Grey men in grey overcoats walking through grey architecture. If you had to pick an image to reflect the current mood, the prevailing fashion in opera productions, this would be it. We may have outgrown the overtly Nazi settings of a few years back, but stepping into their highly polished boots are a whole platoon of non specifically fascist, 20th century exilic fantasies — all brutality, brutalism and barbed wire. Glyndebourne’s Poliuto, the Royal Opera’s Guillaume Tell, Idomeneo and Nabucco, even English National Opera’s Force of Destiny, the list goes on, and now boasts a new member in David Bösch’s Il trovatore.
At least Bösch isn’t going gentle into that all obliterating fascist night. Whimsy is a big part of this bright young director’s armoury, and his Royal Opera House debut is no exception. The chalkboard doodles, familiar to audiences of his Munich productions, are back, this time scrawling hearts and ‘Leonora loves Manrico’ everywhere, while Patrick Bannwart’s video projections temper the onstage tanks and guns with butterflies and snowflakes, doubling the lovers and their enemies with stick figures who live, love, die, and even commit infanticide, in uncomplicated two dimensions.
And that’s the problem. Either you take Verdi and Cammarano’s extraordinary plot of baby killing gypsies and long lost brothers seriously — a timely parable about the grotesque results of fear, prejudice and xenophobia — or you send it up. You can’t have both. To recast the gypsy Azucena and her son as members of an outlandish circus troupe— all bearded ladies and sequin clad acrobats — is to lose the essential humanity that both connects them to and divides them from di Luna and his court of paramilitary thugs. That so many scenes close with an act of violence, threatened but crucially unfulfilled, suggests that even the director himself recognises the dramatic incompatibility of his two genres.