The Story Behind the Opera "Il trovatore" by Giuseppe Verdi
“Il trovatore” is a four-act opera crafted by Giuseppe Verdi, with Salvadore Cammarano setting up the Italian libretto. The opera is also known as “The Troubadour” and is based on Antonio García Gutiérrez’s play titled “El trovatore.”
On the 19th of January, 1853, it premiered in Naples, Italy. Within 3 years, the opera gained immense popularity. A staggering number of productions were held worldwide, 229 to be precise. Naples alone hosted eleven different stagings at six different theatres. All current performances are held using the Italian version, making it one of the most frequently produced operas.
In 1849, Giuseppe Verdi was living with Giuseppina Strepponi in Busseto. Strepponi had translated Gutiérrez’s play, “El trovatore,” and this played a huge role in the creation of the opera. In 1850, Verdi chose Cammarano, an established “operatic poet” to develop a libretto. Also, this was a strange instance, as Verdi was working on an opera without any kind of commission from a production house. Cammarano strictly followed conventional values, which often frustrated the composer. Verdi wanted to explore new boundaries, to which Cammarano objected multiple times. This led to Verdi questioning whether they believed in the same goals, which, according to him, was a rewarding journey towards the unknown. Verdi appreciated the quality of the verse but continuously pushed Cammarano to go beyond the standard musical formats.
“Il trovatore” further faced uncertainty when Verdi turned down the chance to present his opera in Naples. The project was further held back after Verdi became busy with family issues. In 1851, the Venice authorities came back with another offer, while the Rome Opera company also knocked on the door. Finally, he reached into an agreement with Rome, which scheduled “Il trovatore” during the Carnival season in the spring of 1853. Verdi started working on the opera in 1852, after a long delay. However, tragedy struck soon as Cammarano passed away in July. With a heavy heart, he turned to Leone Emanuele Bardare, a young prodigy from Naples. He met with his librettist in December and started collaborating on the project. He also made alterations to the opera, enhancing Leonora to a more prominent character. These last-minute changes enhanced the quality, resulting in widespread critical acclaim.
The first scene takes place at “The Palace of Aljafería” in Spain. Ferrando, the leader of the guards, instructs his men to stay alert as “Count di Luna,” a nobleman, rambles underneath the window of his love - the princess-in-waiting, Leonora. Di Luna also has a rival in his quest, an unknown Troubadour he envies.
Ferrando recounts the tale of “The good Count di Luna, the father of two sons” to keep the guards on their feet. The history states how a gypsy woman was wrongly accused of bewitching the youngest member of the di Luna family. She had been burnt alive in suspicion of being a witch. She had vehemently denied the allegations, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. So, she had commanded Azucena, her daughter, to avenge her death. Azucena duly abducted the baby. However, the Count refused to believe this and directed his firstborn and eventual successor to pursue Azucena.
Next, Leonora shares a secret with Ines, her confidante in the garden. She acknowledges her feelings for the “Troubadour,” through the aria, “The peaceful night lay silent. A love that words can scarcely describe.” She describes him as her “mystery knight,” one who vanished after winning a tournament. She had encountered him again after the Civil War, in disguise, singing underneath her window. As they leave, Count di Luna enters the scene, intending to meet Leonora. The Troubadour is heard singing “Alone upon this earth” in the distance. As he reaches the garden, Leonora rushes to embrace him.
Count di Luna challenges the Troubadour to reveal his identity. He obliges - and turns out to be an outlawed knight named Manrico, who was sentenced to death for supporting a rival prince. The Count decides to make matters personal and challenges him to a duel to settle the score. Leonora attempts to intervene in vain, as the trio, “The fire of jealous love,” is performed.
At the gypsy camp, the people break into the chorus titled, “See! The endless sky casts off her solemn nightly garb.” Azucena is in attendance and belts out a Canzone titled, “The flames are roaring!” confirming the trauma she had to face when her mother was killed. Manrico, who considers Azucena as a “mother figure” is also present. Azucena confesses that she couldn’t kill the royal baby as intended, and had thrown her child into the flames instead after being overwhelmed by the situation.
Manrico finally realizes that Azucena isn’t his real mother, although she did rescue him from the battlefield and saved his life. He further discloses to Azucena that he had recently defeated di Luna in a duel, but couldn’t finish him off due to the effects of some “mysterious power.” The duet “He was helpless under my savage attack” accompanies the scene. He is rebuked for the act, as it was the Count’s forces that had ambushed him in the battle. Soon, Manrico receives a word that his allies have conquered Castle Castellor, and he has been deputed to hold it in. The messenger also states that Leonora is about to get married that night, as she believes that Manrico is dead. Manrico instantly rushes out to prevent the ceremony. Azucena tries to prevent him by singing the aria, “I must talk to you,” but fails.
At the convent, Di Luna is planning to kidnap Leonor. He subsequently renders his feelings towards her through the aria “The light of her smile..Fatal hour of my life.” However, Manrico successfully foils his attempts, rescuing Leonora without harming the count. The soldiers from both sides avoid bloodshed by displaying restraint.
The count attacks the fortress, Castellor with his army, as the chorus, “Now we play at dice” is performed. Leonora and Manrico had taken refuge there. Azucena is also captured and brought to the Count. Unfortunately, Di Luna recognizes her as the woman who had supposedly murdered his brother years ago. When Azucena cries out for Manrico, he further realizes that he has acquire a trump card to pressure his enemy. He issues orders to burn Azucena alive in front of the castle walls.
Meanwhile, Leonora and Manrico are preparing for their nuptials inside. Manrico assures his frightened lover of his commitment by singing the song, “Ah, yes, my love, in being yours.” He soon learns about Azucena’s fate and immediately decides to save her. The aria, “The horrid flames of that pyre”, is sung in the background.
Manrico fails in his attempt to free Azucena and is subsequently imprisoned. Leonora begs the Count for mercy through the aria “On the rosy wings of love,” offering to take his place instead. A chorus titled, “Lord, thy mercy on this soul” also accompanies this scene. She promises to be with di Luna but intends to commit suicide by swallowing poison from her ring. The duet, “See the bitter tears I shed” is performed in the background.
Azucena and Manrico are seen in the dungeon, awaiting their death sentence. The Troubadour tries to pacify his “mother” as they embark on the duet, “Again to our mountains, we shall return.” Leonora enters and begs him to leave. However, Manrico refuses to go without her. She eventually succumbs in his arms, confessing her feelings towards him. The trio, “Rather than live as another’s,” is sung. The count overhears the conversation and commands Manrico’s execution. Azucena tries to stop him in vain. Once the sentence is carried out, she cries out in agony, singing, “He was your brother. You are avenged, oh, mother!”
The composition of “Il trovatore” utilizes strings, harp, bass drum, castanets, triangle, and timpani, to name a few. It also uses 3 trombones and a pair of trumpets, bassoons, clarinets, and oboes. The setup is completed by 4 horns, a flute, and a piccolo.
Verdi’s array of musical expressions are quite popular. There is a palpable formalism of his musical dialect that was considered to be a concentrated attempt at rationing the various phases of drama, ultimately resulting in a relentless pursuit of musical evolution. The “closed” musical forms that were prevalent in characterizing the opera surely paid an ode to the classical language of music. Verdi’s use of the chorus, the two-part arias, the cabalettas, and the cantabiles are evident throughout - an apotheosis for musical elegance.
But Verdi also wanted a pinch of surprise; he wanted to somewhat break the shackles and work with a freer form of music, which he arguably did. He had acquired a considerable prowess over incorporating a consistent yet dramatic stimulus, which constantly takes his music forward. The evolution and the sheer musical vigor on display establishes his position as a superior melodist.
Curiously, Verdi had initially planned to make Azucena the protagonist of his opera. He had even discussed it with his sopranos and librettist and had regularly emphasized the importance of the character - “a principal role,” he called it. Verdi’s usage of vocal registers was less prominent, clearly an influence of a different era. He used the “verbal projections” of the “lower voice” to his advantage, with the two leading female characters offering an anti-thesis of musical connotations. It’s a journey of “long vs. short,” “patterns vs. soaring” phrases of music.
- In December, 1854, it was first staged in Paris at the Salle Ventadour.
- “Il trovatore” crossed the Atlantic in May, 1855 and was held at New York’s “Academy of Music.”
- The UK premiere also took place at a later date in May, 1855 at London’s Covent Garden.
- In 1902, the interest in “Il trovatore” was again renewed by Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini.
- In 1935, a performance of the opera was incorporated into the movie “A Night at the Opera” by Sam Wood.
- In 1954, Luchino Visconti utilized a performance of the opera for the opening sequence of his movie titled “Senso.”
- The same operatic pattern is also used in the book titled “Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism” by Millicent Marcus.
- In 1979, Bernardo Bertolucci used a scene from the first act of the opera in his movie “La Luna.”
- In Canada, the music of “Il trovatore” was used in commercials.
- In 1998, the French version titled “Le trouvère” was presented at the “Festival della Valle d’Itria.”
- In 2002, “Le trouvère” again made an appearance as a part of the “Verdi Cycle” a celebration of the composer’s work.
Against the Odds
“Il trovatore” is considered as Verdi’s Cinderella piece. It didn’t incur the same level of appreciation as “La Traviata,” and “Rigoletto,” Verdi’s all-conquering pillars, but slowly gained proximity and the much deserved critical accolades.
It is said that “Il trovatore” requires four of the world’s best singers to be successful. However, this myth is much more down to a lack of emotional connection with its contemporary crowd. The traumatic and horrific demise of a child in the hands of his mother, and that too a protagonist is quite difficult to fathom. However, Verdi was aware of the fact. He knew his trump card was music, and he duly delivered in that sector. He explored the complexity of the characters through his music. The jealousy, obsession, and agony strike hard, and his Arias make sure they do. Verdi knew the limitations of the libretto but was also confident that his music would be make everything intensely clear.
“Il trovatore” is an emotional journey, a sprawling high-octane melodrama packed with bizarre and fantastic events. In the end, after fighting against the odds, a defiant Giuseppe Verdi triumphs.
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