Libretto: Salvatore Cammarano, completed by Leone Emanuele Bardare, based on Antonio Garcia Gutiérrez’s play El Trovador
First performed: Teatro Apollo, Rome, 19 January 1853
The backdrop of the opera is the Spanish wars of the early fifteenth century. After Martin I of Aragon died in 1410 without surviving legitimate issue, the nobility elected Fernando de Antequera, prince of Castile, king through the Compromise of Caspe. Ferdinand I of Aragon, named the Just, ruled from 1412 to 1416, but Jaume II d’Urgell, Count of Urgel, a rival claimant to the throne, refused to acknowledge his cousin as king. Jaume was twice defeated in battle, besieged in the castle of Balaguer, and surrendered to Ferdinand in 1413.
ACT ONE: THE DUEL
We’re at the Aljaferia Palace in Zaragoza, north-western Spain, stronghold of the Count of Luna, commander of Fernando’s army, who is in love with Leonora. Leonora, though, loves a mysterious troubadour, Manrico, who serenades her every evening. The Count has ordered his men to watch for the troubadour.
To while away the time, Ferrando, captain of the guard, tells the story of the Count of Luna’s younger brother Garzia.
One morning an old gypsy woman was found standing over Garzia’s cradle. She claimed to be casting the baby’s horoscope, but the boy fell sick. The old Count thought the gypsy had put a curse on the child, and had her burnt at the stake. In revenge, the woman’s daughter stole the child – and a child’s half-burnt skeleton was found at the funeral pyre. The old Count, though, believed his son was still alive, and, before he died, asked his son, the present Count (are you following this?), to search for his younger brother – to no avail. The daughter vanished, and her mother’s ghost is believed to haunt the castle as a raven or an owl. Those who see her die of fear.
Leonora is waiting for her lover, the troubadour – whom she first met at a tournament before the civil war.
While she goes to her rooms, the Count arrives, aflame with desire. He hears the troubadour serenade Leonora’s window from the garden, and she comes down, eager to meet her lover. She mistakes the Count for her lover; Manrico reveals himself as Urgel’s follower, a wanted man; and the two men go off to fight a duel.
Between the two acts: Manrico spares the Count’s life, moved by a strange pity. Later, at the battle of Pelilla, the two men fight again, and Manrico falls. Azucena finds him and nurses him back to health.
ACT TWO: THE GYPSY WOMAN
A gypsy camp in the mountains of Biscay. In the famous Anvil Chorus, the gypsies celebrate their life – particularly the gypsy maid (“la zingarella”).
Azucena, Manrico’s mother, stares into the campfire, and remembers when her own mother was burnt alive.
After the gypsy band have left, she tells Manrico the story of his grandmother’s death. Her mother was falsely accused of bewitching the old Count of Luna’s son, and burnt at the stake. Azucena followed her to the stake, cradling her baby in her arms. “Avenge me!” her mother urged her, before she died. Azucena stole the Count’s son and took him to the flames – but in her grief, she threw her own son into the fire. Who then, Manrico wants to know, is he? Her son, Azucena tells him; forget what she said; sometimes she gets confused. She makes him swear to kill the Count. A messenger tells Manrico that Leonora, believing him dead, will become a nun. Ignoring Azucena’s attempts to restrain him, he rides off to the convent outside Castellor to rescue her.
The Count has also come to the convent; he intends to abduct her from the altar by force. Before he can do so, however, the troubadour appears, and takes her away with him.
ACT THREE: THE GYPSY WOMAN’S SON
The Count’s army prepares to attack the fort of Castellor, where Manrico and Leonora have taken refuge. The soldiers capture Azucena, who is skulking around the camp, looking for her son. Ferrando recognizes her as the woman who burnt the Count’s son, and she reveals that she’s Manrico’s mother. She is sentenced to be burnt alive, like her mother.
Inside the fort, Manrico and Leonora await the Count’s assault the next day. Today, though, they will marry. Before they can go down to the altar, another messenger tells Manrico that his mother has been captured. He resolves to rescue her.
ACT FOUR: THE EXECUTION
Once again we’re at the Aliaferia palace, at night. Manrico has been captured, and both he and his mother will be executed at dawn. Leonora offers herself to the Count in exchange for Manrico’s freedom – but she takes poison concealed in her ring. He will have her cold and lifeless.
In their prison cell, Manrico and Azucena await the dawn. Azucena is terrified of the stake, and Manrico comforts her, singing her to sleep.
Leonora tells Manrico that he is free to go – but he repulses her angrily when he learns the price she paid for his freedom. She dies in his arms, as the Count watches. Manrico is dragged off to the block. Azucena wakes up. “Where is my son?” About to be executed, the Count tells her, and takes her to the window so she can see. “He was your brother!” Azucena tells him; “Mother, you are avenged!” “And I still live!” cries the Count. Curtain.
Il Trovatore is one of Verdi’s Big Three, the popular operas he composed in the early 1850s. It’s also the odd one out.
The works on either side – Rigoletto (1851) and La traviata (1853) – are innovative, tightly dramatic and introduce naturalistic characterization.
Trovatore seems a throwback to the Verdi’s early galley operas. It’s close to Ernani (1844) or I Masnadieri (1847) with its stereotypical romantic triangle, exiled tenor hero, brigands, swordfights, battles, and warring brothers fighting over the heroine.
Trovatore also has a reputation. Great music, strong drama, bizarre and incomprehensible story. “I think it’s the stupidest plot in all of opera,” a friend said when I told her it was next on my list. Jokes about it abound; Gilbert and Sullivan parodied it, and the Marx Brothers memorably sent it up in A Night at the Opera (1935).
That was eighty-two years ago, and the opera is still played around the world.
It’s certainly not a foolproof opera. Caruso said that it’s easy to stage, provided you have the four greatest singers in the world. Some old-fashioned productions treat it as a vehicle for the voices – the singers sing, and to hell with the drama. (The 1988 Met production with Pavarotti and Eva Marton does that, and the result is unconvincing.) The recent fad is to update it to the Spanish Civil War, to make it more “relevant”, with mixed results.
The opera can work, and work well, if it’s played straight and acted with sincerity – babies, bonfires, and all. The 1975 Berlin Staatskapelle production does this, and it works beautifully.
The key to appreciating Trovatore lies in understanding Verdi’s aesthetics. Verdi wasn’t interested in naturalism, but in human nature.
To imitate the truth slavishly may be a good occupation, but to find the truth through one’s imagination is better, much better. The words “to discover the truth through one’s imagination” are only seemingly a contradiction in terms; just try to look for the truth in the pope’s words – I mean to say in Shakespeare’s. Falstaff may have possibly crossed his path; but he has hardly ever met an archvillain of Iago’s sort and certainly never the angelic characters of Cordelia, Imogena, Desdemona – and how full of true feeling are these personalities! To imitate the truth faithfully may be a beautiful occupation. But it is then mere photography, not painting.
It’s striking that Verdi uses Imogen as an example. Imogen is the heroine of Cymbeline, a play criticized for its convoluted plot, incongruities, and anachronisms. The story involves stolen babies (as in Trovatore); a heroine falsely accused of infidelity, and who mistakes the headless corpse of her would-be rapist for her lover’s; a wicked queen, invading Romans, cross-dressing, and ghosts. Jupiter comes down from heaven to resolve the plot. The events might be fantastical, but the sentiments ring true.
That was what Verdi understood by imaginative drama: the mixture of the fantastic and the true that he found in Shakespeare.
The action of Trovatore is abrupt, the events bizarre, but the strong situations – however unlikely they may seem – allowed him to study emotions. Azucena, torn between her mother’s dying command, “Avenge me!”, and her love for her son, no son. The two enemy army commanders, rivals for the same woman, and, unbeknownst to them, brothers.
One of the criticisms of the opera is that it is poorly motivated; the action may be exciting, but that action seems to arise out of nowhere. Messengers appear, as in Greek tragedy, and announce that a battle has been lost, that Leonora is going to take the veil, or that Azucena has been captured and condemned to death. Ferrando and Azucena talk about things that happened long ago – but the characters know little of why they fight and struggle. They’re creatures of action, but they act blindly. Manrico and the Count do not know they are brothers, Manrico does not know he is not Azucena’s son, Leonora does not know that her lover is the gypsy’s son. The only person who knows the truth is Azucena, and her agenda is her own. Is she Manrico’s loving mother, or is she using him to avenge her mother?
The opera, though, is less illogical than it appears. Accept the basic premise – that Azucena threw the wrong baby on the fire – and everything else follows. (As someone with a long experience of setting fire to small children, I can see how she might make the mistake; one tyke is much like another.)
By halfway through the second act, the audience should have worked out the tangled story. Leonora mistakes the Count for Manrico. This is what detective story writers would call a clue; she makes the mistake because the two men physically resemble each other. Azucena admits that she threw the wrong baby on the fire; who, then, is Manrico? Manrico could not kill the Count – because, subconsciously, he recognizes that they are brothers.
Through the opera runs a leitmotif of fire, lighting up the fantastical action with a lurid, hellish glare. Azucena’s mother burnt alive at the stake. Azucena hurling her own child into the flames. The guards huddled around the fire, listening to a ghost story. Azucena staring into the gypsy campfire, remembering her mother’s death. Leonora’s passion for her unknown troubadour is “a dangerous flame”, while the Count’s “spurned and jealous love burns … with a terrible flame”. Azucena sentenced to be burnt at the stake, as her mother died. Manrico’s vow to rescue his mother from that pyre.
And those flames, like old sins, cast long shadows.
Listen to: Alberto Erede’s 1956 recording starring Mario del Monaco (Manrico), Giulietta Simoniato (Azucena), Renata Tebaldi (Leonora), and Ugo Savarese (di Luna).
Watch: The 1975 Berlin production, conducted by Bruno Bartoletti, starring Franco Bonisolli (Manrico), Viorica Cortez (Azucena), Raina Kabaivanska (Leonora), and Giorgio Zancanaro (di Luna).