Into the Fire: Verdi’s Il trovatore

Set model for Act 1, scene 1, of OSJ's production of Il trovatore. Design by Steven Kemp.

Set model for Act 1, scene 1, of OSJ’s production of Il trovatore. Design by Steven Kemp.

Only coincidence caused Il trovatore to have its world premiere on the very site where Giordano Bruno was imprisoned, waiting to be burned alive a few blocks away in the Campo de’ Fiori. Teatro Apollo, a late 18th-century theatre, built where the pontifical prison Tor di Nona once stood, was the largest theatre in Rome, which made it the logical choice for a Verdi premiere, but the subject of Il trovatore makes this connection to Bruno all the more intriguing.

It has been said that Il trovatore has a confusing, even implausible plot, but I strongly disagree. I think the confusion rises because this is not a simple love story. A hundred years of Hollywood movies have caused us to expect most everything to be, at its heart, a simple love story, so all on our own, we give the passionate love between Manrico and Leonora the central place, but that’s the public’s idea or a stage director’s idea, not Verdi’s or García Gutiérrez’s idea. Had Verdi called the opera The Gypsy instead of The Troubadour (which he considered), some confusion might have been avoided, but he stuck with the title of the Gutiérrez play (from which the libretto was drawn); no doubt expecting the great fame of the play to assist his own box office receipts.

Clearly, Verdi made the right choice, as Il trovatore had 230 separate productions in its first three years (who knows how many performances that amounted to?), and this Romantic, poetic, violently passionate opera, set in the brutal world of Spain’s late Middle Ages, has never fallen from grace with the public. For many years, Il trovatore was the most popular opera of them all, but despite its long popularity, the opera has had its skeptics.

Set model for Act 1, scene 2, of OSJ's production of Il trovatore. Design by Steven Kemp

Set model for Act 1, scene 2, of OSJ’s production of Il trovatore. Design by Steven Kemp

When I hear someone proclaim Azucena’s horrifying, unthinkable mistake as an impossible mistake, I think this person lacks empathy or imagination, or both. So I challenge you to imagine what Azucena is experiencing when she makes this horrible error, what her mental state must be, how insane she must have become while standing in front of that raging bonfire in which her mother was being burned alive, screaming. Azucena’s is not an impossible mistake; it is an insane mistake. I am convinced that Azucena never recovers her sanity and never loses her humanity, though what she plans and calculates and carries out is utterly inhuman. In the face of this incomprehensible horror, sensibility fails us and we turn our attention to the love story. But the inexorable tragedy in Il trovatore is not that of the lovers Leonora and Manrico, but that of the antagonists Azucena and di Luna. Leonora, the innocent bystander, is collateral damage, and Manrico is used as a weapon in Azucena’s private war.Neither Gutiérrez nor Verdi were fools; they laced the brutality of the Middle Ages with a love relationship that we can see and hear and understand. Wisely, the horror is left twenty years in the past and only reported to us, and even then it is reported from opposing points of view. We are not forced to see the actual burning, we merely listen to the haunted words that describe it.

The opera begins with the love story, which is woven through the piece into the last act. From the first scene to the end of the opera, this powerful love is palpably present. This is 15th-century Spain, replete with knights and castles and ladies in waiting, when political rivalries were settled by hand-to-hand combat, when wealthy ladies were able to seek refuge in convents, and when a lord could satisfy his thwarted sexual desire by means of abduction. In Il trovatore, there is a contest for the throne of Aragon, and two leaders of these battles, Count di Luna and Manrico, are in combat not only on the battlefield but also on the field of love.

In Leonora’s first aria, we learn that before this war erupted, Leonora, lady in waiting to the Princess of Aragon, encountered a mysterious knight who displayed no crest on his shield at the joust; she fell in love with him, and he with her. They begin to meet at night, in secret. But Count di Luna is also in love with Leonora and his jealousy is magnified by enmity in war. How unfortunate for all of them that Manrico’s true identity is unknown, not only to di Luna and Leonora, but even to Manrico, himself.

Like the famous Richard the Lionheart, Manrico is a troubadour knight, and he sings to Leonora in the night, to let her know he has come. Rashly, the lovers meet inside the castle wall. Everything is in keeping with a medieval romance until we meet Azucena, Manrico’s mother, or at least the woman who tells him she is his mother. With this dramatic role, we enter the world of the 19th-century Gothic opera, where the turnings of the plot introduce the unanticipated.

Verdi was at the top of his form when he composed Il trovatore, his twelfth opera. He had just opened Rigoletto in Venice, and soon after opening Il trovatore in Rome he would open La traviata, again in Venice. He was 40 years old, and while he was not as famous as he would become after these three operas were in performance all over the world, he had become powerful enough to demand the quality of singer he required to realize his musical intentions (at least in Rome, this wouldn’t be true for Traviata in Venice). It has been said often, perhaps Caruso was the first to say it, that all one needs to have a successful production of Il trovatore is the four most accomplished singers in the world. Though I find this an exaggeration (I have experienced engrossing performances from singers who, while excellent, were not the finest in the world). What one needs are a conductor, stage director, and singers who are absolutely committed to the drama, for in this opera the drama is paramount, and the singing, however brilliant, is at the service of this fast-moving, emotional thrill ride. When this happens, when everything is at the service of this tumbling kaleidoscope of human emotion, Il trovatore is one of the most effective operas ever conceived.

Verdi selected Salvadore Cammarano to develop the libretto from the Gutierrez play. Cammarano had already written thirty-eight libretti, three of them for Verdi, but perhaps he is best known for Lucia di Lammermoor, which he authored for Donizetti. (Unfortunately, Cammarano didn’t quite complete Il trovatore, though it is reported that the opera could have been composed from the work Cammarano completed, a few revisions were made by the Neapolitan poet Leone Emanuele Bardare.)

What Cammarano brought to Il trovatore was a keen intelligence, vast experience, and real poetry. He also brought a complete understanding and trust in the accepted forms of Italian opera that had been current for fifty years. It was Verdi’s desire to break those forms and forge new ground, and he did. The resulting tension between the poetic forms used by Cammarano and the daring, raw emotions Verdi had begun to explore in Rigoletto result in a wonderfully dramatic tension that originates in the dual, conflicting goals of text and music. A lesser composer could not have succeeded where Verdi created a masterpiece.

Opera San José’s physical production of Il trovatore is under the dramatically sure hand of Brad Dalton (Madama Butterfly, Così fan tutte, Anna Karenina, Idomeneo, Faust for OSJ), who for the past year has been working with the brilliant set designer Steven Kemp (Anna Karenina, Idomeneo, Faust) and the inspired costume designer Elizabeth Poindexter (Anna Karenina, La traviata, Tosca and many others). They have captured the essence of the late Middle Ages, rough stone, leather jerkins, armor of various kinds, and the necessity of anvils for the famous chorus. All this will be illuminated by David Lee Cuthbert (The Crucible, Le nozze di Figaro, Faust, and others).

Opera San José Music Director David Rohrbaugh will conduct, assisted by Andrew Whtifield. Rohrbaugh has conducted more than 67 operas in more than 600 performances, ranging from Mozart to Menotti, and including Wagner, Verdi, and Puccini on route, most recently he conducted our very successful Die Fledermaus. Whitfield, OSJ’s chorus master, has conducted two-dozen operas in more than 200 performances. Most recently for Opera San José, he conducted La voix humaine, Pagliacci, and Les pêcheurs de perles.

You can expect to experience a very exciting production of Verdi’s towering Il trovatore in the California Theatre this February.

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