Verdi fans have joked for decades that all you need for the composer’s Il Trovatore are the greatest voices in the world – but there’s actually some truth in that! And if you’ve got the right voices, then the feast offered by this opera is sumptuous indeed.
This music is meant to flatter singers, to give them chances to show their stuff: flexibility, trills, high and low notes, and of course, every bit of vocal beauty they possess.
Take our hero Manrico, troubadour and warrior; his spectacular scene that closes Act Three is something every tenor longs to sing. Why? Well, it starts out with a heavenly love song, sung to assure his beloved Leonora (very apprehensive at this particular moment) that everything is going to be OK. It’s sweet yet manly, full of heart and soul. But there’s major trouble ahead for Manrico: when his right-hand man shows up to announce that his mother is about to be burned at the stake, it’s “Sorry, Leonora – she was my mother before I ever loved you,” and he’s off to the rescue! But, of course, this is opera, which means he can’t leave before singing another aria. He bursts into “Di quella pira l’orrendo foco” (“The horrible flames of that pyre”), a call to arms that knows no competition in opera for sheer excitement. By the way, there’s a high C at the end that Manrico gets to hold forever. OK, it’s a note that’s there only because of tradition – Verdi didn’t actually write it – but audiences would be up at arms if they heard a Manrico without it!
What about Leonora, the prima-donna role? Her music is mind-blowingly gorgeous: one big-scale, soaring line after another, with fancy florid lines, trills galore, and soft high notes meant to provoke sighs of pleasure in her listeners. Of all the many huge, barnstorming moments of vocalism in this opera, the peak is probably Leonora’s duet with the Count (Manrico’s rival and archenemy, who turns out to be his brother!). When soprano and baritone are going at it side by side, matching each other high note for high note, the results are nonstop thrills.
If you were afraid Verdi left anyone out, fear not! The Count gets a fabulous solo moment of his own: a soliloquy all about Leonora’s beautiful smile, where this dastardly fellow suddenly becomes a feeling, thoughtful guy, thanks to Verdi’s elegant, rapturously beautiful music.
Finally, there’s Azucena, the gypsy who Manrico always thought was his mother (she’s not, as it turns out…). Her scenes are all hair-raising, with Verdi singlehandedly creating a voice that basically didn’t exist before Azucena came along – the dramatic mezzo-soprano. Azucena has to pour it on vocally, especially in the narrative where she’s telling Manrico about how her own mother was burned at the stake. It’s scarily, terrifyingly intense, and if you’ve got a singer with the big vocal guns for it, she can leave the audience totally awestruck.
That’s Trovatore – a truly fabulous night at the opera!