Met Opera: Verdi’s Il Trovatore

“a simulcast for the ages”

In the history of the Italian opera canon, Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore (The Troubador) has proven to be an unprecedented outpouring of unabashed, searing passion — a parade of the senses that translates into a powerful and sublime theatrical experience.

It is a touchstone opera score that is saturated with towering energetic vigor and eminently impassioned melodic gems that at times inundate the listener with its driving and propulsive intensity. Il Trovatore’s virtually singular lyrical richness inspired Friedrich Nietzsche, the eminent German philosopher, to refer to the Italian style of agitated musical expression as the “Mediterranean soul of music”: he concluded that the energetic character and expressionism of Italian music essentially evolved from the animated Italian language itself, a dialect and lexicon that possesses a natural, inborn sense of excited emotionalism and a heightened and breathless expressiveness.

For Il Trovatore, Verdi created finely delineated music for each of the major protagonists — the troubador Manrico and his lover Leonora, Manri co’s rival Count di Luna, and the crazed gypsy Azucena — each is consumed by soaring passions that resonate with chilling emotional intensity and vigorous visceral lyricism which resulted in breathless, agitated and supercharged musical imagery.Il Trovatore’s music score is unquestionably the archetype of Nietzsche’s description of the Italians’ driving intensity and impassioned expressionism.

Chronologically, Il Trovatore (1853) followed Rigoletto (1851), the latter, an intense music score that inaugurated Verdi’s “middle compositional period”: a transitional period that signaled a dynamic transformation of Verdi’s compositional style and one in which he began to convey a new thrust of dramatic and lyrical passion.

Verdi abandoned the heroic pathos and nationalistic themes that he had incorporated in his early operas and began to portray more profound operatic themes: they were bolder subjects; subjects possessing greater dramatic and psychological depth; and subjects that accented spiritual values, intimate humanity and tender emotion.

Verdi’s goal was to create an expressiveness and acute delineation of the human soul that had never before been realized on his contemporary opera stage. He sought to depict characters consumed by uncontrollable passions, and he would emphasize the intensity of their psychological dramatic truth with music of intense lyric expressivity.

Verdi composed Il Trovatore (January 1853) and La Traviata (March 1853) simultaneously. It is a tribute to his genius that the character and style of each opera is distinctly dissimilar — each opera possesses its own unique dramatic, thematic and musical focus.

Il Trovatore is a romantic melodrama that is saturated with intense violence, fierce emotion and forceful passion, and much of its structural and musical style remain indebted to the conventions and traditions of the early nineteenth-century Italian bel canto genre — “il primo ottocento.”

In contrast, La Traviata is a poignant musical portrait of Violetta Valery, it’s tragic heroine. Her plight is essentially conveyed in a bittersweet symphonic poem that articulates the potent emotional truth that overwhelms the heroine in each stage of her tragic fall.

Il Trovatore is based on El Trovador (1836), a popular drama by García Gutiérrez, an early nineteenth-century Spanish romantic playwright whose oeuvre owes much of its provenance to French playwright Victor Hugo, the father of literary Romanticism.

In 1834, after the death of Ferdinand VII, many Spanish dramatists received amnesty after earlier having been exiled for their liberal views; essentially they had been exiled because of their embrace of the liberal ideals of the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution, as well as theirfurther incrimination of the abuses and corruption of the powerful union of Church and Crown.

The return of those playwrights inspired a great flowering of Spanish Romantic drama, a genre that were typically throbbing melodramas saturated with supercharged emotions — the Spanish Romanticists were consumed to embrace ideals involving freedom of expression.

Among those Spanish Romanticists were Ángel de Saavedra, known as the 3rd Duke of Rivas, who wrote Don Álvaro, which later became the inspiration for Verdi’s La Forza del Destino; Juan Eugenio Hartzenbusch’s Los Amantes de Teruel (“The Lovers of Teruel”); and Martinez de la Rosa’s La Conjuración de Venezia (“The Venetian Conspiracy”); and, García Gutiérrez, the dramatist of El Trovador.

Gutiérrez’s El Trovador was a flamboyant melodrama, which owed much of its provenance to the earlier Gothic genre that featured lurid, gruesome and macabre melodramas that generally depicted savage brutality and cruelty. Gutiérrez’s drama was saturated with fantastic and complex episodes that were dominated by heightened passions of love, rivalry and jealousy; sacrificial suicide; monomaniacal obsessions of revenge; and its most horrifying elements, filicide, infanticide and fratricide. The bizarre themes seemed ideal in Verdi’s new search for more profound operatic subjects: a bold underlying scenario, unusual and unconventional, and at times gruesome and grotesque.

Verdi selected Salvatore Cammarano (1801 — 1852) as librettist for Il Trovatore; Cammarano had been Donizetti’s librettist for Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), and earlier for Verdi’s Alzira (1845) and La Battaglia di Legnano (1849). Cammarano was a quintessential writer of Italian operatic prose and an ingenious wordsmith possessing a special flair for colorful phrasing. Verdi adored Cammarano’s prose and harbored hopes that he would become the librettist to fulfill his life-long ambition to set Shakespeare’s King Lear for the lyric theater, a dream that never reached fruition.

Cammarano transformed Gutiérrez’s dramatically skillful and scintillating play into a libretto that became one of the great enigmas of the opera world— under his pen, the libretto at times became extremely complicated, if not incoherent and unintelligible.

Presumably, Verdi required but 21 days to complete the music score for Il Trovatore, but many critics claim that an intelligent understanding of the story can become a more time-consuming feat.

The difficulty emanates from Cammarano’s obsession to add flamboyant variations and obscurities to the scenarios. He had remained dutifully faithful to the old-fashioned “libretto Italiano,” a tradition that stressed a predilection for flowery diction and pompous prose. At times, Cammarano’s language would seem stilted and monotonous. For example, he would refer to bells as “sacred bronzes”; and he referred to midnight as the “hour of the dead.” And additionally, over the course of time, the dilemma of the coherence of Il Trovatore’s libretto became compounded by continuing incorrect and inaccurate English translations of the original Italian text.

The original Gutiérrez setting for Il Trovatore was set in Spain during the year 1409, where a bloody and brutal civil war raging for the succession to the throne. In 1409, King Martin I of Aragon died without an heir. Afterwards, a civil war erupted between claimants for the throne: King Martin’s nephew Fernando, was chosen king by the Aragonese parliament, and was contested by Jaime de Aragon, Count of Urgel.

Manrico, Il Trovatore’s hero, is a soldier in the army of Jaime, Count of Urgel: his rival is the Count di Luna, leader of the armies of Fernando, King of Aragon. Manrico and di Luna are bitter enemies in war, and also rivals for the hand of Leonora, a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Aragon. The underlying irony and ultimate tragedy of the Il Trovatore story revolves around the fact that Manrico and di Luna are bitter rivals in love and war, but are unaware that they are brothers.

ll Trovatore is a fantastic horror tale in which the essential scenario is deeply rooted in the old Gothic genre, a tradition in which stories hinged on incidents that took place years before the main story unfolded. In Il Trovatore that earlier event took place 15-years before the curtain rose: it was the execution of the gypsy Azucena’s mother by the old Count di Luna.

The engine driving the entire Il Trovatore melodrama is Azucena’s monomaniacal obsession to avenge her mother’s execution, a consuming passion that remains the dominant thread that weaves through the entire scenario.

The opera swiftly speeds from emotionally and passionately charged climax to climax, its romantic agony and Gothic horror exploding into magnificent and fierce lyrical and dramatic splendor.

The opera represents a quintessential archetype of opera’s inherent power to portray intense agonies and ecstasies — human hyper passions that become realized through the emotive power of music.

Significantly, Verdi was a humanist and champion of Enlightenment ideals. He detested the malevolence and evil that lurked within the human soul and sensed an opportunity to realize those horrors from Gutiérrez’s El Trovador drama. His operatic pen began to set to music the intensity and hyper passions of internecine civil war; the heated love rivalry of Manrico and di Luna which incited fanatically murderous jealousy; the gypsy Azucena’s monomaniacal obsession for revenge; the horror of Leonora’s suicide; and ultimately, acts of horrific filicide, infanticide and fratricide.

The essence of Il Trovatore’s underlying gloom is captured in the troubador’s serenade to Leonora when he reveals the melancholy of a lonely man yearning for love, essentially a theme that embraces all of the characters in the opera: he laments his destiny on earth, and that he is doomed to be subjected to the miseries of wars — his only hope of redemption is the love of Leonora.

The troubador’s proclamation ultimately becomes an impossible dream within the interplay of the heightened passions of the Il Trovatore story.

Sir David McVicar’s production for the Met Opera (2009) had presumably derived its inspiration from The Disasters of War, a series of 82 prints created between 1810 and 1820 by Francisco Goya (1746 — 1828), the acclaimed Spanish painter and printmaker. Generally, art historians view the prints as a visual protest against the violence in Spain during the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising, the subsequent Peninsular War of 1808 — 1814, and the impediment to liberal progress that occurred after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814, following the defeat of Napoleon.

McVicar’s trademark has often been his inclination to update story settings. Therefore, his Met Il Trovatore had been moved forward in time to the early nineteenth-century, at the time of the horrors of the Spanish wars depicted in Goya’s prints. Effectively, his intention was to draw a parallel between the earlier fifteenth-century Spanish Civil War of Succession of Il Trovatore, and the later nineteenth-century wars.

However, other than an outer curtain depicting one of Goya’s prints, there is nothing noteworthy in McVicar’s sets that provide a truthful historical comparison of the two wars, 400-years apart. Aside from apparently updated clothing for the cast, the actual sets — which rotate on the Met’s stage table— seem historically meaningless, their primary focus a rather bland-looking concrete wall that seems to find a location as each scene rotates into place.

Apparently McVicar could not resist arousing his regietheater propensities — that rather controversial practice of allowing a director freedom to revise the creator’s original, specific intentions or stage directions to suit his own conceptions of the sets and dramaturgy, or dramatic composition and theatrical representation. For example, in Act III, the soldiers in di Luna’s camp are poised for their attack on Castellor and celebrate the glory and honor that awaits them. A group of ostensibly loose women carouse with them with sexually suggestive and teasing gestures; nevertheless, their behavior seems subtle, and neither terribly inappropriate of distasteful.

Maestro Marco Armiliato is a conductor very much esteemed by both singers and orchestra. He was extremely accommodating to singers and orchestra players in terms of his appropriate and discriminate accompanying tempos and control of the orchestral volume. It is a compliment to the maestro that his engaging conducting of Il Trovatore focused on gleaning the highest level of artistic virtuosity from the cast and musicians, rather than attempt to make a personal ego trip and ostentatious display of his splendid musical insights and skills.

Anna Netrebko has emerged as a consummate, charismatic superstar amid our contemporary pantheon of talented opera sopranos. Her presence is beguiling; her lyricism can be elegantly poignant. Her velvety radiant voice possesses incandescent, lustrous and sumptuous qualities; her vocal technique and vocal athleticism, and her distinctively poignant shaping of notes and control of dynamics approach perfection; and her acting can be gripping, riveting and compelling.

Vocally, Ms. Netrebko has recently embarked on a new direction in which she allowed her voice to mature and darken. Her transformation to a darkened vocal timbre has evolved into a heretofore transcendent vitality: it was a daring and dangerous shift from the vocal acrobatics of belcanto into heavier roles that would demand full-voiced dramatic lyricism. Subsequently, she has brilliantly mastered the challenging and punishing roles of Leonora in Il Trovatore and Lady Macbeth, both acclaimed triumphs.

Il Trovatore’s Leonora makes her first appearance accompanied by Inez, her attendant. In Tacea la notte placida, she enthusiastically relates that at a jousting contest she placed the victory crown on an unknown, disguised contestant; later the nameless man appeared before her balcony as a serenading troubador, singing melancholy verses exalting the glory of love.

Ms. Netrebko’s Tacea la notte placida magnificently captured Leonora’s yearning for the mysterious jouster, a longing and desire that she magnificently expressed with urgent and alluring lyricism.

In the ensuing cabaletta, Di tale amor, che dirsi, Leonora reveals that she has become intoxicated by her love for the mysterious troubador, and she is determined to make that love her destiny. Ms. Netrebko’s coloratura and the arresting brilliance of her vocalism conveyed her intense emotions and developing passions, particularly in her virtuosity in the challenging attack of the high pianissimo range.

Verdi provided Leonora with another opportunity for brilliant virtuosity in the final act aria, D’amor sull’ali rosee. Ms. Netrebko delivered thrilling and breathless urgency as she offered comfort for her doomed lover Manrico; it was her attempt to comfort him by reminding him of the glory of their love for one another.

In the ensuing Miserere, monks solemnly pray for mercy for the souls of the condemned. Leonora stands outside the Aliaferia prison tower, where Manrico awaits execution. Verdi had recently developed a predilection — and acclaimed success — in using off-stage voices: the Duke in Rigoletto; Alfredo in La Traviata; and in Il Trovatore, Manrico singing to Leonora from the Aliaferia tower. In the duet, underscored by the praying monks, Leonora attempts to console her beloved; simultaneously he sings a farewell to Leonora and expresses his anguish and despair as imminent death approaches.

During her exchange with Manrico, Ms. Netrebko made a bravura attempt to join her lover by vainly climbing the rungs of the prison gate — she was obviously introducing a new and challenging level of operatic histrionics.

In the ensuing Tu vedrai che amore in terra, Leonora promises Manrico that she will save his life, even if means her own death; the cabaletta’s vocal acrobatics with its challenging scales and punishing tessitura serve as a poignant expression of her pathetic despair.

Ms. Netrebko seems to be singlehandedly leading opera to a new golden age of opera sopranos. Her magnificent operatic achievements have been nothing short of outstanding: a rich lyricism together with compelling acting that has virtually catapulted her to superstardom. Her past successes remain a testament to her uncompromising talents. After her recent successes in Verdi roles, fans eagerly await her debut as other Verdi heroines, such as Amelia, Desdemona, Aida, La Forza’s Leonora, and, of course, the tragic heroines in Puccini’s pantheon also await her.

Ms. Netrebko deploys her sumptuous, luscious sounding voice with exquisite taste, judgment and refinement — a reason for her commanding successes.

Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky honored his commitment to reprise the role of Il Trovatore’s Count di Luna, a courageous act after he recently announced that he is being treated for brain cancer; his decision prompted an explosion of applause from an extremely adoring and compassionate audience as he made his first appearance on stage.

The handsome, arrestingly silver-haired baritone radiates movie star glamour and exudes charismatic magnetism, but the dashing superstar is truly demure and modest, and he admits that he shudders after being billed as the “Siberian tiger” and/or the world’s sexiest baritone.

Nevertheless, Hvorostovsky delivered a dramatically convincing and anguished interpretation of the role of Count di Luna, which was praised by the New York Times as sung with “his usual nobility and intelligence.”

Over the last few years, he has masterfully grown to the stature of a Verdi baritone: a specific technique described variously as a baritone voice with tremendous lyrical vigor and a roaring, robust, volcanic intensity its high ranges; however, the vocalism must also be combined with lush expressivity and a sense of yearning lyricism in its mid and lower ranges.

In di Luna’s show-stopping aria, Il balen del suo sorriso, Hvorostovsky literally “brought the house down” as he expressed his yearning and desire for Leonora’s love, a memorable vocal tour de force possessing potent, breathtaking allure, which was deployed with exquisitely tasteful, sumptuous phrasing.

Similarly, in each of Hvorostovsky’s appearances, he brought forth di Luna’s nearly maniacal jealousy with forceful fury and consummate passion. In Act I, after he discovers that Manrico is his bitter rival in love and war, a fiery trio erupts with Manrico as a tormented and distressed Leonora attempts to separate the duelers. The spurned di Luna burns with rage and fury. Manrico is about to dispatch di Luna, but apparently a mysterious voice from Heaven restrained him from striking the fatal blow, and he decided to set his enemy free.

At the close of Act II, di Luna and his army storm the cloister of Castellor in an attempt to kidnap Leonora before she takes her vows. Manrico and his troops overpower di Luna and his men. In a magnificent Verdian ensemble (“concertato”) Leonora becomes incredulous, unable to believe that her lover is not only alive, but that he has come to rescue her. As Manrico and Leonora depart, di Luna curses his rival, his roaring, robust voice brilliantly conveying his maniacal frenzy, defeated passion and disgrace.

In Act III, Manrico and Leonora plan to marry at Castellor. Di Luna and his troops have placed Castellor under siege. Di Luna becomes fiercely emotional as he vows to kidnap Leonora from Castellor: in In braccio al mio rival!, di Luna expresses the pain that has overcome him because his beloved Leonora is in the arms of his rival, and with unrestrained passion, he vows that he will destroy her lover, and very soon, Leonora will be in his embrace.

In Act IV, di Luna and Leonora negotiate the fate of Manrico: Leonora promises to cede her body to di Luna in exchange for Manrico’s freedom, but surreptitiously she imbibes a slow-acting poison, proclaiming aside that “you will have me, but cold and lifeless.” Their duet, which concludes with joyful repetitions of Vivrà! (“He will live!”) becomes a magnificent exhibition of virtuosic and technically superb vocalism as Ms. Netrebko and Mr. Hvorostovsky celebrate their individual victory’s: di Luna will finally win Leonora; Leonora will die, but in death she believes that her sacrifice will have saved Manrico.

In the final scene, after di Luna informs Azucena that her son has been executed, she becomes frenzied as she proceeds to inform di Luna that he has just murdered his brother. Yes, Azucena’s mother has been avenged, yet Azucena has lost her son, a horrific act of filicide since she could have saved Manrico if she revealed to di Luna that Manrico was his brother. She screams in exhilaration as she celebrates her victory and the fulfillment of her mother’s demanding command: Sei vendicata. Oh madre! “Mother, you are avenged.” Di Luna cries out that Manrico is dead, adding, Ei! Quale orror! “What horror!”, his piercing voice roaring with agonized anguish and humiliation as he realizes the horrible and pitiful tragedy that has just befallen him.

The Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee has recently received acclaim for the title role in Don Carlo; Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana; and Cavaradossi in Tosca. He provided a dashing figure in the demanding role of Manrico, the ill-fated troubador. Although Lee lacks the Italianate “squillo” and “ping” so often identified with the role of Manrico, he did deliver a fine reading of his role, in particular, the arias, Ah sì ben mio, in which he assures Leonora of his love, but fears that death will destroy their ecstasy, and the showstopper aria, Di quella pira, in which Manrico declares that he was a son before he was a lover, and therefore, he must immediately rush to save his mother from the burning pyres.

Throughout her entire career, mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick’s superb mastery of the role of the gypsy Azucena has been unanimously acclaimed — a signature role since her debut at the Met in 1988.

Born in 1952, Ms. Zajick is a seemingly ageless artist. Her mezzo-soprano voice possesses propulsive, effortless power together with solid vocal projection; she commands the stage with awesome vocal authority, and she possesses convincing vocalism from both her low and high registers, and skillfully penetrates the orchestra with her vibrant, richly infused vocal projection.

In the gypsy camp in the second act, the metalworkers pride their talents in the Anvil Chorus, although in McVicar’s present production, the gypsies inexplicably abandoned their metal hammers and anvils and replaced them with wooden mallets.

Azucena sits on the exact spot where her mother was executed by the fires, her mind seemingly crazed and unhinged from the memory of the event. She sings the grisly aria, Stride la vampa, in which she describes the frenzy of the unrestrained, bloodthirsty mob as they witnessed her mother’s horrid execution. Ms. Zajick’s vocalism conveys uncontrollable anguish and chilling emotional intensity as she describes her unbearable pain as she watched her mother being forcibly led to the stakes.

In agony, Azucena’s mother commanded her daughter, Mi vendica! (“Avenge me!), words that forever became etched in Azucena’s soul.

In a grim and gruesome dialogue, Azucena reveals to Manrico the reason for his grandmother’s execution: that the old Count di Luna concluded that his son Garzia’s mysterious illness was caused by witchcraft from an old gypsy who had been seen hovering over his cradle. The gypsy — Azucena’s mother — was apprehended and condemned to execution at the stakes.

The horror of infanticide ensued. In revenge, Azucena kidnapped the infant son, Garzia di Luna. She was in a state of frenzy as she stood before the fires with Garzia under one arm, and her own son under the other. Traumatized from witnessing her mother dying in the burning fires, the gypsy became crazed by monomaniacal revenge, and unwittingly hurled her own son into the fires. She escaped with the infant Garzia di Luna, who she would later rear as Manrico, her own son; ironically, she would convince Manrico to be her instrument for revenge against the di Luna’s.

Ms. Zajick’s horrific story slowly intensifies into a despairing flood of emotion that reaches a full fortissimo as she pathetically declares, Il figlio mio, mi figlio avea bruciato! (“I have burned my own son!”)

Azucena’s monomania for revenge against the di Luna family is the diabolical thread that weaves throughout the entire Il Trovatore scenario: the gypsy Azucena’s revenge for the old di Luna’s murder of her mother.

Azucena’s monomaniacal passion electrifies the final moments of the opera.

Di Luna appears at the prison. After witnessing Leonora and Manrico embracing, he bitterly condemns her for betraying him. Suddenly, Leonora falls dead, as the poison she swallowed takes its lethal effect.

Di Luna proceeds to order Manrico’s execution.

He drags Azucena to the tower window and forces her to witness her son’s execution.

As the ax falls, the insidious Azucena cries out to di Luna, exhilarated by her victory: “He was your brother!”

Di Luna shrieks in horrified anguish as he realizes that the headless corpse of the man he has just executed was his long-lost brother, Garzía di Luna, a fact that could have saved Manrico if indeed Azucena revealed the truth about Manrico.

In the end, Azucena’s sole obsession became the triumph of her all-consuming, monomaniacal passion. She deliriously proclaims her victory: Sei vendicata, oh madre! “Mother, you are avenged!”

Maternal love has surrendered to filicide; and fratricide became the final horror of the gruesome Il Trovatore tragedy.

Il Trovatore is one of the most beloved operas of the Italian lyric theater. The opera probably has more “top of the pops” or hit songs than any work in the entire Italian opera canon.

The essence of the Il Trovatore score lies in its agitated, breathlessly urgent lyricism, and its unabashed emotionalism and fierce passions — an inherent Italianism that represents quintessential expressionism.

In Verdi’s day, Il Trovatore was the maestro’s most beloved opera.

At the time of Il Trovatore, Verdi was at the height of his melodic ingenuity and vitality. Strangely, his imagination became fired by the extravagant and bizarre plot of Gutiérrez’s El Trovador, and he proceeded to channel it through the most conventional and traditional of libretto and musical structures.

Somewhat incredibly, although Il Trovatore defied the era’s developing operatic innovations and maturity, the opera ultimately became one of the most beloved, yet strangest and most powerful phenomena in the world of Italian opera.

Verdi’s opera is unquestionably a remarkable tour de force with its towering human passions becoming realized and intensified through the emotive power of music.

— Burton D. Fisher, October 3, 2015
Principal Lecturer: Opera Journeys’ Showcase Series and Biographies in Music Series
Educator, historian and author of Opera Journeys’ Publications:

Opera Journeys’ Mini Guide Series
Opera Journeys’ Libretto Series
Opera Classics Library Series
A History of Opera: Milestones and Metamorphoses
The Puccini Companion: The Glorious Dozen
Mozart’s da Ponte Operas
The Annual Guide: Opera at Movie Theaters
Fifty Timeless Opera Classics