Netrebko’s performance this would rate at least a 6 and inspite of her co-stars being either too short or too long in the tooth the production is very evocative and never boring so I raise it up to an 8. I’ve watched it three times since I’ve gotten it which must count for something in spite of the fact that they can’t figure out whether to use swords or guns in the battles so they opt for both(?)

Picture was excellent on my dvd screener and 5.1 digital sound is superb. Deutsche Grammophon has finally gotten the news that the world is coming to an end and has opted for very nice, tri-fold, eco-friendly, cardboard packaging. It’s all very colorful, as befits this spectacle, with the words, “Egli era tuo fratello!” blasted all over the inside cover.