06 Oct 2012

Trovatore and Tradition

By the time Verdi began writing operas in the 1830s, the art form of opera had been around for centuries, so people arrived at the theatre with specific expectations. Among the elements generally anticipated were a big chorus scene to open the show, major act-ending finales with lots of people on stage all singing at the same time, and expanded solo moments – arias – that would introduce each major character, each of whom was usually of noble parentage.
The arias themselves were formulaic: the singer would begin with quick talk-singing recitative, followed by an orchestral introduction. The solo itself would generally fall into several musical sections: a slow movement, a transition, and then a quick-paced finale that would show off the singer’s pyrotechnic abilities, particularly if that singer were a soprano. The “musical number” would have a definite ending, which cued the audience to applaud, whistle, scream “brava diva” with delight.
Rossini, whose career immediately preceded Verdi’s, was a master of the pattern, and could, given a strong story, compose an entire opera with all the expected musical numbers, including orchestration, in a matter of weeks. The conventions helped him keep up with the demand for his compositions.
One criticism of Il Trovatore, Giuseppe Verdi’s 18th opera, is that Verdi relied too much on old opera formulas in its construction. The opera immediately preceding this one, Rigoletto, had startled the public with its unusual principal character – a hunchback jester – and with musical scenes through which plot action does not come to a complete standstill as characters explore their emotions in virtuosic music. Ready to see Verdi continue exploring in that direction, many felt that Il Trovatore (The Troubadour) was a step backwards.
As just one example of the opera’s reliance on established structures, Leonora’s first act aria follows the usual pattern for the soprano’s entrance:  recitative first, shared in this instance with the maid Ines, who prompts Leonora’s story-telling. The commencement of Leonora’s aria is marked by an orchestral introduction, followed by the slow section in which she retells how she has heard a troubadour serenading and repeating her name. Ines the handmaid helps in the transition section, and then Leonora lets out all the stops in “De tale amor,” a portrait via melody of a young woman who has just fallen in love. Her scintillating coloratura, full of quick dips and runs and trills, precisely depict her enchantment with the heroic Manrico.
Some critics assign the blame for this kind of traditional structuring on Trovatore’s librettist, Salvator Cammarano, and with reason.  Verdi, in writing to the poet, had instructed, “If…there were neither cavatinas, duets, trios, choruses, finales, etc., and the whole work consisted…of a single number, I should find that all the more right and proper.” But Cammarano was more cautious than the composer and created a script along traditional lines.
Verdi apparently didn’t complain about the libretto, and it wasn’t because he was in any Rossinian rush that this opera score includes many of the usual structures. He was so established as an opera composer that he could dictate what story he would use for an opera, where the premiere would take place, and who the singers would be.  He spent two years composing Trovatore, and chose Rome for the January 1853 premiere, mainly because of the singers available there for his four central roles.
Actually, critics who analyze Il Trovatore as merely conventional are quite mistaken. In many ways, this opera shows Verdi’s continuing confidence to innovate and explore, in his quest to present great theatre in which the music always serves the drama. Many elements in this opera would have drawn attention in the 1850s because they were unusual:

  • There is no formal overture.
  • There is no opening chorus number – the men’s chorus is on stage, but mostly to ask Ferrando to supply the exposition material. Ferrando fills in much of the detail about the history on which the opera plot hinges: twenty years earlier, the Count’s son fell ill, the Count blamed a gypsy woman’s evil eye and had her burned at the stake, but not before she could swear her daughter to avenge her. The daughter stole that son and intended to throw the child on her mother’s pyre, but unwittingly threw her own son instead. The Count found the child’s bones afterward, but wasn’t convinced they were his own son’s.
  • The story includes an opera character perhaps even more unexpected than a hunchback jester:  that gypsy daughter, grown up.  She, like Rigoletto, is a character from the fringes of society, and one who, also like Rigoletto, has both good and evil in one soul. Azucena is sworn to avenge her mother, but also loves the son she has raised as her own.
  • The gypsy is a mezzo!  No Verdi opera had had a mezzo-soprano in a principal role up to this point, though several would follow.
  • Verdi created wonderful ways to characterize Azucena the gypsy by her music: in minor keys, mostly sinister waltzes, with what can be seen as gypsy flourishes in the voice and orchestration.  Even Ferrando, in describing the gypsy, sings with some of her flair.
  • Verdi pulled in daring new instruments to make the gypsy scenes convincing, including the percussive anvil for the famous Anvil Chorus in Act 2.
  • In addition to the mezzo gypsy, Verdi wrote demanding roles for the soprano (Leonora, a lady of the court), tenor (the troubadour Manrico), and baritone (the Count di Luna). Enrico Caruso is reported to have said that all you need for a great Trovatore is the four greatest singers in the world.
  • Verdi wrote several amazing Ensembles that fit no precise formula, especially for Act 4, when the music and drama progress arm-in-arm toward the dramatic conclusion. Listen for the amazing section when Leonora is alone on stage, filled with trepidation marked with gasping figures in both melody and orchestration, while the men’s chorus sings a “Miserere” offstage at the same time that tenor Manrico, also offstage, reprises his love song from Act 1, clueless about Leonora’s impending sacrifice for him.

As often happens, Il Trovatore was popular, despite what critics said about the score. Audiences loved it, and productions immediately commenced at opera houses throughout Italy.  Verdi joked to a friend almost a decade after this opera’s premiere, “When you go to India and to the interior of Africa you’ll hear Trovatore.”
Another sure sign of the way this opera infiltrated people’s consciousness is the extent to which it inspired parodies, Consider the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas whose plots hinge on mistakes with babies, and the musical retreatment of the Anvil Chorus in “With Catlike Tread” from Pirates of Penzance. Even the parodies of Trovatore have had a long life.
Il Trovatore does show evidence of the tradition of opera-making upon which it is built, but it does indeed build on that foundation, with new inventions by one of opera’s great masters. Whether you find yourself recognizing those formulas or not, you will find that the story and music of Il Trovatore offer you an experience of dramatic and musical propulsion.  The energy built into the musical numbers and the emotions of the characters, each devoted to individual passions, create an electric experience you may always remember.