Verdi's 'Il Trovatore': Profound Or Preposterous?

From The Maggio Musicale In Florence

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Kristin Lewis plays Leonora in this production of Il Trovatore. Maggio Musicale Florentino hide caption

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Trovatore

Kristin Lewis plays Leonora in this production of Il Trovatore.

Maggio Musicale Florentino

The Single

In Part One of the opera, Leonora (soprano Kristin Lewis) tells her companion Ines (mezzo-soprano Elena Borin) of her love for Manrico, whom she has yet to meet, in the aria 'Tacea la notte placida' (A quiet and peaceful night).

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The B Side

Near the end of Part Three, just before the more famous and spectacular aria 'Di quella pira,' Manrico (tenor Stuart Neill) expresses the depth of his feelings for Leonora in the fervent love song 'Ah, si ben mio.'

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Opera fans who also love comedy — or at least fans of "a certain age" — may well know the names of two legendary but very different performers: Anna Russell and Florence Foster Jenkins.

Russell was a singer and comedian who made a long career, beginning in the 1940s, by poking fun at opera. Her routines featured vocal parody along with satirical "lectures" on operatic conventions. In discussing the vagaries of opera plots, she became famous for the line, "I'm not making this up, you know!"

Jenkins started getting laughs a couple of decades earlier than Russell — though that wasn't her objective. A self-styled soprano, she was quite serious about her singing, but was so inept that her performances evoked open titters, giggles and guffaws from her devoted audiences. Still, intentional or not, the hilarity both women provoked had similar roots — in the very nature of opera.

For whatever reason — or, more likely, lots of reasons — opera has always been easy fodder for jokes. Even the greatest of operas often seem to teeter on some weird edge between the profound and the preposterous, and Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore is a prime example.

The opera has a raft of over-the-top characters populating a story so complex and unlikely, it could be fairly described either as incomprehensible or implausible, if not both. And, speaking of dramatic excess, the whole story turns on a grisly case of infanticide. It hardly sounds like a recipe for success.

Still, when Il Trovatore was premiered in 1853, sandwiched between Verdi's Rigoletto and La Traviata, it was wildly popular right from the start. So what saves it? Why is Trovatore one of the most popular operas of all time?

The answer can be heard in just about every number in the score: It's the music. Trovatore features one of the most spectacular tenor arias in any opera, a series of memorable soprano arias, some truly searing music for the mezzo-soprano and a couple of Verdi's signature, achingly beautiful baritone arias. And that's not to mention the famous "Anvil Chorus."

In the end, all that music has been more than enough to keep the work firmly planted in the world's opera houses for more than 150 years. Its story may be more than a bit muddled, making it hard to keep track of just who betrayed whom, who threw which baby into the fire, and exactly how all these confounding characters wound up in the same opera in the first place. But if you don't go away from this opera whistling a tune, it's only because there are too many to choose from.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Il Trovatore in a production from the Maggio Musicale in Florence, Italy. It stars two young American singers, tenor Stuart Neill and soprano Kristin Lewis, as the lovers Manrico and Leonora, with a compelling performance by mezzo-soprano Anna Smirnova as Azucena.

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

The Story Of 'Il Trovatore'

fromWDAV

Trovatore child i
Maggio Musicale Florentino
Trovatore child
Maggio Musicale Florentino

Who's Who

Kristin Lewis …………… Leonora

Stuart Neill …………….. Manrico

Anna Smirnova ……….. Azucena

Juan Jesús Rodriguez … Count di Luna

Rafal Siwek ………….. Ferrando

Elena Borin ……………… Ines

Cristiano Olivieri ………… Ruiz

Maggio Musicale Orchestra and Chorus

Massimo Zanetti, conductor

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 had perished. But the Count, Ferrando says, hopes his brother might still be alive.

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 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 challenges 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. The Count recognizes Azucena as the very woman who kidnapped and, he thinks, murdered his infant brother many years ago. He orders her burned at the stake.

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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