Improbable Beauty: Verdi's 'Il Trovatore'

From The Grand Theatre Of Geneva

There's a memorable scene in the 1935 comedy classic A Night at the Opera, in which Groucho Marx interrupts a deadly serious operatic aria with the astute commentary, "Boogie-Boogie-Boogie!"

THE HIT SINGLE

In Part Two, Manrico (tenor Zoran Todorovich) reacts with horror as Azucena (mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura) tells the story of her mother's execution, and the fiery accidental death of her own infant son, in the aria "Condotta ell'era in ceppi" — "They took her in chains."

THE B SIDE

After Manrico is sentenced to die, Leonora (soprano Tatiana Serjan) affirms her devotion to him in "D'amor sull'ali rosee" — "On love's rose-colored wings."

Verdi's "Il Trovatore" from Geneva i i

hide captionVerdi at first named his opera La Zingara after the vengeful gypsy Azucena, played in Geneva by mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura.

Grand Theatre of Geneva/Vanappelghem
Verdi's "Il Trovatore" from Geneva

Verdi at first named his opera La Zingara after the vengeful gypsy Azucena, played in Geneva by mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura.

Grand Theatre of Geneva/Vanappelghem

The opera on stage in that scene is among the most popular of all time, Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore. The aria is sung by Azucena, one of the most complex and compelling characters in any opera. Naturally, in the film, the highbrow audience is aghast at Groucho's rude behavior.

But in truth, Il Trovatore is an easy mark. It's an opera so ripe for parody that poking fun at it almost seems unfair — especially when it's done by comedy virtuosos such as the Marx Brothers.

The opera has a complicated, basically unsavory and highly implausible story. Plus, to have any chance at all of understanding it, you first have to learn a background story that's even more complex and unlikely. Then, when it all shakes out in the end, it's hard to know who betrayed whom, who threw which baby into the fire — and whether we've just seen a bitter old man unwittingly execute his own brother or a vengeful old woman plotting to get her beloved son beheaded. Or both.

The whole thing can leave an audience wondering, "Just who are these characters, why should anyone care about them, and how did they all wind up in the same opera in the first place?"

It also raises the question of why Il Trovatore is so extraordinarily popular. Answering that is far simpler than explaining the opera's plotline: For whatever reason, Verdi blessed this convoluted story with two-plus hours of his very finest music — a seemingly endless string of memorable numbers that give clarity to a murky plotline, and bring shady characters vividly to life.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Il Trovatore in a production from the Grand Theatre of Geneva. The stars are soprano Tatiana Serjan as Leonora, tenor Zoran Todorovich as Manrico and mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura as Azucena, the woman whose grisly act of vengeance gets this perplexingly beautiful drama underway.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

The Story Of 'Il Trovatore'

George Petean and Tatiana Serjan

hide captionA defiant Leonora (Tatiana Serjan) is willing to take poison rather than submit to the Count di Luna (George Petean).

Grand Theatre of Geneva/Vanappelghem
Tatiana Serjan and Zoran Todorovich

hide captionTatiana Serjan is Leonora, with Zoran Todorovich as Manrico, in the Geneva production of Verdi's opera.

Grand Theatre of Geneva/Vanappelghem

The opera is in four parts, each with a descriptive title. The story takes place in Spain, early in the 1600s. PART ONE is called "The Duel." It opens as an old soldier named Ferrando tells his troops about the sad family history of their commander, the Count di Luna. The count had an infant brother. One night, the baby's nurse woke up to find a gypsy lurking over the cradle. When the child became sick soon afterward, the gypsy was blamed and burned at the stake. As the woman was dying, she urged her daughter to take revenge. So the daughter kidnapped the infant and, according to Ferrando, burned him at the very stake where her mother perished. But the Count, Ferrando says, hopes his brother might still be alive.

WHO'S WHO?

  • Irina Mishura .......... Azucena
  • Tatiana Serjan ....... Leonora
  • Zoran Todorovich .... Manrico
  • George Petean ... Count di Luna
  • Burak Bilgili ............ Ferrando
  • Vanessa Hurst Beck ...... Inez
  • Vladimir Iliev .................. Ruiz
  • Swiss Romande Orchestra; Grand Theatre Chorus
  • Evelino Pido, conductor
Burak Bilgili as Ferrando

hide captionFerrando (Burak Bilgili) tells the gruesome story of the Count's infant brother, who was burned alive by a vengeful gypsy.

Grand Theatre of Geneva/Vanappelghem

The next scene takes place in the palace gardens. Leonora has just been to a tournament and tells her lady-in-waiting, Inez, that she has fallen in love with one of the knights. She hasn't seen him since, but sometimes she hears him singing to her from beneath her window.

The Count di Luna arrives to court Leonora. But at the same time, the voice of Manrico — the troubadour — floats on the air, again serenading Leonora. The Count is jealous, and goes out to challenge Manrico to a duel. The two men draw swords as Part One ends.

PART TWO is called "The Gypsy," and opens in a gypsy camp. Azucena nurses her son, Manrico, who is wounded. She tells the graphic story of her mother, who was burned at the stake, and how Azucena then kidnapped an infant, intending to burn him alive as revenge. Manrico is horrified when Azucena goes on to say that, in her delirium, she grabbed her own baby and flung him into the fire by mistake.

Distraught by the memory, Azucena makes Manrico swear to take revenge on the Count di Luna. He says that he could have killed the Count during their duel, but a mysterious voice made him stop. The story is interrupted when a messenger arrives, with news that Leonora believes Manrico has been killed. In despair, she has decided to enter a convent. Manrico leaves hurriedly, vowing to stop her.

Meanwhile, the Count has also gotten wind of Leonora's plans. He's waiting outside the convent, planning to kidnap her. When Leonora appears, he steps out to grab her. But Manrico arrives at the same time and intervenes. His men overpower the Count, allowing Manrico and Leonora to escape.

In PART THREE, "The Gypsy's Son," the Count di Luna is preparing to attack a castle where the two lovers are hiding out when Ferrando enters, dragging Azucena behind him. "Look who I found snooping around the camp!" he says. He recognizes Azucena as the very woman who kidnapped and, he thinks, murdered the Count's infant brother many years ago. The Count orders her burned at the stake, and Azucena is taken into custody.

Inside the castle, Manrico and Leonora are planning to get married. But Ruiz rushes in to tell them that Azucena has been captured and condemned. The pyre is already being prepared, and they can see it smoldering in the distance. Manrico and his men rush off to save her.

The title of PART FOUR is "The Execution." Manrico has been taken prisoner by the Count di Luna. Desperate to save him, Leonora offers herself to the Count in exchange for Manrico's life. When the Count agrees, she secretly swallows a slow-acting poison and then runs to the prison, where Manrico and Azucena are being held together.

Leonora tells Manrico that he's been freed and should flee. But he realizes how Leonora must have paid for his freedom and denounces her. She tries to explain, but the poison is taking effect. Manrico holds Leonora as she dies.

When the Count arrives and sees what has happened, he gives orders for Manrico to be put to death. Azucena watches resolutely as Manrico is led to the executioner's block. Then, just as the ax falls, she cries out that her mother has finally been avenged. "You," she tells the Count, "have just killed your own brother."

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