• Il Trovatore - Around the Opera - Trivia

    - The convoluted plot of this opera has resulted in some mockery. For many it is an example of what many detractors say of opera libretti, with confused and silly situations that defy belief. Gilbert and Sullivan parodied the baby-switching in The Gondoliers, and the Max Brother’s A Night at the Opera also makes fun of Il Trovatore.

    - What people usually complain about is that the opera is full of situations akin to magical realism, and important actions (baby burnings, kidnappings, duels, executions) take place off-stage or before the curtain opens.

    - Opinions about Il Trovatore have varied from unbridled enthusiasm to scorn. The opera is difficult to stage, given its 8 scenes in different locations. It is also difficult to cast given its vocal demands. Therefore it requires a very talented group of people to be successfully staged – strong stage direction to link well the various jumps the story suffers, great singers, and its lively and powerful orchestration demands good reading of the score and good musicianship. This is partly responsible for the “love it or hate it” effect, since there are great productions of this work, but also very weak ones.

    - Still, with its powerful music, the opera was an immediate success, as reported by the Gazetta Musicale after the premiere: “The composer deserved this splendid triumph, for he has here written music in a new style, imbued with Castillian characteristics [Opera Lively's note: we don't really see it]. The public listened to each number in religious silence, breaking out into applause at every interval, the end of the third act and the whole of the fourth arousing such enthusiasm that their repetition was demanded.”

    - The success in Rome lead to performances around the word with sustained praise – 229 in just the first three years! In Naples only it was given during its first three years in six theaters and 11 stagings with 190 performances.

    - Certain critics were unhappy with the fact that Verdi seemed to be killing Bel Canto by making impossible demands on the singers (which justifies Caruso’s famous opinion quoted earlier in our article about the genesis of the opera). Curiously, there were also complains that the opera was too sad and had too many deaths, prompting Verdi to say – “but isn’t death all that there is in life, after all?” However the play on which the libretto is based is even darker and more violent. It’s an opera about a civil war – how could it not be dark and violent?

    - There is some truth to the claim that Verdi was killing Bel Canto. Indeed, the opera while not as radically structured as his works to come, did introduce elements of what was in the future, with Azucena arguably being described as the first Verismo character. But this is more true of the dramatization than of the music, which does still retain several of the Bel Canto characteristics.

    - For a long time Il Trovatore remained Verdi’s most popular work, although today others have taken the spot (notably La Traviata, Aida, and Rigoletto). Verdi wrote to his friend Count Arrivabene in 1862: “Should you go to the Indies or the heart of Africa, you will always hear Il Trovatore.” It wasn’t uncommon at the time to hear the Anvil Chorus played on barrel organs and street pianos.

    - There are enough musical ideas and beautiful melodies in Il Trovatore to write at least three operas. However, this richness is not really presented within a really unified schema. Each separate aria or ensemble is a jewel, a small masterpiece of Italian music, but the opera itself is less than the sum of their parts.

    - There is an anecdote regarding “Ah, si ben mio”. In the libretto the cantabile ended like that:

    Fra quegli estremi aneliti
    A te il pensier verrà
    E solo in ciel precederti
    La morte a me parrà!

    However, writing this cantabile in the score, Verdi made a mistake and he wrote:

    Fra quegli estremi aneliti
    La morte a me parrà
    E solo in ciel precederti
    La morte a me parrà!

    And this is the way it had been sung and recorded many, many times…

    - Luchino Visconti’s film Senso includes in its opening scene a sequence of Il Trovatore filmed at La Fenice. Some critics sustain that the film’s main characters Ussoni and Livia parallel Manrico and Leonora.

    - The French Version – Le Trouvère

    In 1856 Verdi was invited by the General Administrator of the Théâtre de l’Opèra in Paris to prepare a French-language version of his opera. Reluctant at first, Verdi ended up accepting it, mostly in order to secure his author copyright rather than allow someone else to adapt his work or rewrite it as a separate opera. Furthermore, for this adaptation which was relatively easy for him to do, he was paid as much as composers were usually paid for a brand new work at the time.

    Verdi kept control of the operation, and picked the translator – Emilien Pacini. The adapted work premièred at the Salle Le Peletier on January 12, 1857. Since Verdi worked directly with Pacini and unlike most other attempts at opera in translation, the French version does seem idiomatic and natural enough and does fit the music without major clashes.

    Its music is not a carbon copy of the Italian original, since there are many small modifications of the vocal and orchestral lines. Scholarly works such as Julian Budden’s “The Operas of Verdi” (Oxford University Press) discuss all the modifications in detail. The most notable changes are the insertion of a ballet after the Soldier’s Chorus in act III as requested by the Opéra’s management, and several passages in the last two acts.

    The ending is also slightly different. While in the original as soon as Leonora dies Manrico is quickly put to death while Azucena informs the Count that he was his brother – these very dramatic events take all of 50 seconds to unfold – Verdi extends the French ending by about thirty bars with a reprise of the Miserere, and writes more lines for Azucena and Manrico. Scholars guess that Verdi was trying to allow plausible time for Manrico to be beheaded, and wanted to give more prominence to Mme. Borghi-Mamo who created the French Azucena.

    Most people still prefer the original ending, although a handful of productions, even the ones sung in Italian, have incorporated some of the French ending – such as one by Santa Fé Opera.

    There is a good recording of the French version in the Pathé catalog, with Jean Noté as Comte de Luna, Charles Fontaine as Manrique, Robert Marvini as Fernand, Ketty Lapeyrette as Azucena, Jane Morlet as Léonore, and François Ruhmlmann conducting (reissued by Marston, 52026-2, 2 CDs). As a bonus, this edition features excerpts from another production of the French version with different singers.

    The singers here do a very good job. Belgian Tenor Charles Fontaine starts shaky and has deficient trills, but his voice is warm and powerful, and he seems to impact different tonalities to Manrique's facets: the loyal son, the lover, and the warrior. High baritone Jean Noté, also Belgian, presents a masculine, elegant, and fearsome Comte di Luna. Soprano Jane Morlet's voice is agile enough and conveys good passion. Ketty Lapeyrette's Azucena is a bit too refined rather than raw and violent, but this may be in tune with the Frenchness of this performance (but we do see extensive use of Italianate rubato throughout the recording). Conductor Ruhlmann's reading is sensitive, gives the singers enough space, and never disrupts the flow.

    - Here is a link to a short lecture (27') on Il Trovatore from the University of California San Diego TV, in association with San Diego Opera, delivered by Nick Reveles. In spite of a couple of errors (saying that Verdi's first wife died at childbirth - not true, and making it sound like Leontyne Price only recorded two versions of the opera), it is an interesting piece with illustrations and musical examples on the piano, context, and a brief mention of the discography: http://www.uctv.tv/search-details.aspx?showID=4311

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