• Il Trovatore - Genesis of the Opera - Introduction and Synopsis

    Il Trovatore - Opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi

    Written just between Rigoletto and La Traviata, Verdi’s Il Trovatore was saluted as “the triumph of melody”. Compared to its two sisters from the popular trilogy it is clearly the less polished one in terms of drama. Everything in this opera is quite straightforward. The real power of the piece lies entirely in the irresistible music, and the beautiful singing. With the possible exception of Azucena, there are no complex characters like Rigoletto or Violetta. As Caruso said: “it’s easy to perform: you just need the four best singers in the world”. Let’s talk about it in detail.

    Il Trovatore (The Troubadour) is Verdi’s 18th opera, composed in Verdi’s productive “middle years” at the end of what is known as his “galley years.” In some ways its enduring popularity (it is among the 25 most performed operas in the world) is counter-intuitive, given that some sustain (while others dispute this fact) that he finished it in only 30 days (from November 1 through November 29, 1852) and seemed to be less careful to impact on this piece the general direction taken at the time by his other works. While Rigoletto and La Traviata deviate from the Bel Canto “numbers” structure embracing the concept of scene as their musical unit, Il Trovatore does not. It is a typical “numbers” opera.
    Also, its plot is a lot less compelling than those of its two companions (what some opera lovers refer to as “Rig-Trov-Trav.” Character development is less sophisticated than in Rigoletto (it is said that one doesn’t need to be a great actor to perform in Il Trovatore), and the musical structure is less well planned and tightly controlled as in La Traviata. Suspension of disbelief is more necessary (what mother in her right mind would make a mistake and throw her own baby into a bonfire?) and the events are not exactly subtle – they tend to be actually raw and violent.

    Still, it is one of the most beloved operas in the repertory. It does have many assets. One of them is its music diversity. The opera is full of memorable melodies that run the gamut of operatic devices of its time (most of the scenes are constructed in the usual sequence of cavatina, duet, trio, and finale, also containing double arias, introductory scenes, cabalettas, and complex ensembles, not to forget the thrilling choruses and virtuosic solos), and many of them are considered to be some of the best ever written.

    The “Miserere” duet-chorus was for many years the most loved number in all of opera (and is certainly one of my favorites, with its bone-chilling pathos and halting cries). The Anvil Chorus is a masterpiece of rhythm and expressivity. The cabaletta “Di quella pira” provides the utmost heroic tenor opportunity, and ends in one of the most famous operatic high Cs, although curiously one needs to know that it was never written by Verdi into the aria (it was an ornamentation adopted by tenor Enrico Tamberlink, with Verdi’s permission). The tenor’s virility gets another opportunity to shine in the fearsome “Parlar non vuoi”

    Another great aspect of Il Trovatore resides in the role of the gipsy Azucena, one of the most extraordinary female roles in all of opera, and unusual for its time due to its low notes, called by Verdi a mezzo-soprano range, but actually reaching lower into contralto territory. Azucena’s menacing and terrifying character was a departure for the Italian repertory at the time, and is said to have been influenced by a similar character in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète (1849). Azucena’s signature aria, “Stride la vampa” is the most commonly remembered, but she has many other remarkable moments, such as the devilish “Su l’orlo dei tetti” in act I, the cabaletta “Perigliarti ancor” in act II, and the impressive “Deh, rallentate, o barbari” when she is told that she’ll be put to death.

    Before Il Trovatore, Verdi’s female low roles such as Federica in Luisa Miller and Maddalena in Rigoletto were subsidiary, while Azucena is clearly a prominent role, which would fructify in other low register roles in the future, such as Ulrica, Eboli, and Amneris. Azucena is conflicted and ambivalent, having brought up Manrico with vengeance in mind, but also surrounding him with maternal love.

    This roller-coaster of violent passions is contrasted by the lyricism of the Leonora role, and the tortured evil of the Count di Luna. While Manrico is not the most difficult tenor role in the repertory, it is certainly one of the most spectacular, and careers have been built upon it.

    Verdi wasn’t exactly planning to tackle this subject. At the time he was more interested in setting to music Shakespeare’s King Lear and worked extensively on this project with his then librettist, Salvatore Cammarano. It is not known why Verdi suddenly changed his mind, abandoned the work on King Lear which never saw the light of day, and suddenly encouraged his librettist to read the Spanish play El trovador by Antonio García Gutiérrez, which Verdi considered to be “very beautiful, imaginative, and full of strong situations”.

    Verdi thought that the maddening passions in the play were an invitation for operatic boldness. The play was first staged in 1836, when Gutiérrez was 23 years old, and made him immediately famous with loving audiences. Gutiérrez was confessedly influenced by Victor Hugo, and by another Spaniard, the Duke of Rivas, who wrote the play Don Alvaro o la Fuerza del Sino, later also set to music by Verdi (La Forza del Destino). With El Trovador Gutiérrez tapped unbridled Romantic passions, with the three main characters acting out their wildest emotions. The play is written as an Elizabethan drama, partly in prose and partly in verse. It is a gigantic historical melodrama, set against the backdrop of the 15th century Spanish civil war.

    Verdi and Cammarano did not follow the play to the letter. For instance, they entirely cut out a character, Azucena’s brother. The composer and librettist significantly enhanced Azucena’s role – and some biographers propose that Verdi’s sympathy for this suffering mother came out of the fact that his own mother had just passed away. Maybe Verdi was feeling a little guilty about it, since he had just shipped his parents out of his home and installed them in a separate house, because they were having conflicts with Verdi’s live-in girlfriend Giuseppina Strepponi, out of resenting the fact that the couple was still “living in sin” (they only got married after ten years of co-habitation).

    Anyway, Verdi was very protective of Azucena, and kept prescribing to Cammarano how to treat the character: “Don’t make Azucena go mad. Exhausted with fatigue, suffering, terror and sleeplessness, she speaks confusedly. Her faculties are weakened, but she is not mad. This woman’s two great passions, her love for Manrico and her wild desire to avenge her mother, must be sustained to the end.” He wanted Azucena to be the leading character and to be treated with great compassion.

    Verdi was determined to make a statement with Il Trovatore. He wrote to a friend, “the more Cammarano provides me with originality and freedom of form, the better I shall be able to do.” Verdi was not happy with Cammarano’s output, and wrote to him after reading a draft: “As a gifted and most exceptional man, you will not be offended if I humbly take the liberty of saying it would be better to give up this subject if we cannot manage to retain all the boldness and novelty of the Spanish play.”

    However, Cammarano died before finishing the libretto, and Verdi called up a young poet, Leone Emanuele Bardare, to help him with the completion of the work. As usual for his first collaborations with a young librettist, Verdi bullied Bardare, not trusting that he would deliver sufficient creative liberty for him to make his music soar. Maybe the constant harassment is responsible for some inconsistencies of the plot, or maybe it is its hybrid nature, being written by two different librettists. It doesn’t really matter. We hardly love Il Trovatore for its convoluted plot, but rather for its gorgeous music.

    It is curious to notice that Verdi fully intended to continue to move in the direction of written through music, and wrote to Cammarano to say “if in operas there were no more cavatinas, duets, trios, choruses, finales, etc. etc., and if the entire opera were, let’s say, a single piece, I would find it more reasonable and just.” But then, it looks like Verdi tried one last time to put this evolution aside, and he wrote a “numbers” opera, partially because Cammarano’s libretto was quiet conventional.

    With Cammarano’s passing, Verdi actually encouraged Bardare to expand the role of Leonora, which improved the theatricality of the piece, creating a more symmetric situation with two leading females to oppose the two leading males.

    Verdi was concerned about finding a good Azucena, and based on this, he took his time to select a theater and a cast for the première. He finally settled for the Teatro Apollo in Rome, where the opera was first given on January 19, 1953 to great acclaim. The streets around the opera house were flooded, and the ticket prices were exorbitant. Still, it was a sell out, and the performance got so much applause that the entire last act was encored.

    The delay in getting the Trovatore première going however however resulted in unintended consequences: Verdi quite neglected the theatrical arrangements for La Traviata which was supposed to premiere just a few days later in Venice, and unlike his usual self, he only joined the Venetian troupe days before the first performance, too late to realize what a disaster his Venetian cast for La Traviata was, which caused the latter to be a fiasco, thanks to the unconvincing fat soprano in the role of a consumptive, an oversight that wasn’t typical of Verdi.

    The première cast included Giovanni Guicciardi (Luna), Rosina Penco (Leonora), Emilia Goggi (Azucena) and Carlo Baucardé (Manrico). For the Parisian version in 1857 in a translation by Emilien Pacini entitled Le Trouvère, Verdi revised the score to include a ballet (after the opening chorus of act III), and omitted Leonora’s cabaletta “Tu vedrai che amore in terra”. He also made substantial changes to the end of the opera, with the melody of “Miserere” returning in a coda.

    In spite of its popularity and the above mentioned strengths, it is undeniable that the opera also has shortcomings, with character types that don’t evolve, and unrealistic stage action. More modernly, however, some critics have reversed these considerations to point to the fact that perhaps this economy of means works positively for the music, which then in its formalism focuses and concentrates the drama. Yes, because the music in Il Trovatore is powerful. It is very rhythmic, very forceful with a narrow compass, leading to a build-up of tension that when finally freed, produces explosive power. There is a lot of energy in Il Trovatore.

    And, finally, Il Trovatore lives or dies with the singing. How can we otherwise forget about Luna’s questionable temper and get enrapted by the wonderful ‘il balen dil suo sorriso’?. Or excuse the vulgarity of many cabalettas? Or overlook the questionable orchestration of some passages, like the violins doubling Manrico in the second act?

    This is indeed the power of melody …

    We have here two great singers: Suzanne Juyol as Leonora, and José Luccioni as Manrico, singing the ‘Miserere’ in a French version of the opera:

    Miserere in French


    Count di Luna, a young nobleman, baritone
    Ferrando, captain of his guard, bass
    Manrico, supposed son to Azucena and a rebel under Prince Urgel, tenor
    Ruiz, a soldier in Manrico’s service, tenor
    An old gipsy male, baritone
    Doña Leonora, lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Aragon, soprano
    Inez, confidante of Leonora, soprano
    Azucena , a gipsy woman from Biscay, mezzo-soprano or contralto
    Followers of Count di Luna and of Manrico; messenger, gipsies, soldiers, nuns

    Place and time: Aragon and Biscay, Fifteenth Century
    Running Time approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes

    The plot is based on events that have happened before the first notes, which open in a Spain torn by civil war between the forces loyal to the Prince of Aragon (including the Count of Luna), and the insurgents faithful to Prince Urgel of Biscay(including the gipsy Manrico).

    Decades before, the Count’s father had murdered a gipsy woman, a crime that her daughter Azucena was obsessed with revenging. In her attempt to hurt her mother’s murderer, Azucena had kidnapped one of her enemy’s two sons, and planned to burn the baby in a bonfire.

    However, distressed, she made a mistake and threw her own baby to death. She then raised her enemy’s baby as her own and named him Manrico. It turns out, then, that Manrico is in reality Count di Luna’s brother, unbeknownst to everybody but to Azucena.

    Manrico, the troubadour, is in love with Leonora, the lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Aragon. So is the Count di Luna, who suspects that Leonora indeed prefers his rival (which turns out to be the case). Unlike most operas by Verdi, there is no overture or prelude, merely a series of martial arpeggios and horns.

    Act 1, Scene 1 – a ball in the Aliafaria palace

    Ferrando is patrolling the outside of the palace with his sentries, under the orders of the Count who is concerned at the rumors that Leonora has been listening to a troubadour who comes under her window to sing of his love for her. Encouraged by the chorus, Ferrando narrates the story of the Count’s brother, Garzia.

    A witch was seen hovering over his cradle, and the baby got sickened. Suspecting the witch of having given the baby the evil eye, Garzia’s father ordered the witch burnt at the stake. However, the same day the baby disappears, and a charred small corpse is found in the embers of the witch’s funeral pire.

    Supposedly the witches’ daughter had killed the old Count’s baby to revenge her mother’s death. The witche’s daughter disappeared, and according to Ferrando, the old witch can still be seen, roaming the skies at night. The terror tale atmosphere is made more frightening by the chiming of the midnight bell, and all scatter.

    Act 1, Scene 2 – The palace gardens

    Leonora tells her maid Ines of her love for a knight she met in a tournament, who then vanished when civil war broke out. He has now returned as a troubadour who’s been serenading her with melancholic songs. Ines suggests that she forgets about this lover, which Leonora vouches never to do, preferring death to relinquishing her love. They depart.

    The count enters and engages in a soliloquy, telling himself of his burning passion for Leonora. Suddenly the voice of the troubadour sounds in the distance, which prompts Leonora to come back running to encounter her lover. In the dark, she mistakes the Count for her lover, which an arriving Manrico takes as proof of treachery. The Count and Manrico defy each other to a duel and leave, causing Leonora to pass out.

    Act 2, scene 1 – A ruined hovel in a mountain in Biscay

    We are in a gipsy village or encampment. They sing in chorus of their return to work, while striking their anvils. Azucena sings of fire and destruction and tells Manrico of her mother’s death and of her attempt at vengeance. She confesses that she threw the wrong baby on to the fire. Manrico, startled, asks her if this means that he is not her son, but she reassures him with expressions of maternal love.

    She asks him to tell her a story. He reports that he was dueling with the Count and was about to strike the fatal blow when an internal voice told him to restrain himself. They are interrupted by Ruiz, who bears a letter saying that Leonora, thinking Manrico dead, is about to enter a convent. Manrico vows to go seek her, while Azucena tries to restrain him, to no avail.

    Act 2, scene 2 – the cloister of a convent near Castellor

    The count approaches the convent with the intention of kidnapping Leonora. He and his followers hide, while nuns sing off-stage. Leonora enters the scene, and the Count reveals himself. Meanwhile Manrico also arrives and his men surround the Count’s. Leonora rushes off with Manrico.

    Act 3, scene 1 – a military encampment

    The Count’s men plan to attack Castellor, where Leonora is hidden. The Count agonizes over losing her, when Ferrando brings in a prisoner, Azucena, who has been captured nearby. The Count correctly guesses her identity and exults, vowing to burn her at stake. She begs for forgiveness.

    Act 3, scene 2 – A room adjoining the chapel at Castellor

    Manrico in his camp is about to get married to Leonora. The lovers sing to each other but Ruiz interrupts, informing them of Azucena’s capture. Manrico gathers his followers to mount a rescue operation.

    Act 4, scene 1 – a wing of the Aliaferia Palace

    Without further narrative, we are supposed to guess that Manrico’s attack has failed and he also felt prisoner to the Count and is kept in a tower. Leonora arrives and to the offstage melody of a chorus, she listens to Manrico’s distant voice and produces a distressed and halting response, followed by the reiteration of her love (in an often omitted cabaletta).

    The count appears, determined to execute mother and son. Leonora offers herself to the Count in exchanging for sparing her lover’s life. The Count happily agrees, not noticing that Leonora has swallowed a slow-acting poison.

    Act 4, scene 2 – a prison

    Azucena and Manrico are behind bars. Azucena is frightened by visions of her imminent death. She falls asleep. Leonora arrives, telling Manrico that he is free to go, but he correctly guesses the bargain that she had proposed to the Count. He again accuses her of unfaithfulness, but she falls in her arms, under the accelerating effect of the poison. They bid each other farewell.

    The Count arrives and sees a dying Leonora. He orders Manrico executed and forces Azucena to watch. As the fatal blow falls, she tells him that he has just killed his own brother, and ends the opera with a statement that her mother has been avenged, while the Count laments that he is the only survivor.

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