Lyric Opera of Chicago

Trovatore through the years: Verdi’s smash hit returns to Lyric

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Maria Callas, as Leonora, backstage during Lyric’s 1955 production.

Ettore Bastianini and Jussi Bjorling, as di Luna and Manrico, in Lyric’s 1958 production.

Azucena costume sketch for Lyric’s 1964 production.

Michael Gross as a super in Lyric’s 1964 production.


Sir David McVicar’s take on Il Trovatore returns to Lyric in the 2014-15 season in all of its oversized glory.  Though the story is as wild as they come, with gypsy curses, mistaken identities, love triangles, and executions coming at a breakneck pace, this work has enjoyed enduring popularity—and it’s not hard to see why.

Filled with great music, including the majestic and instantly recognizable Anvil Chorus, the work is still popular with companies and audiences alike. The opera was written during Verdi’s most successful period; between 1851 and 1853, his greatest hits of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata were all premiered.  Within a year of its first performance in Rome, Il Trovatore was presented in 30 theaters throughout Italy and beyond; over the next few years it swept the globe, with performances in places as far-flung as Russia, Argentina, Egypt, and Australia. Even today, it’s still among the top 20 most-presented operas in the world.

At Lyric, Il Trovatore has been a part of the company from the very beginning. Lyric—or the Lyric Theatre of Chicago as it was known then—actually presented the opera three times within its first few years: in 1955, 1956, and 1958. The 1955 production featured company co-founder Nicola Rescigno conducting and an all-star cast, including Maria Callas as Leonora. This was the second role of three roles she would perform that season, having made her American debut in Lyric Theatre’s first season one year prior. Ettore Bastianini and Robert Weede split performances as the evil Count di Luna; star tenor Jussi Björling was Manrico; and Ebe Stignani and Claramae Turner shared the role of Azucena.

Former artistic director and principal conductor Bruno Bartoletti made his American debut at Lyric with this opera in 1956. Though accidental, this debut proved to be auspicious. Bartoletti was actually a replacement for his mentor Tullio Serafin, who had become ill before he could come to Chicago. The eminent Tito Gobbi recommended Bartoletti to company director Carol Fox. That particular production starred Claramae Turner (Azucena), Ettore Bastianini (di Luna), Jussi Björling (Manrico)—all returning from previous appearances—and Herva Nelli and Gertrude Ribia sharing the role of Leonora.  

The 1958 production was conducted by Lee Schaenen, and featured Bastianini and Björling returning as di Luna and Manrico, with Elinor Ross as Leonora and Giuletta Simionato as Azucena.

Il Trovatore was presented only once in the 1960s. Bartoletti returned to lead a new-to-Lyric  production directed by Christopher West, first seen at the Metropolitan Opera.  The 1964 season was Bartoletti’s first as co-artistic director. This Trovatore was stocked with another amazing cast: Grace Bumbry as Azucena, Franco Corelli performing one of his signature roles of Manrico, Ilva Ligabue as Leonora, and Maria Zanasi as di Luna.

The 1964 production is also notable because a young Michael Gross, then a student at Kelvyn Park High School, appeared as a supernumerary, portraying a soldier in Count di Luna’s army. This Chicago native would later go on to star as the iconic TV dad Steven Keaton on Family Ties!

Jumping ahead in Lyric’s history, this season’s presentation of Sir David McVicar’s Goya-influenced concept features yet another cast of stars: the incomparable Stephanie Blythe as Azucena and Younghoon Lee as Manrico, as well as Ryan Opera Center alums Quinn Kelsey and Amber Wagner returning to Lyric as Count di Luna and Leonora, respectively. These dynamic singers bring passion and vocal prowess to the stage in a production that emphasizes the very real emotions behind this high-flying epic.


Read more about the history of Il Trovatore about Lyric, with even more photos, on Lyric’s blog!




Photos: Robert Kusel, Bing, Chicago Daily News, Costume by Motley, Courtesy Michael Gross
Lyric Opera production generously made possible by an Anonymous Donor, Julie and Roger Baskes, and the Mazza Foundation.
Coproduction of Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Metropolitan Opera, and San Francisco Opera Association


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