Spotlight on: IL TROVATORE

Il trovatore

At Seattle Opera January 2019

Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Salvatore Cammarano

The Story

Long Story Short

A mother’s tragic past—and the curse that follows her—destroys two long-lost brothers who are in competition for the same woman.

Who’s Who?

Azucena messed up her life long ago when, in a misguided effort to avenge her mother’s murder, she mistakenly killed her own child.

Great Azucenas from Seattle Opera history

Fiorenza Cossotto (© Chris Bennion 1982), Leslie Richards (© Ron Scherl 1989), Malgorzata Walewska (© Rozarii Lynch 2010)

Manrico, her “son,” is really her enemy’s son, kidnapped by her and then raised in place of the son she killed.

Count di Luna is an unscrupulous Spanish aristocrat. Only Azucena knows he’s really Manrico’s brother.

Leonora is a young noblewoman, desired by both Manrico and di Luna. She prefers Manrico.

Ferrando, a soldier in di Luna’s army, is the only person who has ever understood this opera’s complicated backstory.

The other characters are soldiers, Roms, nuns, and monks.

What's Going On?

It began long, long ago, on that fatal sunny morning when a servant of old Count di Luna discovered an elderly Romani woman gazing down at the cradle of Garcia, the Count’s youngest son. The Count assumed the woman had come to cast a spell upon his baby, so he had her burnt at the stake. Her daughter witnessed the old woman’s execution; her ghastly cry of “Avenge me!” echoed in Azucena’s ears.

Azucena planned to avenge her mother’s death by tossing little Garcia into the same fire that burnt her mother. So she kidnapped him and brought him there, later that night (along with her own baby son). Pity overcame her, and she hesitated; but then, the sound of her mother’s screams came back to her. Overcome by delirium, Azucena grabbed the child and shoved him into the fire. But in her delirium she grabbed the wrong child; she killed her own son.

So Azucena adopted little Garcia; she named him Manrico and brought him up. And as he grew to manhood, his fate became entangled with that of his long-lost brother, the enemy of his people, the new Count di Luna. Manrico and young di Luna both fell in love with Leonora, a lovely lady of the Spanish court.

As the curtain rises, Manrico and di Luna fight a duel over Leonora. Manrico, instructed by a heavenly voice, spares his rival’s life. Then, their respective armies fight a battle in which di Luna almost kills Manrico. They clash a third time outside the convent where Leonora intends to become a nun, both brothers intent on taking her for himself.

She chooses to run off with Manrico. But di Luna isn’t finished. He captures Azucena and forces Manrico to choose between his mother and his girlfriend. Manrico chooses his mother. That’s how di Luna captures Manrico. He then forces Leonora to either love him, or watch Manrico die. She decides to kill herself. Di Luna tortures Azucena and forces her to watch Manrico’s execution—only to learn, too late, who Manrico really was. All four lives are destroyed: but Azucena’s mother is finally avenged.

Listen For

Bel Canto Turns Heroic

Verdi’s career began during the glory days of bel canto, when Italian opera meant dazzling coloratura that ornamented vast, complex melodies. But a new kind of singing developed to cope with the increasing size of opera orchestras, as well as the public’s evolving taste: heroic singing, where the voice is like a laser, a sword, a trumpet. Il trovatore is the pivot-point between the two schools; its killer lead roles demand both the dexterity to maneuver through the refined details of bel canto and enough raw power to project the intense clarion-cries of the newer, heroic style.

In Il trovatore, listen for both the delicately laced, impossibly long phrases of elegant bel canto singing...

...as well as the rousing trumpet calls of balls-to-the-wall heroic singing.

Toe-Tapping Tunes

Verdi was one of the world’s great tunesmiths; melodies came to him faster, in some cases, than he could write them down. The appeal of Il trovatore’s many hit tunes balances the opera’s overwhelmingly grim (some might say “nihilistic”) plot, yet the catchy music is never inappropriate to the bloody story. For the fierce love and hate of this show, Verdi wrote music of unrelenting intensity, distinguished first and foremost by its rhythmic vitality. The music of Il trovatore has the ability to make blood pulse through your veins.

The Music of PTSD

Today, Azucena might find relief from her inner demons through therapy. But in Verdi’s relentless musical world, she hears the same demonic waltz tune every time she flashes back to that ghastly night she watched her mother die: the melody of her gripping aria “Stride la vampa.” Verdi uses this idée fixe (or musical obsession) again and again throughout the opera, like a recurring nightmare.

Where, When, & Why Was this Opera Written?

Giuseppe Verdi conducting

Verdi and his then-girlfriend Giuseppina Strepponi became enthusiastic about El trovador, a wildly Romantic and melodramatic Spanish play, around the time they were moving from Paris back to Verdi’s conservative hometown of Bussetto, in the north of Italy. In those years following the death of Donizetti, Verdi’s career was at its absolute busiest. He completed and produced three other operas and started a fourth while working on Il trovatore. He also disowned his parents and kicked them out of his house, probably because they refused to accept or respect the woman he loved.

What fascinated Verdi most about Il trovatore was the grotesque character of Azucena, who picks up, psychologically, where the grotesque character of Rigoletto had left off at the conclusion of Verdi’s previous opera. That is, when the curtain comes down on Rigoletto, the parent is cradling the corpse of the child inadvertently killed by the parent’s arrogant attempt to play God and be avenged on an enemy. Azucena experienced the same drama in Il trovatore’s backstory, and her curse dooms everyone in the opera. Il trovatore was a huge hit from day one, although Verdi’s contemporaries certainly noted its extreme darkness. Verdi’s response was typical of his mood at the time:

"They say this opera is too sad, and that there are too many deaths in it. But after all, death is all there is in life! What else is there?"

-Verdi

Where'd They Get this Story?

The “Gory Story of Il trovatory” comes from Spanish playwright Antonio Garcia Gutiérrez’s 1836 play, El trovador. Strepponi, who understood Spanish, translated El trovador for Verdi and for Salvatore Cammarano, Italy’s leading bel canto librettist, who unfortunately died before the opera’s premiere.

Although Verdi encouraged Cammarano to break the rules, the librettist organized the show into all the traditional bel canto forms: the action is crammed into lightning-fast recitatives, after which the characters explore their feelings in lovely cavatinas followed predictably by vigorous cabalettas.

A cavatina is the first movement of a double aria, always at a relaxed tempo.

In the cabaletta that follows it, the tempo picks up and the singer tries to excite the audience (and win lots of applause!).

Il trovatore, Seattle Opera, 2010 © Rozarii Lynch

The plot has received more than its fair share of criticism over the years: it is indeed complex, implausible, and difficult to follow particularly before supertitles because we don’t see most of the action. Characters in this opera are constantly narrating (and sometimes lying about) what has happened, either before the opera began, or offstage. And given the uncomfortably brutal nature of that action, generations of operagoers have mocked Il trovatore’s plot, probably as a defense mechanism to protect themselves from having to deal with its bleak outlook on human life.

Same Story/New Lens

In the 2018/19 season, Seattle Opera is producing two operas—Il trovatore and Carmen—that involve Romani people. (“Gypsies” was the old term used to describe Roms, but there is a movement among Roms to use the correct terminology.)

In Il trovatore’s noisy “Anvil Chorus,” Verdi created a vital theme song for the ages-old cliché of Romani people as metal-workers and tinkers.

It’s important to examine and question the stereotypes in the operas we consume. Art and literature have a centuries-old tradition of “othering” Romani people. Consider the painting “The Fortune-Teller” (1594) by Caravaggio, where the Romani woman reads a palm as she removes the person’s ring. The image is an example of the fortune-teller/thief trope. Il trovatore illustrates the baby-snatcher trope, which also appears in the fiction of Miguel de Cervantes. Romani people are featured as dangerous foreigners in Jane Austen’s Emma and many other works of literature.

Caravaggio's The Fortune-Teller (1594)

Carmen offers up another familiar story. In The Romani Gypsies, by Yaron Matras, he writes about “the imaginative association of Romani culture with unrestrained sensuality and individuality, which at the same time is viewed as forbidden.”

Today there are many Romani-run arts and cultural organizations working to push back against the negative effects of these stereotypes. The mission of The Voice of Roma group, for instance, which is based in California and performed in 2015 at Northwest Folklife Festival, is to “promote and present Romani cultural arts and traditions in a way that counters both romanticized and negative stereotypes, and in doing so, to contribute to the preservation of Romani identity and culture.”

What kind of production is coming to Seattle?

Photo: Il trovatore, Cincinnati Opera, 2015 © Philip Groshong

Il trovatore will mark the mainstage directing debut of Dan Wallace Miller, a frequent Assistant Director for Seattle Opera productions since 2016. As Artistic Director of Vespertine Opera, Miller directed operas such as Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Tirésias, and Fauré’s Pénélope in various venues around Seattle. For Seattle Opera’s Chamber Opera series, he directed The Combat in 2017, the earliest opera yet produced by Seattle Opera. John Conklin’s rocky sets, originally created for the 1994 Norma that marked Jane Eaglen’s Seattle debut, are paired with Conklin’s gorgeous, traditional costumes designed specifically for Il trovatore.

Photo: Il trovatore, Cincinnati Opera, 2015 © Philip Groshong

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