Opera brings big screens to tale of murder

·3-min read

Performing Il Trovatore is easy, so the joke goes, all you need is the four best singers in the world.

Verdi's tale of infanticide and intergenerational revenge is famously demanding on the four principal performers, but Opera Australia has upped the stakes even further, staging its latest production using giant digital screens.

At about 10m high, the 14 LED screens tower over the performers and move across the stage, becoming backdrops, set elements, even giant animated clown heads or tarot cards.

Sound extravagant? That's because Il Trovatore is opera at its most operatic, according to assistant director Shaun Rennie.

"It's high stakes drama - betrayal, love, lust, infanticide, people throwing babies in the fire - it's big and it's spicy," he told AAP.

When her mother is burnt at the stake, Azucena throws the executioner's child into the fire, but it turns out to be her own child instead, so she seizes the executioner's child to raise him as her own.

And that's just the beginning of the revenge tale that contains some of Verdi's best-known arias as well as the famous Anvil Chorus.

It has not been staged in Australia for almost a decade and this production has attracted some top performers, with Yonghoon Lee as the title character Manrico, Leah Crocetto as Leonora, Elena Gabouri playing Azucena and Maxim Aniskin as the lustful Count di Luna.

Opera Australia pioneered using digital screens for opera in its 2018 production of Aida, and they gave the production team a huge new palette for Il Trovatore, Mr Rennie said.

It means renowned director Davide Livermore could easily add fire, dust or haze to a scene in rehearsal, or turn the sky red in a mere instant.

But there was also a need for restraint, Mr Rennie said, with the risk the screens might overwhelm the performers.

"The eye of the audience is always going to go to the image, we have really artfully chosen when to embrace that, when to let the screens set the mood," he said.

They may not be to the taste of opera traditionalists, but could be just what's needed to attract new audiences to the artform.

Perhaps that's especially true after the success of STC's The Picture of Dorian Gray, which revolutionised the use of screens and has played to standing ovations every night since its premiere in 2020.

However working on Bell Shakespeare's The Lovers with Dorian Gray designer Marg Horwell, Shaun Rennie considered deploying LED screens and decided against it.

Cost was a barrier, but in the end the technology didn't seem right for the material.

Yet with screens in audiences' everyday lives these days, they are simply a part of making theatre now, according to Mr Rennie, and will take the artform in a new direction.

"That's an exciting part of when you bring in the new technology into a very traditional and longstanding art form. It sort of blows up the platform and it's exciting to see where it goes," he said.

Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore plays at the Sydney Opera House from July 15 to 30.

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