2013 is coming to an end and we are going to remember the BEST of this year: Verdi vs Wagner, the Operas!
Celebrating Verdi’s bicentennial!
Il trovatore (The Troubadour) is an opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi to an Italian libretto largely written by Salvadore Cammarano, based on the play El trovador (1836) by Antonio García Gutiérrez. It was Gutiérrez’s most successful play, one which Verdi scholar Julian Budden describes as “a high flown, sprawling melodrama flamboyantly defiant of the Aristotilian unities, packed with all manner of fantastic and bizarre incident.”
The premiere took place at the Teatro Apollo in Rome on 19 January 1853, where it “began a victorious march throughout the operatic world”, a success due to Verdi’s work over the previous three years. It began with his January 1850 approach to Cammarano with the idea of Il trovatore.
There followed, slowly and with interruptions, the preparation of the libretto, first by Cammarano until his death in mid-1852 and then with the young librettist Leone Emanuele Bardare, which gave the composer the opportunity to propose significant revisions, which were accomplished under his direction. These revisions are seen largely in the expansion of the role of Leonora.
For Verdi, the three years were filled with operatic activity because work on this opera did not proceed while the composer wrote and premiered Rigoletto in Venice in March 1851 and also while his personal affairs limited his activities.
Then, in May 1851, an additional commission was offered by the Venice company after Rigoletto’s success there. Then another came from Paris while he was visiting that city from late 1851 and into March 1852. Therefore, even before the libretto for Il trovatore was ever completed, before the music was written, and before the opera premiered, Verdi had a total of four different operatic projects underway and in various stages of development.
Today, in its Italian version, Trovatore is given very frequently and is a staple of the standard operatic repertoire.
How and when Verdi acquired a copy of the Gutiérrez play is uncertain, but Budden notes that it appears that Giuseppina Strepponi, with whom Verdi had been living in Busseto since September 1849, had translated the play, as evidenced in a letter from her two weeks before the premiere urging him to “hurry up and give OUR Trovatore.
When considering setting Gutiérrez’s play, Verdi turned to work with Cammarano, “the born operatic poet” (according to Budden).
Their correspondence began as early as January 1850, well before Verdi had done anything to develop a libretto with Piave for what later became Rigoletto in Venice. At this time, it was also the first since Oberto that the composer was beginning to prepare an opera with a librettist but without a commission of any kind from an opera house.
In his first letter to Cammarano, Verdi proposed El Trovador as the subject with “two feminine roles. The first, the gypsy, a woman of unusual character after whom I want to name the opera”.
With regard to the chosen librettist’s strength as a poet in preparing verse for opera, Budden also comments that his approach was very traditional, something which began to become clear during the preparation of the libretto and which appears in the correspondence between the two men.
Relationship with Cammarano:
Verdi’s time and energy were spent mostly on finishing Rigoletto, which premiered at La Fenice in Venice in March 1851. Within a matter of weeks, Verdi was expressing his frustration to a mutual friend, de Sanctis, at having no communication from Cammarano. His letter emphasized the that “the bolder he is, the happier it will make me,” although it appears that Cammarano’s reply contained several objections, which Verdi answered on 4 April and, in it, emphasized certain aspects of the plot which were important to him. These included Leonora taking the veil and also the importance of the Azucena/Manrico relationship. He continued by asking whether the librettist liked the drama and emphasized that “the more unusual and bizarre the better”.
Verdi also plainly states that if there were no standard forms – “cavatinas, duets, trios, choruses, finales, etc. [….] and if you could avoid beginning with an opening chorus….” he would be quite happy. Correspondence continued between the two men for the following two months or so, including another letter from the composer of 9 April which included three pages of suggestions. But he also made concessions and expresses his happiness in what he is receiving in the way of verse.
During the period to follow, in spite of his preoccupations but especially after he had begun to overcome them, Verdi had kept in touch with the librettist. In a letter around the time of his intended departure for France, he wrote encouragingly to Cammarano: “I beg you with all my soul to finish this Trovatore as quickly as you possibly can.”
Preoccupations and delays in 1851–1852:
There then arose the question of where the opera would eventually be presented. Verdi had turned down an offer from Naples, but became concerned about the availability of his preferred Azucena, Rita Gabussi-De Bassini. She turned out not to be on the Naples roster, but expressed an interested in the possibility of Rome.
Things were put on hold for several months as Verdi became preoccupied with family matters, which included the illnesses of both his mother (who died in July) and father, the estrangement from his parents with communications conducted only between lawyers, and the administration of his newly acquired property at Sant’Agata (now the Villa Verdi near his hometown of Busseto) where he had established his parents.
But his relationship with his parents, albeit legally severed, as well as Strepponi’s situation living with the composer in an unmarried state continued to preoccupy him, as did the deterioration of his relationship with his father-in-law, Antonio Barezzi.
Finally, in April 1851, agreement was reached with the elder Verdis on the payment of debts mutually owed and the couple were given time to resettle, leaving Sant’Agata for Verdi and Strepponi to occupy for the next fifty years.
May 1851 brought an offer for a new opera from the Venice authorities, and it was followed by an agreement with the Rome Opera company to present Trovatore during the 1852/1853 Carnival season, specifically in January 1853.
By November Verdi and Strepponi left Italy to spend the 1851/52 winter in Paris where he concluded an agreement with the Paris Opéra to write what became Les vêpres siciliennes, his first grand opera, although he had adapted his earlier I Lombardi into Jerusalem for the stage. Including work on Trovatore, other projects consumed him, but a significant event occurred in February when the couple attended a performance of Alexander Dumas fils’s The Lady of the Camellias as result of which Verdi’s biographer, Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, reports that the composer revealed that, after seeing the play, he immediately began to compose music for what would later become La traviata.
The couple returned to Sant’Agata by mid-March 1852 and Verdi immediately began work on Trovatore after a year’s delay.
Death of Cammarano and work with Bardare:
Then, in July 1852, by way of an announcement in a theatrical journal, Verdi received news of Cammarano’s death earlier that month. This was both a professional and a personal blow. The composer learned that Cammarano had completed Manrico’s third-act aria, “Di quella pira” just eight days before his death, but now he turned to De Sanctis to find him another librettist. Leone Emanuele Bardare was a young poet from Naples who was beginning his career; eventually he wrote more than 15 librettos before 1880.
Composer and librettist met in Rome around 20 December 1852 and Verdi began work on both Trovatore and La traviata.
His main aim, having changed his mind about the distribution of characters in the opera, was to enhance the role of Leonora, thus making it “a two-women opera” and he communicated many of these ideas ahead of time via letters to De Sanctis over several months. Leonora now was to have a cantabile for the Miserere as well as retaining “Tacea la Notte” in act 1 with its cabaletta. Changes were also made to Azucena’s “Stride la vampa” and to the Count’s lines. Taking into account the last-minute requirements of the censor and the consequent changes, overall, the revisions and changes enhanced the opera, and the result was that it was a critical and a popular success.
In Italian as Il trovatore
The opera’s immense popularity – albeit a popular successes rather than critical one – came from some 229 productions worldwide in the three years following its premiere on 19 January 1853, is illustrated by the fact that “in Naples, for example, where the opera in its first three years had eleven stagings in six theaters, the performances totaled 190”.
First given in Paris in Italian on 23 December 1854 by the Théâtre-Italien at the Salle Ventadour, the cast included Lodovico Graziani as Manrico and Adelaide Borghi-Mamo as Azucena.
Il trovatore was first performed in the US on 2 May 1855 at the then-recently opened Academy of Music in New York while its UK premiere took place on 10 May 1855 at Covent Garden in London.
As the 20th Century proceeded there was a decline in interest, but Il trovatore saw a revival of interest after Toscanini’s 1902 revivals. From its performance at the Met on 26 October 1883 up until 2010, the company has given it 615 performances.
Today, almost all performances use the Italian version and its popularity is illustrated by appearing at number 20 (with 190 performances) on the Operabase list of the most-performed operas worldwide from the 2008/09 season to the end of the 2012/2013 season.
In French as “Le trouvère”
After the successful presentation of the opera in Italian in Paris, François-Louis Crosnier, director of l’Opéra de Paris, proposed that Verdi revise his opera for the Paris audience as a grand opera, which would include a ballet, to be presented on the stage of the major Paris house. While Verdi was in Paris with Giuseppina Strepponi from late July 1855, working on the completion of Aroldo and beginning to prepare a libretto with Piave for what would become Simon Boccanegra, he encountered some legal difficulties in dealing with Toribio Calzado, the impresario of the Théâtre des Italiens, and, with his contacts with the Opėra, agreed to prepare a French version of Trovatore on 22 September 1855.
A translation of Cammarano’s libretto was made by librettist Émilien Pacini under the title of Le trouvère and it was first performed at La Monnaie in Brussels on 20 May 1856.
There followed the production at the Paris Opera’s Salle Le Peletier on 12 January 1857 after which Verdi returned to Italy. Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie attended the latter performance.
For the French premiere, Verdi made some changes to the score of Le trouvère including the addition of music for the ballet in act 3 which followed the soldiers’ chorus, where gypsies danced to entertain them.
The quality of Verdi’s ballet music has been noted by scholar Charles Osborne: “He could have been the Tchaikovsky of Italian ballet” he states, continuing to praise it as “perfect ballet music”. In addition, he describes the unusual practice of Verdi having woven in themes from the gypsy chorus of act 2, ballet music for opera rarely connecting with the themes of the work.
Several other revisions focused on Azucena’s music, including an extended version of the finale of act 4, to accommodate the role’s singer Adelaide Borghi-Mamo. Some of these changes have even been used in modern performances in Italian.
Rarely given in French, it was presented as part of the 1998 Festival della Valle d’Itria and in 2002 Le trouvère appeared as part of the Sarasota Opera’s “Verdi Cycle” of all the composer’s work.
Place: Biscay and Aragon (Spain)
Time: Fifteenth century.
Act 1: The Duel
Scene 1: The guard room in the castle of Luna (The Palace of Aljafería, Zaragoza, Spain)
Ferrando, the captain of the guards, orders his men to keep watch while Count di Luna wanders restlessly beneath the windows of Leonora, lady-in-waiting to the Princess. Di Luna loves Leonora and is jealous of his successful rival, the troubadour Manrico. In order to keep the guards awake, Ferrando narrates the history of the count (Aria: Di due figli vivea padre beato / “The good Count di Luna lived happily, the father of two sons”): many years ago, a gypsy was wrongfully accused of having bewitched the youngest of the di Luna children; the child had fallen sick and for this the gypsy had been burnt alive as a witch, her protests of innocence ignored. Dying, she had commanded her daughter Azucena to avenge her, which she did by abducting the baby. Although the burnt bones of a child were found in the ashes of the pyre, the father refused to believe in his son’s death; dying, he commanded his firstborn, the new Count di Luna, to seek Azucena.
Scene 2: Garden in the palace of the princess
Leonora confesses her love for Manrico to her confidante, Ines (Tacea la notte placida / “The peaceful night lay silent”… Di tale amor / “A love that words can scarcely describe”). When they have gone, Count di Luna hears the voice of his rival, Manrico, in the distance: (Deserto sulla terra / “Alone upon this earth”). While Leonora in the darkness mistakes the count for her lover, Manrico himself enters the garden, and she rushes to his arms. The count recognises Manrico as his enemy, who has also been condemned to death due to his political affiliations, and challenges him to a duel over their common love. Leonora tries to intervene, but cannot stop them from fighting
(Trio: Di geloso amor sprezzato / “The fire of jealous love” ).
Act 2: The Gypsy Woman
Scene 1: The gypsies’ camp
The gypsies sing the Anvil Chorus: Vedi le fosche notturne / “See! The endless sky casts off her sombre nightly garb…”. Azucena, the daughter of the Gypsy burnt by the count, is still haunted by her duty to avenge her mother (Aria: Stride la vampa / “The flames are roaring!”). The Gypsies break camp while Azucena confesses to Manrico that after stealing the di Luna baby she had intended to burn the count’s little son along with her mother, but overwhelmed by the screams and the gruesome scene of her mother’s execution, she became confused and threw her own child into the flames instead (Aria: Condotta ell’era in ceppi / “They dragged her in bonds”). Manrico realises that he is not the son of Azucena, but loves her as if she were indeed his mother, as she has always been faithful and loving to him. Manrico tells Azucena that he defeated di Luna in their duel, but was held back from killing him by a mysterious power (Duet: Mal reggendo / “He was helpless under my savage attack”). A messenger arrives and reports that Leonora, who believes Manrico dead, is about to enter a convent and take the veil that night. Although Azucena tries to prevent him from leaving in his weak state (Ferma! Son io che parlo a te! / “I must talk to you”), Manrico rushes away to prevent her from carrying out this intent.
Scene 2: In front of the convent
Di Luna and his attendants intend to abduct Leonora and the Count sings of his love for her (Aria: Il balen del suo sorriso / “The light of her smile” … Per me ora fatale / “Fatal hour of my life”). Leonora and the nuns appear in procession, but Manrico prevents di Luna from carrying out his plans and takes Leonora away with him.
The Son of the Gypsy Woman
Scene 1: Di Luna’s camp Di Luna and his army are attacking the fortress where Manrico has taken refuge with Leonora (Chorus: Or co’ dadi ma fra poco / “Now we play at dice”). Ferrando drags in Azucena, who has been captured wandering near the camp. When she hears di Luna’s name, Azucena’s reactions arouse suspicion and Ferrando recognizes her as the murderer of the count’s brother. Azucena cries out to her son Manrico to rescue her and the count realizes that he has the means to flush his enemy out of the fortress. He orders his men to build a pyre and burn Azucena before the walls.
Scene 2: A chamber in the castle Inside the castle, Manrico and Leonora are preparing to be married. She is frightened; the battle with di Luna is imminent and Manrico’s forces are outnumbered. He assures her of his love (Aria, Manrico: Ah sì, ben mio, coll’essere / “Ah, yes, my love, in being yours”), even in the face of death. When news of Azucena’s capture reaches him, he summons his men and desperately prepares to attack (Stretta: Di quella pira l’orrendo foco / “The horrid flames of that pyre”). Leonora faints.
Act 4: The Punishment
Scene 1: Before the dungeon keep
Manrico has failed to free Azucena and has been imprisoned himself. Leonora attempts to free him (Aria: D’amor sull’ali rosee / “On the rosy wings of love”; Chorus & Duet: Miserere / “Lord, thy mercy on this soul”) by begging di Luna for mercy and offers herself in place of her lover. She promises to give herself to the count, but secretly swallows poison from her ring in order to die before di Luna can possess her (Duet: Mira, d’acerbe lagrime / “See the bitter tears I shed”).
Scene 2: In the dungeon
Manrico and Azucena are awaiting their execution. Manrico attempts to soothe Azucena, whose mind wanders to happier days in the mountains (Duet: Ai nostri monti ritorneremo / “Again to our mountains we shall return”). At last the gypsy slumbers. Leonora comes to Manrico and tells him that he is saved, begging him to escape. When he discovers she cannot accompany him, he refuses to leave his prison. He believes Leonora has betrayed him until he realizes that she has taken poison to remain true to him. As she dies in agony in Manrico’s arms she confesses that she prefers to die with him than to marry another (Quartet: Prima che d’altri vivere / “Rather than live as another’s”). The count has heard Leonora’s last words and orders Manrico’s execution. Azucena awakes and tries to stop di Luna. Once Manrico is dead, she cries: Egli era tuo fratello! Sei vendicata, o madre. / “He was your brother… You are avenged, oh mother!”.
More history of the Music:
Today, most opera scholars recognize the expressive musical qualities of Verdi’s writing. However, musicologist Roger Parker begins by noting that “the extreme formalism of the musical language has been seen as serving to concentrate and define the various stages of the drama, above all channeling them into those key confrontations that mark its inexorable progress”.
Here he, like many other writers, notes the elements of musical form (then often described as “closed forms”), which characterize the opera and make it appear to be something of a return to the language of earlier times, “the veritable apotheosis of bel canto with its demands for vocal beauty, agility and range”, in fact, notes Charles Osborne. Thus, the cantabile-cabaletta two part arias, the use of the chorus, etc., which Verdi had originally asked Cammarano to ignore, are clearly evident. But Verdi wanted something else: “the freer the forms he presents me with, the better I shall do” he wrote to the librettist’s friend in March 1851.
It was not what he received from his librettist, but he certainly demonstrated his total mastery over this style. Osborne’s take on ‘Il trovatore is that “it is as though Verdi had decided to do something which he had been perfecting over the years, and to do it so beautifully that he need never to do it again. Formally, it is a step backward after Rigoletto”.
Budden describes one of the musical qualities as the relationship between the “consistent dramatic impetus” of the action being caused by the “propulsive quality” of the music which produces a “sense of continuous forward motion”.
Parker describes it as “sheer musical energy apparent in all the numbers”.
And, as a melodist, Budden demonstrates many examples which show Verdi as “the equal of Bellini”.
Verdi also clearly recognizes the importance of the role of Azucena. Remembering that his initial suggestion to Cammarano was that he wanted to name the opera after her, Budden notes that this character “is the first of a glorious line” and he names Ulrica (from Ballo), Eboli (from Don Carlos), and Amneris (from Aida) as followers in the same vocal range and with the same expressive and distinct qualities which separate them from the other female role in the opera in which they feature. He quotes from a letter which Verdi wrote to Marianna Barbieri-Nini, the soprano who was due to sing the Leonora in Venice after the premiere, and who expressed reservations about her music. Here, Verdi clearly demonstrates the importance of the role of Azucena:
..it’s a principal, the principal role; finer and more dramatic and more original than the other. If I were a prima donna (a fine thing that would be!) I would always rather sing the part of the Gypsy in Il trovatore.
From this position, in an era where vocal registers were less defined, Budden comments on the distinct differences which extend into Leonora’s and Azucena’s music “where greater verbal projection of the lower voice [can be] turned to advantage” and where “the polarity between the two female roles [extends] into every field of comparison.”
He then sums up the musical relationship which exists between the two female characters, the men having simply been defined as being representative of their own voice types, something evident and very striking in Verdi’s significant use of voice types in Ernani of 1844.
Regarding Leonora, Budden describes her music as “mov(ing) in long phrases most characterized by a soaring ‘aspiring’ quality” whereas “Azucena’s melodies evolve in short, often commonplace phrases based on the repetition of short rhythmic patterns”.
Enrico Caruso once said that all it takes for successful performance of Il trovatore is the four greatest singers in the world.
On many different occasions, this opera and its music have been featured in various forms of popular culture and entertainment.
Scenes of comic chaos play out over a performance of Il trovatore in the Marx Brothers’s film, “A Night at the Opera” (With some goofs, of course).
Luchino Visconti used a performance of Il trovatore at La Fenice opera house for the opening sequence of his 1954 film “Senso”. As Manrico sings his battle cry in “Di quella pira”, the performance is interrupted by the answering cries of Italian nationalists in the audience by showering the stalls area below with patriotic leaflets.
In Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, Millicent Marcus proposes that Visconti used this operatic paradigm throughout Senso, with parallels between the opera’s protagonists, Manrico and Leonora, and the film’s protagonists, Ussoni and Livia.
Some “Il Trovatore” images from different opera performances in different years: