Il trovatore is the second of the great trio of mature, middle-period Verdi masterpieces which cemented Verdi’s reputation as the greatest Italian composer of his time. Preceded by Rigoletto and followed by La traviata, this opera demonstrated Verdi’s ability to find the perfect melody to express a character’s emotional state. In Il trovatore the characters are rarely at less than fever-pitch. As a result, this opera may contain more great melodies per minute than any other. It is no surprise that within three years of its premiere, Il trovatore had played in more than 50 countries around the world. In fact, its appeal was so immediate that at its premiere in Rome (January 19, 1853), despite the fact that the Tiber was flooding the streets, the packed audience demanded – and received – encores of the complete Part 3, Scene 2 AND every number in both scenes of Part 4!
Like several of Verdi’s great middle-period operas, Il trovatore is adapted from a famous play of the time. Antonio Garcia Gutiérrez was a 22-year-old soldier so strapped for money he had to borrow a coat in order to take a curtain call when his play El trovador opened at the Teatro del Principe in Madrid on March 1, 1836. It was an instant hit and became the touchstone of Spanish Romanticism. Verdi read the play and was especially intrigued by the character of Azucena. In fact, at one point, Verdi considered naming the opera for her.
In the days before projected translations, many people found themselves confused by the twists and turns of the story. The first three scenes in particular have what are sometimes called “ascolta arias,” in which a character is asked a question and responds with “Ascolta! (Listen!)” before launching into a story. The stories are from different points of view so the details, as is common with eyewitnesses, don’t always match up. But what they do show is the character’s personal emotional involvement with the story. Ferrando’s recollection of the tragic events thirty years before and his determination to wreak revenge on the witch responsible is counterbalanced by Azucena’s horrific memories of her mother’s torture and suffering and by her mania for avenging her mother’s death.
Manrico and the count are both in love with the same woman. In the play, Leonora’s character is actually fully betrothed to the count by her brother despite her protests. Both men’s actions are unwittingly affected by secrets kept from them by the women in the story. Both men are shown to have innate noble qualities, but both are prone to violent reactions to real or perceived treachery. They are both inspired by love as well as by political maneuvering. Leonora is fully motivated by love. She defies convention by falling in love with a rebel. She defies the count by choosing the convent when she thinks Manrico is dead in battle. In the play (a detail changed to avoid Italian ecclesiastical censors) Leonora has actually taken her vows when she runs away with Manrico. Her decision to take the poison as an alternative to giving herself to the count is only because she realizes that she will never be together with Manrico, even if he lives. She does not fear death if the alternative is life without love.
The swash-buckling extremes of the characters are the essence of Spanish Romanticism. From a modern perspective, they are desperate for love, emotionally strapped by circumstance, but convinced they have found their soul mates. The two mature characters, Azucena and Ferrando, have both been harboring bitterness, hate and revenge for decades. An unhappy outcome is inevitable.
But what makes this story so compelling is the energy and pulse of Verdi’s magnificent score. Although critics used to carp that Il trovatore marked a step backwards from the musical and dramatic progress Verdi showed up through Rigoletto, that is not the case. In fact, utilizing the same basic formats established in Italian opera by Rossini, Verdi has actually transformed those “formulas” into more dramatically dynamic forms. Yes, all the principal characters have trills written into their music and the vocal lines demand the finesse of a true bel canto singer. But Verdi could expand the simple transition between aria and cabaletta (the fast section) from a brief interchange between characters to the breath-taking “Miserere” scene. Even when arias are written with repeating verses, the music will change, interjections will interrupt the vocal line. Many of these things are technical items that the audience doesn’t notice because Verdi doesn’t want them to – he wants the audience to be caught up in the story and the conflicts of the characters. He wants them to understand how the characters feel. From the opening rolls on the timpani to the crashing chords signaling the tragedy, Il trovatore captures the heart of anyone who loves a good story, great melodies, fantastic voices, big choruses, and who doesn’t mind a dozen “ear-worms” being planted in the course of a single performance.
I first fell in love with Il trovatore when I was a teen-ager just discovering Verdi. It has remained on my “desert island” list through the years it was derided as formulaic and old-fashioned, as the opera most deserving of the Marx Brothers’ treatment (which I also love). Now, when it has come to be appreciated for the masterpiece it has always been, I take enormous pride in this production. I hope it will be a delight for Verdi lovers and a revelation for those coming to this great opera for the first time.
– Karl W Hesser