Go inside this production of Il trovatore with engaging articles, notes from the director, a complete plot synopsis, artist bios, and more.
Ferrando, captain of the guard, rouses the soldiers resting in the guardroom. They are under orders of Count di Luna to keep watch for a troubadour who serenades Leonora, the queen’s lady-in-waiting, with whom the Count is also in love. Ferrando keeps the men awake by telling them the story of a baby, the Count’s brother: many years before, a gypsy had been burned at the stake for supposedly casting a spell on the baby. In revenge, the gypsy’s daughter stole the child. Later an infant’s bones – presumably those of the Count’s brother – were found in the ashes. Legend has it that the gypsy’s ghost still haunts the castle.
As she awaits the troubadour, Leonora tells her companion Inez how she fell in love with an unknown knight. When civil war broke out, she heard nothing from him until one evening when she heard his voice serenading her. Faced with Inez’s disapproval, Leonora nevertheless swears that she would die for the troubadour. The Count is about to force his attention on Leonora, but the troubadour’s voice stops him. Leonora mistakes the Count for her lover and is, in turn, accused by the troubadour of infidelity. Challenged, Manrico identifies himself. The Count’s jealousy boils over at a rebel leader daring to enter the royal palace. The two men rush off to fight a duel.
As dawn breaks over the gypsy camp, the usual work goes on. Azucena broods on her mother’s death. Manrico, who is recovering from wounds received in battle, fails to understand his mother’s words. Once alone with Azucena, he asks her to tell him the old story. She ironically comments that his ambition had led him far away so that he never learned the story of his grandmother’s death. Telling the story, her emotions overpower her. Azucena lets slip that, after stealing the Count’s child, in her delirium she threw her own child into the flames. When Manrico asks who he really is, Azucena insists that she was hallucinating and that he is indeed her son. She wonders why he spared the Count when given the chance to kill him in their duel. Manrico answers that a voice from heaven restrained him. Azucena orders him to swear to avenge her. A messenger informs Manrico that he must take command of Castellor, adding that Leonora, assuming he is dead, will enter a convent that evening. Azucena pleads with him not to leave, but he ignores her and rushes away. Scene 2. The Count arrives at the convent with his men. Tormented by his love for Leonora, he determines to abduct her before she can take her vows. Manrico arrives in time to stop him.
The Count’s soldiers are relaxing before the assault on Castellor. A patron brings in a gypsy suspected of spying. Azucena protests that she is only searching for her son, who has abandoned her. When she says that she comes from Biscay, the Count questions her about his brother’s disappearance. Ferrando recognizes her, and when she calls out to the absent Manrico for help, the Count exults at his chance for revenge. Azucena curses the Count before she is dragged away.
Manrico, about to be married to Leonora, assures her that love will unite them even in death should he be killed in the upcoming battle. When Ruiz brings news of Azucena’s capture and ensuing execution, Manrico vows to save her.
Ruiz accompanies Leonora to the Count’s castle, where Manrico has been imprisoned following his failed rescue attempt. Determined to save his life, Leonora hopes that thoughts of her love will comfort Manrico in his despair. Hearing the monks’ prayer for the condemned and Manrico’s voice raised in farewell, Leonora again swears to save Manrico, even if she must die. When the Count appears, lamenting Leonora’s disappearance, she pleads for Manrico’s life, offering herself to the Count instead. While he gives orders to free the prisoner, she takes poison.
Awaiting execution, Azucena is troubled by visions of her mother’s death. She and Manrico long to return to their life in the mountains. Azucena has just fallen asleep when Leonora appears, telling Manrico he is free. When she refuses to leave with him, he accuses her of giving herself to his rival. As he curses her, Leonora begins to feel faint. Manrico is horrified when she reveals her sacrifice for him. Witnessing her death, the Count orders Manrico’s immediate execution. Manrico’s farewell awakens Azucena. She turns on the Count, revealing that he has killed his own brother before crying out, “You are avenged, oh, mother!”
Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore has a distinguished history at Lyric Opera of Chicago, beginning with the production in 1955 that paired Maria Callas and Jussi Björling. Those legendary artists, and any number of great Verdians since then, have demonstrated to our audiences that it takes exceptional vocal prowess to do justice to this glorious work.
In any great performance of Il trovatore, we can savor a limitless sequence of extraordinary melodies that are incomparably beautiful, but also emotional, sometimes even demonic, and always uniquely invigorating. Verdi moves from the soaring, lovestruck arias of Leonora to the stupendously exciting call to arms of Manrico, while also bringing spellbinding intensity and psychological insight to Azucena, and overwhelming passion to Count di Luna. Each of these characters truly lives through Verdi’s music.
Il trovatore is a wonderful choral opera as well. I’m referring not only to the gypsies’ “Anvil Chorus” that opens Act Two – justifiably celebrated as one of the greatest hits of Italian opera – but also the marvelous music for the groups of soldiers, nuns, and monks. Verdi’s choral writing equals what he gave his soloists, with all the originality, the vigor, and the dramatic color that make him unique.
This work gives us opera at its most essential, its most fundamental. The plot of Il trovatore has been criticized by some as impossibly convoluted, but onstage it works when presented to audiences with the degree of conviction that it will have at Lyric. Sir David McVicar’s production gives us a truly memorable vision of the piece, imbued with all the darkness and the sinister dimension that so memorably distinguish the works of the painter Francisco Goya, the production’s inspiration. Lyric originated this production, co-produced with the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera. It’s been a great success in all three companies.
We’re enormously fortunate to have a cast and conductor who can present Il trovatore with all the stylistic flair and dramatic excitement it demands. In the title role is Russell Thomas, who is now recognized internationally as one of the finest spinto tenors this country has produced in many decades. Opposite him as Leonora, in a very important Lyric debut, is the marvelous American soprano Tamara Wilson, who has made an impressive name for herself as one of today’s few genuine Verdian voices. Jamie Barton, the thrilling American mezzo-soprano who has been moving into Verdi repertoire to great acclaim, is returning to us in the spectacular role of Azucena.
We have two other exciting Lyric debuts: the dashing Polish baritone Artur Ruciński (Count di Luna), who has made Verdi a specialty in major international houses, including those of London, Vienna, Milan, and Venice; and Italian bass Roberto Tagliavini (Ferrando), an emerging star now embarked on an important career, who deeply impressed me at the 2017 Salzburg Festival.
Il trovatore can’t take wing without a conductor who possesses a thorough command of “middle-period” Verdi – those extraordinary operas that balance the greatest virtues of bel canto opera with the dramatic power and grandeur of scale that are Verdi’s own. Marco Armiliato comes to this repertoire not simply with a native Italian’s connection to it, but with the stylistic authority that has brought him one success after another at the Vienna State Opera, the Met, and many other prestigious houses. Welcome to what promises to be an unforgettable production of Il trovatore!
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On occasion, Giuseppe Verdi would stress to his librettists that the opera they were working on could be summed up with one word. For Il trovatore, it was “vengeance,” highlighting the task entrusted to the gypsy woman Azucena by her dying mother (burned at the stake before the opera begins).
From the audience’s point of view, however, another word sums up Il trovatore – “exciting.” Verdi’s eighteenth opera has been acclaimed for this quality since its premiere in 1853, even by those who criticize the plot.
It may seem tasteless to describe an opera that involves vengeance, executions, and child-abduction as “exciting.” But the opera calls for thrilling singing from its principals, not just vocal pyrotechnics but immense emotional contrasts. Leonora, the heroine, must convey everything from emotional warmth and dulcet grace to penetrating determination. Azucena ranges from maternal love for Manrico, whom she has raised, to chilling resolve to avenge her executed mother. And the male leads must combine their testosterone-fueled competitiveness with gentler qualities, such as the tenderness in the Count’s aria “Il balen del suo sorriso” (comparing Leonora’s smile to the gleaming of stars), or Manrico’s “Ah sì, ben mio, coll’essere” (reassuring Leonora of their loving future even if death claims him).
Il trovatore is an action-packed melodrama covering huge emotional territory against a colorful historical background. And there is spectacle. The “Miserere” scene in Act Four was much acclaimed in the 19th century. All at once on separate parts of the stage, Leonora bemoans the fate of her beloved Manrico as he bids farewell to life in a nostalgic-sounding song, against the murmuring of a chorus of monks praying for his soul. The 19th-century piano-virtuoso Franz Liszt honored this coup de théâtre in one of his famous concert “paraphrases,” a staple of the recital hall.
Verdi consciously aimed for excitement in this opera. He suggested Antonio García Gutiérrez’s play El trovador (1836) as a subject because, as he wrote his librettist Salvadore Cammarano in April 1851, “it seemed to me to offer fine theatrical effects and above all something original and out of the ordinary.”1 He could have mentioned all the different settings – palace, convent, gypsy- and military-camps, and a dungeon. And there are battlefields (offstage).
Gutiérrez’s play is set against dramatic true events – the struggle between Ferdinand, Prince of Castile, and James, Count of Urgel, for the throne of Aragon in the early 1400s. But over and above this political drama, Gutiérrez’s play was in part romance (political rivals Manrico and the Count vying for Leonora’s love) as well as vengeance tale. It entranced contemporary Spanish audiences.
Life events probably made Verdi susceptible to the play’s emotional darkness. His mother died in the summer of 1851. Cammarano’s death in July 1852 (although when the libretto was substantially completed) may have exacerbated his morbidity. But Verdi was no doubt also drawn to Azucena with her conflicting instincts for vengeance and for protection of Manrico, and to the play’s political dimension. And he certainly set out, intentionally, to create something innovative.
As Verdi made clear to Cammarano in 1851, he wouldn’t mind dispensing with the usual subdivisions of Italian opera “and the whole work consisted, let’s say, of a single number.”2 What Cammarano came up with, though, was fairly conservative – the traditional string of four-part arias, duets and finales that the composer had tried to avoid. Verdi would manipulate these fourpart structures searching for greater immediacy in their impact. And what does the audience notice – the structure or the exhilarating experience?
Cammarano’s libretto begins in a way that must have pleased a composer trying to flee convention. No overture (just the briefest of orchestral introductions) before the old soldier Ferrando launches into a narrative about the gypsy woman’s execution and the present-day Count’s obsession with finding his brother who was abducted by Azucena (setting up a twist). The four-part structure is marked by Ferrando’s summons to his soldiers to stay awake (“All’erta”); his narrative; his soldiers’ eagerness for an update on the story’s history; and Ferrando’s account of the executed woman’s continued hovering presence as a witch. Creepily, the scene ends at the stroke of midnight. Verdi asked for a really large bell, the first of many prominent, real-life sound effects that enhance the emotional immediacy of this piece of theater. Later, in Act Two, we’ll hear the anvilhammering chorus, an effect not easily forgotten.
It’s Act One, Scene 2, that gives us the most obvious example of a traditional 19th-century structure. In an opening dialogue, delivered in the speech-like vocal lines known as recitative, Inez, Leonora’s confidante, asks her about the passion that disturbs her. Leonora tells of the knight (Manrico) who caught her eye but disappeared on the eve of civil war. She then, in “Tacea la notte” – which represents the form’s customary slow initial melodic section or cantabile – relates how he has returned disguised as a troubadour. Inez expresses misgivings about this mysterious man in another dialogue-like section. Known as a tempo di mezzo, this sort of passage typically introduced new information (or even new characters and incidents) and engendered new resolve in the principal singer that would be expressed in a final, fast section known as the “cabaletta” (here Leonora’s “Di tale amor”). The Count then enters followed by Manrico, and with the Manrico-Leonora-Count lovetriangle we are into the next four-part structure, though it may be harder to detect.
In fact, throughout Il trovatore 10 of the 14 numbers are in this four-part form – even the “Miserere” is an expanded tempo di mezzo between Leonora’s cantabile expressing undying love for Manrico, and her cabaletta, expressing a love that will defy the Count.
But Verdi wanted to drive the drama. True, many of the opera’s most exciting moments are traditional cabalettas – for example. Manrico’s thrilling ululations in “Di quella pira” as he resolves to mount a rescue operation3 upon learning (in a tempo di mezzo) that Azucena has been captured. But there are moments when Verdi cuts to the chase in a way that would have surprised a 19th-century audience, accustomed to traditional opera’s tendency to stop for reflection.
Verdi and Cammarano struggled with the second-act finale, where Leonora, thinking Manrico is dead, is about to enter a convent and both Manrico and the Count arrive to stop her. At first Verdi wanted something trimmer than Cammarano had originally written. The revision was too short, but Cammarano, in the last stages of his final illness, was unable to try another option, so Verdi made his own revisions, musically. He sped up the “customary slow initial melodic section” so that when new information is presented – when Manrico’s men surround the Count’s men so as to whisk Leonora away – all that is needed for a final, fast section is a reprise of Leonora’s line, “Sei tu dal ciel disceso/ o in ciel son io con te?” No Grand Opera formalities. The act hurtles to its conclusion, a two-line expression of her emotion, but what a melodic arc for the soprano – her “most transcendent flight,” to borrow a phrase from the late Verdi scholar Julian Budden.
But much of the excitement of the opera resides in the singing. Tenor Enrico Caruso, himself a celebrated Manrico, once said that all it takes for Il trovatore to succeed is the four greatest singers in the world. Verdi, no doubt, knew it. Who might get the principal roles was a factor in determining which opera house would get the premiere. Perhaps Naples? If Rita Gabussi was there and available for Azucena. Rome’s Teatro Apollo actually ended up hosting the opening night, but not with Gabussi, with Emilia Goggi, of whom Verdi had received good reports. He asked Count Poniatowski, who had vouched for her, to provide him with “a musical scale, an abstract of her voice, writing under each note good, bad, weak, strong, etc...”4 Perhaps this would have been enough for Verdi to ascertain her suitability, but he needed to: he was creating arguably the first great mezzo-soprano role. Azucena must make our hair stand on our heads as she sings her bitter monologues, “Stride la vampa!” and “Condotta ell’era in ceppi,” and our hearts melt later in the opera when she longs to return home to the mountains.
At first, Verdi intended Il trovatore to be a three-person drama – mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone. But many of the changes made to the work during composition related to adjusting the various roles. After Cammarano died, the young Leone Emanuele Bardare came on board. With him Verdi expanded Leonora’s role, but Bardare also supplied Verdi with the words “Il balen del suo sorriso,” which gave the baritone his show-stopping solo – one that fleshed out his humanity.
Other changes came about via singers. Manrico’s high Cs, so thrilling at the end of “Di quella pira,” were apparently interpolated by Italian tenor Enrico Tamberlik in a later production. Verdi’s attitude was typically practical: if the public likes them, fine, but make sure they’re good.
Il trovatore is one of the most exciting operas in the repertoire, but it may also be the opera most satirized by opera’s detractors. And there are substantial criticisms to make of the plot. An opera company has to hope that audiences are prepared to plug some holes, assuming, for example, that Manrico lost the effort to free Azucena and that’s why he’s in a dungeon at the beginning of Act Four. But that said, all the non-sequiturs and jumps are made good by the sweep of Verdi’s music.
In the last scene, Verdi seems to escape the constraints of Italian “number opera” and move forward freely. Both Manrico and Azucena are in prison. Leonora finds them in their cell. She has offered herself to the Count in exchange for Manrico’s life and Manrico condemns her for it, until he realizes she has taken poison and is dying. The Count, thinking he can still triumph with Manrico’s death orders Manrico to be taken out for beheading. But when Azucena is dragged to the window to witness Manrico’s death, she tells the Count, “He was your brother” (that is: the boy she abducted). The axe falls and she exults, “Mother, you are avenged.” Verdi resisted the suggestion of extra lines and a reminder of Azucena’s filial vow. It would “cool things down”, he said. Only one concept mattered now: ‘vengeance’.
Some critics find this ending precipitate, but an audience probably feels too excited to care. Il trovatore is evidence that plot is important, but that opera succeeds mostly because of what the music and singers can do. Il trovatore certainly does.
Gordon Williams is an Australian librettist and writer on music based in Los Angeles.