Thursday, January 28, 2010

Text and Music in IL TROVATORE'S wild finale

Hi, I’m Jonathan Dean, author of the supertitles at Seattle Opera’s Il trovatore, and I wanted to answer on this blog a question asked at our post-show Q&A the other night: why is there no title for Di Luna’s final line, “E vivo ancor!” The fact is, I’ve left out, or translated very loosely, much of what is actually, all things considered, a very fine libretto by Salvatore Cammarano for what I consider one of the greatest of all operas. Those last 45 seconds of Il trovatore in particular, from Leonora’s death to the end, are as chillingly powerful as any 45 seconds of theater that I know. Here’s the music, plus the titles I put up above the stage in our prodution:

DI LUNA: Kill him!
MANRICO: Mother, mother, farewell!
AZUCENA: Manrico! Where is my son?
DI LUNA: About to die.
AZUCENA: Stop! Hear me...
(The soldiers kill Manrico; Di Luna and Azucena each make expostulations. Then, drumroll, and:)
AZUCENA: He was your brother.
(Di Luna expostulates and looks horror-struck.)
AZUCENA: You are avenged, mother.

Now, here’s the actual words they’re singing in Italian, with a more literal translation:
DI LUNA: Sia tratto al ceppo! (Let him be dragged to the chopping-block!)
MANRICO: Madre, ah, madre, addio! (Mother, ah, mother, farewell!)
AZUCENA: Manrico! Ov’è mio figlio? (Manrico! Whither is my son...?)
DI LUNA: A morte corre. (To death he runs.)
AZUCENA: Ah, ferma!... M’odi... (Ah, stop! Hear me...)
DI LUNA: Vedi? (Do you see?)
AZUCENA: Cielo! (Heavens!)
DI LUNA: È spento! (He is spent!)
AZUCENA: Egli era tuo fratello! (He was your brother!)
DI LUNA: Ei!...quale orror!... (He! How much horror!)
AZUCENA: Sei vendicata, o madre! (You are avenged, o mother!)
DI LUNA: E vivo ancor! (And I live still!)

The distractingly old-fashioned language of many operas’ libretti never makes it up onto the titles screen without very good reason. I don’t feel justified ripping your eyes off the stage to confirm your suspicion that yes, Di Luna just told Azucena that Manrico was dead, or that her little cry of “Cielo!” means “Heaven!” (If you’re relying on my titles, you have no idea how many times in Il trovatore Leonora threatens to faint.)

But to answer the question posed at the Q&A, the real reason to omit Di Luna’s final line, here, is that the only real reason for that utterance is poetic form: he’s rounding out the rhyming couplet, as mandated by the rules of Italian verse. The last two lines of the poem are split, Azucena/Di Luna, Azucena/Di Luna; and he rhymes “orror” with “ancor”, ending the opera with a reference to the same rhyme that concluded Azucena’s great narrative in Act Two Scene One, “Condotta ell’era,” which ended with Manrico’s cry of “Qual’orror...” (How horrible) followed by Azucena’s tormented “Sul capo mio le chiome sento drizzarsi ancor” (‘I feel the hairs on my head standing up again,’ or, in my very loosely translated title, ‘The agony begins in me again’). Musically the rhyme, and the way the baritone and the mezzo both cadence onto the same downbeat, he rising up on “ancor” and she falling down on “madre”, is part of the extraordinary power of the passage. But the sense of his utterance, which is all I can really give you on the titles screen, doesn’t really contribute any new information you need to know: so he doesn’t get a title there.

By the way, if the final scene seems stilted in the Italian text of the libretto, it’s still a vast improvement on the ending of Gutierrez’s original play, written in verse in Spanish:

Ven, mujer infernal...goza en tu triunfo.
(Come, woman of hell...rejoice in your triumph.)
Mira el verdugo, y en su mano el hacha
(Look at the executioner, he has in his hand the axe)
Que va pronto á caer...
(Which is about to fall...)

AZUCENA: ¡Ay! ¡Esa sangre!
(Ah! That blood!)

NUÑO: Alumbrad á la víctima, alumbradla.
(Shine lights on the victim, illuminate him!)

AZUCENA: ¡Sí, sí...luces...él es...tu hermano, imbécil!
(Yes, yes, is he...your brother, stupid!)

NUÑO: ¡Mi hermano, maldición!...
(My brother, curses!)

AZUCENA: ¡Ya estás vengada!
(You [feminine] are avenged!)


  1. I may be in the minority but as a Seattle Opera subscriber for almost two decades, I prefer more rather than fewer supratitles, and prefer direct translations, even when "stilted," because they tend to be more poetic than attempts at modernism. In fact, if wish the supratitles featured both the original libretto and English translation.

  2. I feel like that would be much more of a distraction. The current subtitles are direct and to the point and give you as much time as possible to appreciate the show. If you are interested in reading the original libretto, that is something you could do on your own time.

  3. I agree. If you're really that serious about direct translations, there is nothing stopping you from reading those on your own and getting to know the libretto.