By Paul Dorgan
Giuseppe Verdi's eighteenth opera has been variously criticized for its dramatic stupidity and its musical conservatism. Audiences don't seem to be concerned about those critics, for Il Trovatore is one of the regularly recycled scores that help to sell an opera company's season. Enrico Caruso, the great Italian tenor, claimed that all the opera needed to succeed was four of the greatest singers in the world. He spoke truth: if Verdi's vocal demands (and they are considerable) are to be met, an ideal cast must be assembled. But Caruso ignores the visceral reaction we, the audience, have to this music. Which is so exciting that vocal flaws are forgotten. We are one with Di Luna's love in "Il balen"; we love the catchiness of the gypsies "Anvil Chorus" (which was Sir Arthur Sullivan's model for the Pirates' chorus in The Pirates of Penzance, which is probably better known as the tune for "Hail, hail, the gang's all here"); we are roused to fever-pitch by Manrico's "Di quella pira"; we lament with Leonora's "D'amor sull'alli rosee"; and we hang on just about everything Azucena sings; there was a time when her duet with Manrico in the final scene ("Home to our Mountains") was warbled - not to say wobbled, - at every parish fund-raising concert! Retreating further into the past, no barrel-organist's monkey could collect a farthing if "Selections from Trovatore" were not regularly ground out.
Read "Story of Il Trovatore" . The plot of the opera is not as dramatically stupid as many critics would have you believe. They are probably the same guys who consider the plots of Shakespeare's later plays - The Winter's Tale, for example - implausible. And the same guys who scorn any book, play, film, TV series that achieves widespread popularity, simply because it achieved widespread popularity: their rule of thumb seems to be that if a created work is universally popular it cannot be good.
The music of Il Trovatore appears, on its surface, to retreat from the advances of its immediate predecessor, Rigoletto, and to take one small step in a musical Tea Party direction. Its successor, La Traviata, with its "Drinking Song", its arias for the Principal singers, its picturesque choruses for gypsies and matadors at Flora's party, is, actually, far more traditional and conservative. But Traviata takes place in mid-nineteenth-century, high-ish Parisian society, so the music has a corresponding sophistication, and, therefore, sounds more "advanced". Il Trovatore, on the other hand, takes place in early fifteenth-century Spain; civil war is raging; the men of the love-triangle are opponents both in love and in war, while the soprano is politically neutral. The music, if it is to reflect this overall situation, has to be colored, and is, by its bellicose setting. Subtlety is not ranked high on the list of qualifications for military conscripts; decisive directness is.
To us today, who know Aida, Don Carlos, Otello and Falstaff some of the music of Il Trovatore seems obvious, even crude. But, as you will hear, there are also pages of lyrical beauty that Verdi would never again achieve. And there's a subtlety at work which those above-mentioned critics have missed.
Il Trovatore is scored for the standard mid-nineteenth-century Italian Opera House orchestra: 2 Flutes (Second Flute also plays Piccolo); 2 oboes; 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons; 4 horns; 2 trumpets; 3 trombones; 1 cimbasso (a kind of contrabass trombone. Bellini calls for it in Norma; Verdi, having had an instrument-maker design one to produce the sound he wanted, stopped using it after Aida; Puccini used it once, in Le Villi. Google it: there's even a "My Cimbasso" link!); violins; violas, cellos; basses; harp; timpani; bass drum; triangle; 2 on-stage anvils. Off-stage are a bell, a snare drum, a horn and a harp.
A word about them anvils. Certainly 1853 marks their operatic début. Gypsies traditionally were metal-workers, and the anvil was a basic requirement for that kind of work; so too, by the way, was a large and very hot fire. Sixteen years later Richard Wagner, ever needy to be bigger and longer, and, therefore, better, than anyone else, demanded eighteen anvils for Das Rheingold. And not just any old anvils: these had to play specific pitches: a kind of "Anvilic Choir"! Maybe Bayreuth fields the entire team in its productions, but I doubt any other company does. When the first studio recording of Rheingold appeared, DECCA/London bragged about having the full complement. Can you tell? Nah! As in so many instances, the Italian, despised by the Wagners, was ahead of the German. Eat your hertz out, Richard!
There is no Overture. Nor is there a "Prelude", as there was in Rigoletto. The first sound we hear is a rumble from the timpani. Three rumbles, each louder than the last. In 1853 there was no conductor to take his place, to loud applause, at the center of the orchestra pit. There wasn't even a pit: the orchestra was on the same level as those who stood on the ground floor of the auditorium. Theatres then were candle-lit: the notion that they could somehow be dimmed to signal the start of a performance was unknown. Yet here is Verdi foreseeing a time when audiences would be silenced by the extinguishing of auditorium lights, cueing the entrance of the conductor into the pit; his spot-light would allow us to see his down-beat, and we will hear that first rumble. Audiences in Munich in 1869 probably didn't hear much of the one hundred or so bars of the orchestral prelude to Rheingold since they would have been chattering away until the curtain rose. In 1840, Rossini began his overture to La gazza ladra with a loud roll on the snare-drum (much louder than the timpani), which must have grabbed the audience's attention and quieted them down before launching into the movement proper. Verdi, perhaps, is paying tribute to his great predecessor. These timpani rolls, especially as they increase in intensity, establish an atmosphere of suspense and menace.
The full orchestra explodes into a determined downward swoop, spanning two octaves, which is answered by a horn call. Subdued strings respond; another, quieter, horn call, followed by a sort of fugal piling-on by the violins of the first part of the swoop. Ferrando's wake-up call prompts the orchestra to repeat their initial swoop. This is all based on the tonality of E major. Operas, unlike orchestral works, don't concern themselves much with tonality. Mozart's Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte and Le nozze di Figaro do, and Donna Anna in Giovanni seems to live in and around the key of D major. Verdi must have known Mozart's score for here he is, giving his leading ladies their very own tonal areas. Azucena gets E minor (associated with her love for her mother) and its relative major, G (associated with her love for Manrico). Leonora, far more romantic, is given the much warmer Ab major and its relatives. That initial timpani note is E. When Verdi introduced the play to Cammarano he wrote that he would call the opera after the gypsy. She may not be the opera's title, but Azucena dominates the score from its very first note.
Ferrando begins his tale of Garcia in B major, which all you theory buffs out there will know as the dominant of E minor. Spookily he begins the story of the gypsy.
The spookiness returns in the orchestra when Ferrando tells the men that the ghost of the burned witch haunts the palace. They agree and sing of the various forms her spirit takes. The chorus is directed to sing "extremely softly until the coda", while the orchestra is instructed "pppppp throughout until the coda"!! As Ferrando says that the ghost usually appears at midnight, an off-stage bell chimes the hour; the men, scared silly, scarper.
The scene changes to the Palace Gardens where Leonora loiters, hoping her Troubadour will show up. She tells Ines how she first met the Troubadour. Then there is a moment of musical magic. "It was like a golden, fleeting dream", she says. Narrative gives way to poetry, both vocal and orchestral flute and clarinet play arpeggios while the violins gently trill. This leads us to her "home" tonality of Ab major and to an aria that is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Listen to the first verse! Julian Budden, in his chapter on the opera in The Operas of Verdi writes: "For concentration of lyrical poetry "Tacea la notte" is unsurpassed in all Verdi's music, while as a tour de force of melodic craftsmanship it is without parallel anywhere." Leonora is so wrapt in her description of hearing the Troubadour for the first time that there is no break between verses; and the second one is more vocally glorious than the first!
Ines is horrified and terrified (that is the job of operatic Ineses) by the story and urges Leonora to forget her love. You might just as profitably urge Laura Bush to vote Democratic! All of this "busy" music is merely to get to the second part (the cabaletta) of her aria, where she gets to show off the flexibility of her voice, with trills and scales. Cellos pluck away excitedly, while woodwinds can't resist joining in on her exuberant sixteenth-notes! After a final high note she and Ines exit into the Palace.
The gentle night-wind murmurs in the strings as the Count enters, echoing the first words of Leonora's aria. He is convinced that she is still awake and resolves to go to her room. He is stopped by the sound of an off-stage harp: the Troubadour! He sings a melancholy, folk-like song . As it finishes Leonora appears; in the darkness she discerns the figure of a man and runs towards him. She berates him for his long absence. With Manrico's "Traitor!" she realizes her great mistake. And now the musical fun begins! The orchestra begins a theme filled with breathlessness and suppressed excitement. Leonora tries to explain her mistake; the men confront each other; the Count is angered that a condemned rebel would dare approach the Palace, and challenges him to a duel. By now the orchestra has dissolved into a hammering rhythm, with a surging bass line. Leonora begs them to listen to her, but the Count refuses and launches into the final section of the Trio. The tempo increases to "Very Fast"; the strings pulse with anger; oboe, clarinet, bassoon and trumpet join in the Count's jealous rage, directed at his rival. A small example of Verdi's subtle orchestral touch occurs when the Count addresses Leonora: the oboe, clarinet, bassoon and trumpet, which had added a violent edge to his vocal line, drop out, while his line becomes more courteous. His final thought is pitched at the higher end of the baritone vocal range.
ACT TWO introduces a whole new sound world. Woodwinds and strings chatter away in E minor, (Azucena's home key) and are soon joined by a triangle: lots of jingling and jangling - maybe it's the bracelets and earrings of the gypsies! The men greet the dawn, in G major, with a figure the soldiers sang in the opening scene. Work must begin, and while they sing in praise of their women-folk, they start to shape metal on their anvils, in C major. The so-called "Anvil Chorus." Another of Verdi's choruses where everyone sings the melody; this one, though, has no political/Risorgimento subtext.
With no harmonic preparation, the strings begin a vamp in E minor. Azucena, mesmerized by the fire, sings of a burning at the stake. The tune is purposely catchy: we must recognize it on its various returns. It has the same three-beats-in-a-bar rhythm as Ferrando's story about the gypsy in the opening scene, and I'm sure Verdi meant us to connect these vocal dots. Those little vocal flourishes in each phrase manage to sound not only like shudders of horror at having to watch the burning of a woman, but also like the flickering of the flames themselves. Too subtle for those above-mentioned critics?
Azucena ignores the comment that her song is sad. Her "Mi vendica!" ("Avenge me!") will return throughout the evening. What's interesting here is that it is punctuated by chords that recall Rigoletto's memory of the curse placed on him.
Azucena and Manrico are alone. In A minor (a cousin of her E minor home) Azucena describes in detail what her ditty had suggested. Each measure begins with a shudder from the violas, answered by a plaintive cry from the oboe In short phrases - she seems unable to sing more than two measures at a time - she details the horror of seeing her mother burned at the stake. When she tells of the cries of the Count's son, and the effect they had on her, we move to G major. The third of that key, B, is the dominant of her home, and while the strings play her song, a vision of the execution appears and in her delirium she threw an infant into the pyre. The pitch rises as she becomes more hysterical: "I killed my own child!". Exhausted, she sinks back into A minor.
Now follows a chunk of conversation: "Am I not your son?" "Of course". Eventually Manrico, in C major, tells the story of the duel that occurred at the end of Part One. While the ladies are anchored in their own tonal areas, the men are unmoored and tend to drift towards whomever they are talking to. C major is related to Azucena's love-for-her-son key of G major. Her reply, a wonderful example of how a melody can be made out of an ascending and descending scale, while still in C major hints at A minor.
An off-stage horn is heard: a message from Ruiz. Azucena, oblivious to what is happening, hears her mother's words again: Mi vendica. The letter brings news that Leonora, believing Manrico dead, is about to become a nun. His despairing cry wakens Azucena; she tries to stop him in G minor (with a high C thrown in for good measure), but he, in G major, will not stay.
The scene changes to a convent cloister. To furtive pizzicati the Count, Ferrando and the soldiers cautiously enter. A nerve-wracking moment for the baritone, for the aria he is about to sing, Il balen, is justifiably famous and frighteningly difficult. Listening to his words of love for Leonora we hear the human-ness of the Count, and listening to the passion of Verdi's music we understand the depth of his love. Listen to the gorgeous (Budden calls it "velvety) orchestral texture (clarinet arpeggios, pizzicato cellos and basses, sustained violas, and sometimes sustained chords from horns and bassoons) over which the baritone literally sings his heart out.
A church bell is heard, signaling the start of the ceremony. But before it can actually start, musical business must be attended to: the Count has to sing his cabaletta. And I have to admit that here my defense of Il Trovatore collapses. Ferrando and the soldiers (where have they been during the Count's cantabile?) are ordered to hide. They sing about it in a wonderful chorus while the Count sings of his joy at finally abducting Leonora. For sixteen pages they sing about it. "We must hide" they sing, and do nothing about it. This moment was brilliantly satirized in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, where the Policemen sing "Away we go...yes, yes, we go" leading the Major-General finally to vent his frustration with "Yes, but you don't go!"
When everyone is hidden an unaccompanied chorus of nuns is heard welcoming Leonora to the convent, or, as one libretto calls it "a place of retreat"! Their two verses are interwoven with the Count repeating some of his previous words, while his men encourage each other to be brave and daring. The two independent musical strands are combined (Sullivan often used the same technique) to beautiful effect.
The orchestral introduction to ACT THREE suggests that life in a military camp besieging the rebels in Castellor is one of great fun. The opening measures for the full orchestra sound militaristic enough, but soon the sound shifts to something that recalls the opening of Part Two with the gypsies. The tonality explains the connection: C major is one of Azucena's ancillary keys. Some of the soldiers are gambling, some are cleaning swords; reinforcements arrive, and pretty soon we are ready for a unison "Soldiers' Chorus". It starts quietly enough, but soon builds to a thunderous reprise, with the chorus doubled by trumpets and trombones, accompanied by vamping from everyone else. (Musical 21) This is unabashed crudity, unrelieved by any refinement of scoring. But soldiers, who are chomping at the bit to fight and are on the eve of a battle they are convinced they will win, with rich plunder for the taking, are not subtle. This is a chorus rejoicing in its testosterone!
They leave so that the Count can emerge from his tent to soliloquize about Leonora. But he is interrupted by Ferrando's news that a gypsy has been arrested. In C major Azucena is led in. The Count warns her against lying, but takes her into Db - very foreign territory for her; as quickly as she can she moves home. And it is in E minor, with its three-beats-to-a-bar (remember her song in Part Two?) that she begins her sad story of searching for her son; mention of him brings a hint of G major; but singing of her deep love for him takes her to E major and a soaring phrase that reminds us of Leonora, though at a lower pitch. The interrogation continues, and, as Ferrando and the Count press her on the death of the Count's son she becomes increasingly nervous and distressed; violins recall flickers of fire. In desperation, over a C in the bass, she calls on Manrico to save her; continuing the sustained C, the Count realizes that Azucena is the murderer of his brother and the mother of his rival. She realizes who her interrogator is, and unleashes her rage on the Count, who seems to exult more in the fact of his rival's agony on hearing of Azucena's capture, than that he can now revenge his brother's death. The music of the ensuing ensemble brings the scene to an exciting end. The whole scene is a kind of musical tryptich: on the left are the soldiers anticipating their victory in the coming attack; Azucena, with her aria telling of the search for her son, is at the center; while the triumphant Count with his soldiers is the third, right-hand panel. Musically the scene begins in C major (a tonality associated with Azucena) then moves to F major for the Soldiers' Chorus; Azucena sings of the search for her son in her E minor/G major home-key; but we end the scene in the Soldiers' key of F major: Azucena has been captured, not just physically, but musically too! And Verdi's score is "conservative" and "unsubtle"? Wagner never worked at this level of musical subtlety!
We move into the besieged castle of Castellor, to a room near the chapel. Busy strings tell us that the situation is fraught; Manrico admits the danger, but yet entrusts the defence to Ruiz. Cellos and basses shudder the "death" rhythm as Leonora laments the sadness that looms over their marriage. In a cantabile of a lyrical beauty we have not yet heard from him Manrico musically and vocally echoes his lover's Part One aria , and his rival's in Part Two Listen to how the clarinet/horn 3-note upbeats (ti-ti-ti-tum) are taken over by the singer, and then how they combine before his cadenza. Typical of Verdi's careful construction! Musically Manrico sings of his love for Leonora, but his words are not very pre-maritally encouraging: if I die, it will be with your name on my lips!!!
The chapel organ improvises and the shortest love-duet in all of opera begins. Leonora leads off with a vaguely generic text about getting married, echoed by a distracted-sounding Manrico; even when they sing together it doesn't sound at all comfortable. Ruiz interrupts to tell Manrico that a gypsy has been arrested and is shortly to be burned alive at the stake. To Leonora's astonishment he confesses that the woman is his mother, and determines, with the help of his soldiers who, at the mention of their name, instantly appear, to save her. The (in)famous Di quella pira! Scholars tell us that it is historically inaccurate to end an aria on a high note. They may be right. But any tenor who does not end this cabeletta on a high C (or B, if he decides to transpose down a half-step - quite common!) will be booed off any Italian stage.
Night again at the start of ACT FOUR. We are outside a wing of the Aliaferia Palace. We see a tower with iron-barred windows. We understand that the rebellion has failed, and so has Manrico's attempt to save his mother, for Ruiz tells Leonora that all prisoners of state are held in the tower. Bassoons and clarinets establish an eerie sound world. Spooky strings enter when she refers to the ring she wears that contains poison. Her thoughts, and her music, turn to her imprisoned lover. Accompanied by strings she prays that her sighs might rise up to Manrico. Her aria in Part One was filled with the joy of their initial meeting and the ecstasy of her love for him; it was Ab major. Now he's a prisoner, condemned to death, so she sings in the relative F minor. Both arias explore the expressive possibilities of the soprano voice; this one, with its delicate melodic decorations, accompanied by a solo flute, while strings provide harmonic support, has, I think, a greater emotional effect on the listener.
The death-knell chimes, and an off-stage male chorus chant for the soul of the man who will soon die. Dramatically there is no reason for them to be there, unless we are to believe they hang around that area of the Palace on the assumption that an execution is on the daily schedule! The entire orchestra plays the shuddering "death" motif over which Leonora sings of her horror at these sounds of impending death. Manrico and his harp bid farewell to Leonora . Leonora feels she is about to faint. The chant returns; Leonora's horror returns with its shuddering accompaniment; Manrico's farewell returns. The scene is a stunning example of a technique Verdi learned from the Paris Opéra: unconnected characters/groups sing their separate thoughts, and are then brought together to provide an intense climax of vocal mass. Verdi surpassed the French in this kind of scene; eighteen years later, in Aida, he would write the grandest French "Grand Opera", and, at the end of the "Triumphal Scene", combine multiple musical strands into one unsurpassed climax.
What follows is an anti-climax. As the Prima Donna, convention required that Leonora have a cabaletta. Verdi provided it. Cammarano's text is dutiful; the transition to the major is dutiful; the vocal writing, though difficult, is dutiful; and when it's done the audience's applause is dutiful.
"Get on with it!" And on with it we get, with the Count's entrance, ordering beheading for Manrico and the stake for his mother. A touch of guilt, perhaps, when he wonders if he might not be overstepping his authority here. But his love for Leonora is to blame. And where, he sings, is she? "Here!" An excited conversation ensues, ending with the Count's suave phrases as he wonders why he should have mercy for his rival.
Leonora returns to her Ab major home and her phrases rise confidentally as she pleads for the Troubadour's life. After all, she holds all the winning cards. The Count's response, also in Ab, is almost an aside as he wishes he could devise a more cruel death for his rival; oboe and clarinet intensify his melody. Piccolo and flute sing with Leonora, while staccato strings provide an energetic harmonic support. A nervous figure from a flute and first violin in Ab minor stops the Count from leaving. Leonora offers herself to him. The harmonic shift up a half-step sounds seismic. Not only does Leonora offer herself to the Count, but she swears she knows how to keep her promise. As the Count gives silent orders to a guard, Leonora swallows the poison in her ring on a low Db, which resolves to a C, the dominant of F major, her joyful aside that she has saved her lover. Beginning a movement in a minor tonality and ending it in the major is something that Beethoven or Mozart did in their symphonies and sonatas. Yet here is Verdi doing exactly that. Is he trying to turn an operatic scene into a symphonic movement?
The scene changes to a "Horrible prison." The full orchestra intones solemn chords . Azucena is lying on a blanket, Manrico seated beside her. She is unable to sleep, trapped in this prison; she feels death approaching, and we hear it in that shuddering rhythm in the strings. The memory of her mother's execution brings back her song from Part Two. Manrico tries to calm her and encourages her to sleep. In a G major, triple-time, folk-like melody she longs to return to her mountains. Ai nostri monti, a supremely beautiful duet.
Leonora now enters to tell Manrico that she has secured his freedom ; when she refuses to leave with him, and to answer his questions, he suspects some awful bargain. In a furious D major he curses her, while she tries to respond to his accusations. It's a very exciting duet which reaches another level when Azucena turns it into a trio with a reprise of Ai nostri monti.
The tempo changes: Manrico realizes that Leonora is dying. In a slow, rising phrase she tells him she wants to die with him. Notice how the phrase falls down an octave as she feels the pain of the poison. The Count enters and understands Leonora has deceived him. Now we hear another figure that's a typical death motif: Leonora's descending two-note sighings.
Leonora dies and immediately the music turns savage, with slashing chords from strings and winds. Manrico is led out to execution; the Count drags Azucena to the window to see; she reveals Manrico's true identity. With a thrilling high B flat, she declares that her mother has been avenged, and collapses as the curtain quickly falls. Verdi's musical instincts were, as always, right. Slashing Cammarano's original lines may make for questionable dramatic sense, but it makes for unquestionable musical sense. And musical sense is what we, the audience, need from an opera.
Let Julian Budden have the last words. "If it is not the composer's supreme masterpiece it is none the less without parallel in the whole operatic literature [and Budden knew that whole literature!]...It is a valuable reminder that the laws of musical theatre in its widest sense do not have to conform to those of literary 'drama' in order to produce a coherent masterpiece."