As Aragon descends into unrest, a count jealously fights for a noble lady's heart. But she has already given it to a passionate troubadour whose mother holds a terrible secret.
Surpassing its hugely successful spiritual predecessor Rigoletto, Il Trovatore was an instant triumph. Verdi’s music is so passionate and transcendent that one almost loses sight of opera’s notoriously most implausible plot, complete with burning babies and bloodthirsty vengeance.
Il Conte di Luna
An old gypsy
China NCPA Chorus
Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra
Director, Sets & Costumes Designer
Hugo De Ana
Within the guardroom at the Palace of Aragon, Captain Ferrando orders his men to keep watch while Count di Luna waits underneath Lady Leonora’s bedroom. The count is in love with Leonora but she is in love with a troubadour called Manrico. In an effort to keep the guards from falling asleep, Ferrando tells a story about the count:
Many years ago, a Gypsy woman made the count’s baby brother turn weak and ill. The king - the young boy’s father - sentenced her to be burned at the stake. As she burned, she commanded her daughter, Azucena, to avenge her. Azucena kidnapped the baby and threw him into the fire to burn alongside her mother. Though an infant’s bones were found in the ashes, the king refused to believe that they belonged to his son. Several years later, while he lay on his deathbed, he commanded his son, Di Luna, to seek out and punish Azucena.
Inside her room, Leonora confides in her friend, Ines, and tells her she loves Manrico. She hears Manrico’s voice outside in the distance and runs outside to greet him. In the dark, she mistakes Di Luna for Manrico, but luckily Manrico soon appears. She quickly runs to his side to embrace him. In a fit of jealousy, Di Luna challenges Manrico to a duel, which he accepts.
Inside the Gypsy camp, Azucena recalls her mother’s plea for vengeance. She tells her son, Manrico, a life-changing story: when she tried to kill the king’s son, she mistakenly grabbed her own baby and threw him into the fire instead. Manrico realises he is not her biological son but promises her that his love for her is unchanged. He swears to his mother that he will help her seek vengeance, and regrets the fact that something prevented him from killing Di Luna even though he won the duel. A messenger arrives bringing news that Leonora, believing that Manrico is dead, has entered into a convent. Determined to stop her, Manrico makes haste to Leonora despite his mother’s objections.
Outside the convent, Di Luna waits for the right moment to kidnap Leonora. She and the nuns appear in procession and Di Luna sets his plan in motion. At that very moment, Manrico arrives and saves Leonora. The two quickly set off hand in hand, escaping Di Luna and his men.
Di Luna has set up camp not far from the castle where Manrico and Leonora are staying. Ferrando brings in Azucena after finding her wandering outside. She claims to be looking for her lost son. When Di Luna reveals his identity, Azucena is taken aback. In that moment, Ferrando recognizes her as the murderer of Di Luna’s younger brother. Di Luna orders her to be burnt at the stake.
Inside the castle, Manrico and Leonora are about to give their hands to one another in marriage. As they say their vows, Manrico’s friend, Ruiz, rushes in to tell them that Azucena has been captured and sentenced to burn at the stake. Stopping everything, Manrico summons his men and desperately prepares to attack.
Manrico has been captured along with his mother. Wanting nothing more than to save the man she loves, Leonora pledges herself to Di Luna in exchange for Manrico’s freedom. But before he can possess her, she secretly swallows some poison.
Within their cell, Manrico comforts his ageing mother, who is falling asleep. Leonora arrives and urges Manrico to escape. However, after hearing the deal she made with Di Luna, Manrico feels betrayed and refuses to leave his cell. Within moments, the effects of the poison begin to show. As she dies in agony in Manrico's arms, Leonora confesses that she prefers to die with him than to marry another. Having heard Leonora’s final words, the count orders Manrico’s execution. Azucena awakes and tries to stop di Luna, but it is too late. She cries out that her mother has finally been avenged, for Di Luna has killed his own brother.
Il trovatore: an opera of the night
The operas of Verdi are individually recognisable by their distinctive colour or tinta. Il trovatore belongs to the night, its prevailing colour midnight blue irradiated from time to time by the flame red of the fire which is its recurring motif.
The paradox of Trovatore is that a story of almost unrelieved darkness is suffused by music of soaring lyricism. It is a lazy critical cliché to repeat Caruso’s maxim that ‘all Trovatore needs is the four greatest singers in the world’, implying that the plot is so far-fetched and ludicrous that it is best ignored. The opposite is true. The dramatic themes of Trovatore are elemental in their power: the magnetic attraction in love and hate of long-lost brothers; the mother who destroys the child most dear to her; the defenceless woman who summons the strength to sacrifice herself for love. The text which Verdi wrung from his experienced librettist Salvatore Cammarano is a skilfully constructed scaffolding which allows the music to provide the drama unimpeded. It is the perfect libretto, because when filled with music it becomes invisible.
Trovatore is the last of Verdi’s operas to be confined by the closed forms of traditional ottocento opera. These forms are themselves bound within the carefully balanced formal pattern of the opera, which although nominally in four acts is actually a two-act structure. It is modelled on that of Don Giovanni, an opera which Verdi had remorselessly drummed into him by his teacher Lavigna until he knew it by heart. In each ‘half’ there are four scenes. In both cases, the first scene, driven by the narrator Ferrando, explains the background and starts the motor of the story. The second scene is a predominantly lyrical interlude rounded off with a furious headlong final section. The third scene of each part is the longest and most developed and forms the musical and dramatic highest point: in part one the extended scena between Azucena and Manrico in which their mutually dependent past is explored; in part two the great scene of Leonora’s decision built round the central Miserere section. The final scene of each ‘half’ is by comparison terse, with foreshortened events and a brutal conclusion.
The four main roles respond to fine singers, because Verdi has imagined their emotions so precisely and fully. The Count of Luna should not be portrayed as a black-hearted snarling baritone, because his music reveals great tenderness and mood swings between aggression and self-doubt. Manrico is not just a macho warrior with a trumpet top, but a poet and troubadour, reticent and elusive enough to sing two of his arias off-stage. Leonora’s progression from star-struck victim towards the catalyst who decides the fates of both brothers is the most astonishing transformation of all. Yet it is Azucena, despite appearing in only three of the eight scenes, who haunts the shadows of the opera and is its more memorable creation.
Gabriele Baldini went so far as to relate Azucena to ‘the unattained ideal of King Lear’, the subject which obsessed Verdi but which he never treated. ‘Her greatness derives from her feeling of being torn between emotion and destiny, birth and death (or rather flowering and decay), by a blind, irrational game in an indistinct circle of madness… Azucena is an opening within which we can cast a frightened glimpse at something lying at the roots of our origins. It is important that Manrico is unsure whether he is really her son; that Azucena continually contradicts herself on this matter; that she feels like a projection of another mother, of another gypsy who found herself in a similar situation on which must now be placed the seal of revenge; but it is above all important that whoever hears this dazzlingly clear music continually superimposes one character on another, and never separates their individual moulds… In this sense I believe Il trovatore is Verdi’s highest point.’
The composition of Trovatore came at a low personal point for Verdi, because it coincided with the death of his mother. Verdi scrupulously expunged autobiography from his work, but it is clear that certain themes had an especially strong resonance for him. One thinks of the bond between father and estranged daughter from Nabucco through Giovanna d’Arco to Rigoletto and Aida, and, above all, of the rediscovery of the long-lost daughter in Simon Boccanegra. In Trovatore it is a mother’s search for her son, and a son’s for his mother, and the conclusion is unforgivingly bleak. After the première Verdi wrote to a friend: ‘They say that this opera is too sad and that there are too many deaths. But finally, in life all is death! What else exists?’
Some claim that the supreme achievements of Trovatore are Act II Scene 1 and Act IV Scene 1, the sections with the strongest narrative and musical development. Even more extraordinary are the compact final sections of each half. In the first, Manrico’s magical rescue of Leonora gives rise to her all-embracing phrase ‘Sei tu dal ciel disceso, o in ciel son io con te’ – ‘Have you come down from heaven, or am I in heaven with you?’ – which gathers the collected feelings of the whole company within a single glorious span. In the second, the imprisoned Manrico and Azucena are joined first by the dying Leonora and then by the betrayed Luna to form a quartet of incomparable funereal desolation, in which their four lonely souls are laid bare before, in the final seconds, Azucena hits Luna with her last climactic revelation. This is devastating music, but also existential drama.