Il Trovatore: A Song of Night, Fire and Vengeance

Xl_il-trovatore-en © DR

The Salzburg Festival plays Verdi’s Il Trovatore. A dark and flamboyant, complex and convoluted work being known to require the “four most beautiful voices in the world”. In order to complete this demanding challenge, the Salzburg Festival relies on Placido Domingo (il conte di Luna) and Anna Netrebko (Leonora), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Azucena) and Francesco Meli (Manrico). To coincide with the Salzburg’s production, we are getting back further in detail on this unlikely and brillant Trovatore, in order to understand better this “Glossary of operatic nonsense.”

How should we approach this magnificent opera, so well known and so often commented upon, when one of its paradoxes is that for much of the public it is a perfect example of the complicated libretto, crammed with vivid characters and unlikely adventures.What common threads can guide us through this labyrinth between past and present, where thwarted love and fierce hatred square off?Where the heroes are haunted by the sufferings of torture and the fury of vengeance?Conductor Arturo Toscanini, who was asked to stage the work, gave this pithy, definitive reply: “Give me the four most beautiful voices in the world.”In fact, to render all the beauty of a song whose heady power is constantly nourished by the devouring fire of passion, you do need great performers.How, then, could a libretto that gave birth to such beautiful music be considered bad? 

Rather than being shackled by these extreme situations in which extreme characters struggle with one another, Verdi takes new inspiration from them. Il Trovatore, a work of unrivalled intensity, takes place on one of those frenzied and mysterious nights so dear to Romanticism.In the confusion created by the darkness blazes the fire at the stake, an obsessive memory or a terrifying threat, fed by vengeance. A tragedy both nocturnal and flaming in which fate plays on men to better assuage their vengeful desires, Il Trovatore is one of the finest examples of Romantic opera.

A Dark and Unlikely Subject

Il Trovatore’s subject immediately attracted a series of unkind critiques and comments.How could Verdi have chosen this sombre story in which the bodies pile up in a completely implausible manner?  When the Marx Brothers wanted to ridicule the complications comic pomposity of opera in their famous film A Night at the Opera, they naturally thought of Il Trovatore. Yet out of this “darkness” Verdi immediately believed he would be able to create a luminous musical force that would earn the enthusiasm of music lovers.The premiere of Il Trovatore gave rise to a historic triumph.For an entire day the streets of Rome echoed with the sound of Verdi being hailed as “the greatest composer Italy has ever known.”This was the start of an extraordinary career for this opera as part of what is known as the “people’s trilogy” in which it appears between Rigoletto (1851) and La Traviata, created that same year, 1853.

In 1851, Verdi told his librettist, Salvatore Cammarano, about a Spanish drama by Antonio Garcia Guttiérez, entitled El Trovador. The piece by this disciple of Victor Hugo was a huge success.It contains all the ingredients of Spanish Romantic theatre, rooted in the courtly world so popular at the time.Colourful characters move in a world in which everything exudes overblown grandeur.Then began a difficult period during which Verdi lost his temper more than once with Cammarano, with whom he had already worked for Luisa Miller (1849). As the project was not moving as fast as he wanted, he reminded him in no uncertain terms of the conditions of their collaboration:“I suggested this drama to you because it seemed to me to contain some very beautiful scenic passages, and that it has something unique and original overall.If you did not agree, which did you not suggest some other subject to me?In this area, it is good for the composer and the poet to be in unison.” Verdi thought of giving up everything, especially as he was going through a serious personal crisis:“They say this opera is too sad, and that there are too many deaths, but isn’t everything death in life?What exists?”While he was composing his new opera, he lost his mother.In July 1852, Cammarano himself succumbed to the illness that had prevented him devoting himself full-time to writing Il Trovatore, which was then entrusted to a young librettist, Bardare, for completion. The night of death surrounded Verdi.

Confusion and Terror in the Night

There is an almost providential correspondence between this plot with its nocturnal atmosphere and the composer’s state of mind.  From the start, the spells of romantic Night serve as the mysterious and disturbing backdrop to a story in which “quid pro quo” is the order of the day.  Aided by the darkness, whether real or born of the distance of the past, the characters conceal their true identities and their deep motivations.  The brother thought dead reappears in the guise of a rival.The kidnapped child takes the place of the child killed by mistake.Leonore thinks she is throwing herself into the arms of the Troubadour when by mistake she embraces the count, whom she does not love.Azucena, the daughter driven by merciless vengeance, becomes a passionately loving adopted mother.The count thinks he is killing an enemy as he is actually killing his brother.We become lost in this nocturnal labyrinth where passion and excess reign supreme. 

We can find our way by distinguishing two themes the action seems to follow.On the one hand, an amorous and political rivalry pits two men who do not know they are brothers against each other.At the same time, there is an implacable pursuit of vengeance, with all its horrible retinue:the spectre of the pyre, prison and its tortures, terror of death in its extreme suffering.The drama’s power draws its spectacular effects from the ingredients of the romanticism of horror.We are in the same atmosphere as the dramas of Victor Hugo, which Verdi had exploited earlier in Ernani (1844), and in English Gothic novels so popular at that period of the 19th century.

A Voice in the Night

Amidst this nocturnal confusion, as if it were necessary to conjure up all this menacing horror, a voice rises, that of the troubadour, Manrico.The title role is unique in being both an artist and a knight.He sings under the windows of the one he loves and who loves him, Leonora: “Listen!The peaceful night fell quiet…When into the air, ‘til then silent, rose, sweet and plaintive, the chords of a lute, and a troubadour sang melancholy verses” (Act 1, Scene 2).

His first appearance on stage is preceded by his voice echoing in the wings.This song in the wings gives the character an almost fantastical dimension.A poet and singer hiding in the obscurity of the foliage, he unfurls his romance in the distance, accompanied by a harp.At the end of the drama, when he ends up imprisoned in a tower by Count De Luna, his solo vice will rise again, soaring above the chorus of the monks and Leonora’s terrified song.As if echoing his first appearance, Manrico sings once again from the wings, accompanied by the harp.The happy, hope-filled song will be turned into a funereal lamentation.

Several other identities are also hiding in the appearance of Manrico the troubadour, the voice of love and suffering.He presented himself to the girl in the past as an unknown knight with a black aura:“In a tournament.One day, in black armour and helmet, with black and unblazoned shield, appeared an unknown warrior”(Act 1, Scene 2). While he carries a lute and armour, he is also the fearsome son of a gypsy woman and the rebels’ leader.All these identities will meld into a single one, tragically revealed in death:Manrico is the missing brother of Count De Luna.These various faces make him a strange character straight out of a Walter Scott novel, yet too fiery to remain in just that frame.

Voices of Fire

A heroic and mysterious voice in the night, Manrico’s is also an exulting voice.Il Trovatore is an opera in which Verdi pushes the singers to their extremes, because the characters are consumed by the violence of their passions.Fire, which is referred to more than a hundred times in the libretto, sets fire to bodies, threatens lives and seems to consumer the voices.One cannot help but think of what Antonin Artaud wrote in The Theatre and Its Double about actors, comparing them to “torture victims who are burned as they make signs on the funeral pyre.” The dominant vision of this opera is that of burning at the stake, which haunts the tortured memory of the gypsy woman Azucena.The fire destroyed her mother, condemned for witchcraft by the father of Count De Luna.It also destroyed her own son, whom she cast into the fire believing that she was killing the child of her mother’s murderer.But the past stake could also be replaced by the one Azucena is in turn threatened by as a gypsy woman and the mother of an outlaw.The omnipresent fire revives the past horror and prefigures the death to come.

Azucena’s frenzied tale in the flickering light of the gypsies’ fire (“Stride la vampa” – the flames crackle) or Manrico’s cry for vengeance as he leaves bereft to rescue his mother:(“Di quella pira l’orrendo foco”  The horrible fire of this pyre burns and inflames my whole being) are the most striking examples of a song filled with impetuousness, riven through with dark outbursts and fury.This is what drew the composer’s most caustic critics.He is accused of “mistreating bel canto,” “breaking the singers’ voices” and “being vulgar.”It is undeniable that Verdi is working a profound transformation of singing style, which matches both his own personal temperament and his heighted dramatic will.The sobs of pain and cries of wrath, which makes the characters rise up like devastating flames, demand exceptional courage on the part of the singers.  These vocal explosions give us the feeling that the main characters “appear on stage as if fired out of a pistol,” according to the picturesque expression of the German critic Hanslick.For Il Trovatore marks the birth of the “lirico spinto” soprano and especially tenor, powerfully projected voices capable of passing through the orchestra’s fire and expressing extreme feelings.

The Fire of Vengeance

The dramatic potential of the confrontation between extraordinary characters played out in Guttiérrez’s Spanish drama immediately won over Verdi, who for the first time undertook to work without a commission.  Unlike the vast majority of his other operas, Il Trovatore was not created for a specific theatre.But he was undeniably most attracted to Azucena’s character.“First, the gypsy woman, a woman of unusual character who will give her name to the opera,” he wrote toCammarano.And, later, he continues:“Her senses are oppressed, but she is not mad.We must maintain both of this woman’s passions through to the end:her love for Manrico and her burning thirst to avenge her mother.When Manrico dies, her desire for vengeance becomes enormous, and she says in exaltation: That was your brother!You are avenged, o mother!”These are in fact the last words sung by Azucena, which are answered by those of Count De Luna, now horrified:“And I, I’m alive!”Azucena, gripped by the cruellest of dilemmas, cannot escape her inflexible desire for vengeance.She is torn between her love for her mother, burned alive at the stake, and her passionate attachment to her adopted son.Vengeance will be stronger than everything.Like Eléazar who sacrifices Rachel, his adopted daughter, in Halévy’s La Juive (1835), she lets her “child” be killed by the man who, unbeknownst to her, is her only family.Manrico and Rachel, kidnapped children, are sacrificed to the murderous hatred of an implacable enemy of their real family, who loses them forever just when a reunion seemed possible.Inflexible avengers who rejoice in revealing the secret of their birth only when they are at death’s door, Azucena and Eléazar turn themselves into executioners after having been nourishing parents passionately fond of their children entrusted to them by a cruel fate.

All the criticisms of excess and lack of realism made against this flamboyant Trovatore could be answered with the words of Bizet: “When a passionate, violent, even brutal temperament, when a Verdi equips the art of a strong, living work, shaped by gold, mud, venom and blood, let us not say coldly: ‘But, dear Sir, it lacks taste, it is not distinguished!’Are Michelangelo, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Cervantes and Rabelais distinguished?

Catherine Duault

Photos credit: Salzburg Festival

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