Fresh from our recent trip to Salt Lake City, we are on the road again, and this time to Charlotte, North Carolina for Opera Carolina’s presentation of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. The southern company’s high profile line up, which includes the renowned mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves in the role of Azucena, is enough to get newoutpost to fill up the gas tank and embark in a good old pilgrimage.
Following the overwhelming success of his Rigoletto in 1851, Verdi felt himself in the zone. The composer hoped to follow with an opera based on Shakespeare’s King Lear (a life-long desire which was never fulfilled,) but his librettist Salvatore Cammarano’s feelings towards the massive assignment were tentative. Verdi shifted his aims to Garcia Gutierrez’s “El Trovador,” an ultra romantic Spanish play surely suggested to him by his then live-in girlfriend Giuseppina Strepponi. The story of the old gypsy woman, who can only avenges her mother’s death by sacrificing the life of her supposed son, held obvious attractions to a composer wanting to follow the revolutionary Rigoletto with another ground breaking opera. Furthermore, Verdi envisioned Il Trovatore as a vehicle to further knock down formulaic structures and Rossinian derivatives. In correspondence between the composer and his librettist, Verdi attempted to recruit the poet into his camp: “If in opera there were neither cavatinas, duets, trios, choruses, finales, etcetera, and the whole work consisted, lets say, of a single number I should find that all the more right and proper.” The conservative Cammarano, however, did not agree, and as Verdi began to receive the librettist’s verses he must have wondered whether Cammarano was heeding his requests at all.
Hectic correspondence between the artists continued until June of 1851, when their passions stabilized. Verdi’s troubles with the impresarios, however, were just beginning. Originally, Verdi had successfully pitched the opera to Bologna, but as early as March the debates with the librettist as well as disagreements over ownership rights with the impresario led to the commission’s expiration. Verdi found himself pitching his idea to several venues, and in his attempt to secure the services of Rita Gabussi-De Bassini (a soprano whom Verdi believed ideal for the role of Azucena,) he even considered bargaining with the Teatro San Carlo, a company he would have preferred to avoid due to past unhappy experiences. In the end, The Teatro Apollo in Rome would eventually house the premiere, but that event would have to wait another two years: Personal matters, delays in the libretto, and various negotiations for future assignments (one of which resulted in the Paris commission for Les Vepres Siciliennes) held the pace of the opera’s composition down.
As Verdi labored towards the opera’s premiere for the Apollo’s 1852-53 carnival season, he was dealt a professional and personal blow when news of Salvatore Cammarano’s death reached him. At the recommendation of his friend Cesare De Sanctis, Verdi reverted to the services of Leone Emmanuele Bardare to complete the remainder of Cammarano’s libretto. The roster at the Apollo was no match for what Verdi had originally hoped for, and through Bardare’s feather, Verdi shifted some focus from the overpowering figure of Azucena to the character of Leonora (surely to capitalize on the talents of the prima donna Rosina Penco,) yet the compositional style of this character’s music follows a more traditional structure found in his earlier works.
Il Trovatore opened to an enormous success on January 19, 1853 with a cast that included Rosina Penco as Leonora, Emilia Goggi as Azucena, Carlo Baucarde as Manrico and Giovanni Guicciardi as di Luna. The opera spread quickly throughout Italy, and was exported overseas with unprecedented speed. It debuted in Paris at the Theatre des Italiens on December 23, 1854, and a French version premiered at l’Opera in January 12, 1857. The opera reached London via Covent Garden in May 17, 1855 (with the divine Pauline Viardot as Azucena), and was translated to English for Drury Lane in March of the following year. Il Trovatore became Verdi’s most popular work in his lifetime, and his subsequent output saturated the Italian wing of the international repertoire to such extent that, in 1858, Dwight’s Journal of Music in Boston cried out against the constant bombardment in his entry entitled: “Trovatopera”. The era of Verdi was here to stay.
The opera is set in 15th century Saragossa. James II of Urgell is next in line to reign over the House of Aragon, but instead Ferdinand of Antequera has ascended the throne as King Ferdinand I of Aragon. The ensuing revolt splits the country into two camps. Act one is entitled “The Duel”. When the curtain opens, it is night in the halls of the royal castle of Aliaferia. The Count di Luna’s troops, loyal to the king, keep watch for a mysterious Troubadour who has been spotted serenading the Count’s lady, but the long evening has taken its toll and the guards are tired. The Count’s henchman, Ferrando, livens their duties by retelling the story of the Count’s brother Garzia, who disappeared when still a child (“Di due figli vivea padre beato”).
Twenty years ago, an old gypsy woman was found near the child’s nursery, and after the servants ran her out, Garzia became very ill. Fearful that the gypsy had cursed his child, the old Count ordered her capture and subsequently had her burned alive. Bent on avenging her mother, the gypsy’s daughter kidnapped Garzia, and the next day the remains of a young boy were found at the base of the dead gypsy’s pyre. As the guards recoil in terror at the story, Ferrando tells them that the old Count never fully believed that his son was dead, and spent rest of his life looking for his child in vain. Before his death, he made the Count di Luna promise to continue the search. Ferrando himself believes that he is capable of recognizing the gypsy’s daughter even after all those years. The sudden strike of midnight scatters the fearful soldiers away.
The next scene takes us to the gardens of the castle. Leonora, lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Aragon, awaits the visit of the Troubadour with her confidante Ines. In her aria “Tacea la notte placida,” Lenora retells the worried Ines of her love for the mysterious Troubadour, whom she first caught sight of during a jousting tournament prior to the political conflict that has torn Spain apart. Lovers of Donizetti may note some similarities between the structure of this compound aria and Lucia’s famous introductory scena in Lucia di Lammermoor. Verdi’s first Leonora, Rosina Penco, was a famous Lucia and would have felt at home with this setting.
The ladies leave, and in the darkness the Count di Luna enters the gardens. He longs to see Leonora, and as he nears her balcony, he hears the distant strains of the Troubadour’s song. He hides. The Troubadour enters offering an autobiographical tale, and the Count watches in fury as the overjoyed Leonora descends to meet her unknown suitor. In the darkness, however, she mistakes the figure of the Count for the Troubadour’s, and rushes into the arms of the wrong man. The Troubadour outrage is abated by Leonora’s nervous explanation, and the awkward situation turns violent when the Troubadour reveals himself as Manrico, the leader of Urgell’s rival forces and the Count’s natural enemy. The act ends with a trio, “Di geloso amor sprezzato”, which depicts the confrontation between the men as Leonora tries her best to mediate between them. The curtain falls as the dueling men exit the stage.
Act two, titled “The Gypsy”, opens at dawn in the slopes of the Biscay mountains, where a band of gypsies has set camp. As the gypsies welcome the dawn with a song dedicated to the virtues of their women and trade, the old gypsy Azucena sits by the fire. She stares at the flames as she delivers her canzonetta “Stride la vampa”. Her eyes go past the fire to recall the flames from years past, where an old gypsy woman was burned alive in the pyre. The ornate writing embodies the crackling embers, along with the more terrifying details of her recollection.
Dismissing her as insane, the gypsies leave her in the company of her son, Manrico, who wishes to know more about her mother’s sad ballad. In the aria “Condotta ell`era in ceppi”, Azucena narrates how her mother was unjustly accused of witchcraft by the old Count, beaten, and dragged through the merciless crowds. On the way to her terrifying death, she spotted the young Azucena and cried: “Avenge me!” Swearing to carry out her mother’s command, and still carrying her own young child in her arms, the girl abducted the Count’s son and took him to the still burning pyre. In her confusion, both present and past, Azucena states that she hurled her own baby into the fire by mistake, causing Manrico to recoil in confusion and horror. In terms of innovation, Azucena’s famous narrative parallels Rigoletto’s innovative dramatic outburst: “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” and further distances Verdi’s unique operatic voice from those of his predecessors.
Azucena avoids Manrico’s obvious inquiries by claiming to be confused, and reminds Manrico what a loving mother she has been to him all along. Her recent caring of the wounded Manrico following the duel with the Count di Luna brings a strange realization to Manrico. As he tells Azucena, he had the Count positioned for the final blow, when a strange voice from the sky told him no to strike. The suspicious Azucena advises Manrico to pay no attention to such celestial advice, and to avenge the memory of his grandmother next time the opportunity presents itself. The scene closes as Manrico receives word that, believe him dead, Leonora has resolved to enter a convent in Castellor, where Urgell’s forces have established a stronghold. Ignoring his mother’s pleas that he should remain by her side, Manrico rushes off to stop Leonora as the curtain falls.
The second scene of act two opens outside of the convent in Castellor, where The Count di Luna and his forces have arrived to intercept Leonora. In the cavatina “Il balen del suo sorriso,” the Count muses over his unrequited burning love for this woman. It is interesting to note that, for being touted as ‘the bad guy’ in this opera, di Luna truly loves Leonora.
Leonora enters the convent and is ambushed by di Luna, who is subsequently overrun by Manrico and his troops. The bewildered Leonora locks eyes with Manrico, whom she previously believed as dead, and in the concertato “E deggio e posso crederlo?,” she utters the heavenly sentiment: “Have you come down from Heaven, or am I in Heaven with you?” The act ends as the Troubadour escapes with his leading lady amidst the clanking of swords.
As the third act opens, under the title “The Gypsy’s son”, the Count and his forces have set up camp outside Castellor. While Di Luna harbors hopes that Leonora will be his, Ferrando brings to him an old Gypsy woman who was seen wandering about. It is Azucena. The men interrogate her, and Ferrando’s suspicions grow as Azucena systematically denies knowing anything about the Count’s brother or the events that led to his death in the aria “Giorni poveri vivea”. When Ferrando accuses Azucena of the terrible deed, the frightened woman cries out for her son, Manrico, to come and save her. The Count and his henchman delight over their sudden change in luck as the hysterical Azucena is led away in chains.
The scene immediately turns to the interior of fort at Castellor, where Manrico and Leonora are about to be united in holy marriage. He calms Leonora’s fears in his aria “Ah si, ben mio”. As the couple is about to enter the church, Manrico’s messenger Ruiz rushes in with news that Azucena has been captured. A desperate Manrico leaves the inconsolable Leonora, and he summons his troops with the spectacular battle cry “Di quella pira”. The act ends.
The opera’s final act, labeled “The execution”, opens in the castle of Aliaferia. Having failed to rescue his mother, Manrico has been taken prisoner by the Count di Luna and is awaiting execution. Left alone outside tower were he is being held, Leonora hopes that her love will soothe Manrico in his time of anguish in the aria “D’amor sull’ali rosee”. An offstage murmur of prayers is heard, alongside Manrico’s Troubadour’s lament, and they entwine with the words of the grief-striken Leonora.
Leonora’s participation in this Miserere marks one of the more innovative segment’s of this character’s score, as it bridges her aria and the subsequent cabaletta “Tu vedrai che amore in terra” in an unprecedented way. Here, Leonora resolves to save Manrico at even if it means her death.
As the Count enters and orders the execution of the two prisoners, Leonora greets him and in exchange for the life of Manrico, offers herself in barter in the duet “Mira di acerbe lagrime”. The Count is so overjoyed, he fails to hear Leonora’s aside remark that he will really have what remains of her lifeless body, and she drinks poison. The duet ends with an exciting stretta depicting Leonora’s relief at knowing Manrico will live, while the Count claims the noblewoman as his own.
The opera’s final scene takes place in the dungeon where Azucena and Manrico are being held. Knowing that the time draws near, the old gypsy is overwhelmed with fear and experiences terrifying hallucinations. In the duet Ai nostri monti”, Manrico encourages her to sleep, and Azucena yearns for their simple life in the mountains.
Leonora rushes in with news that the Count has released Manrico, but she cannot come along with him. Manrico’s insistent inquiries become heated when he realizes the nature of his pardon, and he lashes out against Leonora: “False woman, you have betrayed our love,” he exclaims, all the while the quickly weakening Leonora tries desperately to convince him otherwise. Seeing his beloved fall, Manrico listens in shock as Leonora explains her sacrifice for their love, while the Count listens to her confession unseen by the lovers. Leonora dies, and the Count orders Manrico’s execution to be carried out immediately. Azucena awakens to find the Count before her, gloating that her son is being executed as he speaks. She looks out the bars of the dungeon and learns he is not lying. “He was your brother!” she confesses. The Count realizes the cruel hand fate has dealt him, while Azucena announces that her mother’s death as been avenged.
When asked for the requirements to pull off a great Trovatore, the legendary tenor Enrico Caruso was quick to respond: “you only need the four greatest singers in the world.” I bring up this rather tired quote (which quite honestly begs to be repeated all day, everyday) to underline the fact: Il Trovatore is no joke. Our prayers and best wishes are with Opera Carolina’s cast, which will perform the opera one last time this Sunday, October 23. The playbill will include Lisa Daltirus as Leonora, Antonello Palombi as Manrico, Denyce Graves as Azucena, and Michael Corvino as the Count di Luna. We hope you will join us for this event. Please visit www.operacarolina.org for tickets and more information on this production.