Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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The Metropolitan Opera: Il Trovatore in HD
October 3, 2015

It was Verdi’s own idea to write an opera based on a Spanish play called El Trovador by Antonio Garcia Gutiérrez.  Gutiérrez was one of many playwrights who followed in the great Romantic wake of Victor Hugo, and his El Trovador was a resounding success in Spain.  At the time, Verdi had just set Hugo’s drama Le roi s’amuse as Rigoletto and a few years earlier he had made Hugo’s Hernani into the very successful Ernani.  Like many of Hugo’s plays, Gutiérrez’ El Trovador was a sprawling affair, its plot stretching back in time to an earlier generation.  The play’s titular character, the troubadour Don Manrique (the opera’s Manrico), is a typical Romantic hero--rejected, an outsider, and of mysterious background--and he is a leading soldier on one side of the early fifteenth century civil war which forms the background of the play’s broad canvas.  The two bright points in his life are his love for his mother and his love for an aristocratic noblewoman, Eleonora.  Eleonora--Leonora in the opera--is also loved by Manrique’s high-born antagonist and a leader on the other side of the civil war, Don Nuño (the opera’s Count di Luna).

But the figure that intrigued Verdi most in Gutiérrez’ play was the gypsy Azucena, the mother of Manrique.  In looking for an opera house that would host the premiere, Verdi was most concerned with finding a singer for that role who would be effective, and he insisted to his librettist, Salvadore Cammarano, that Azucena was as important a role as the prima donna, Leonora. Azucena fascinated Verdi because, unlike Leonora, who is much more conventional, she was such an unusual character--an unbalanced woman torn between love of her ‘son’ and her desire to avenge her own mother’s gruesome death, burnt alive at the stake years earlier.  The cold hand of her mother reaches out from the past to shadow all the action, and Azucena’s last words in the libretto are “Mother, you are avenged!”

The dramatic ironies in the play must have also fascinated Verdi.  Azucena, thinking to avenge her mother’s death, has thrown her own baby onto the pyre instead of di Luna’s brother.  Manrico sacrifices his happiness with Leonora to save his supposed mother from another pyre (the famous “Di quella pira”), but she is not really his mother at all.  Azucena sends her own beloved ‘son’ to execution by not telling the Count that Manrico is his brother.  Leonora promises the Count her body if he will save Manrico, and he gets her body--dead.  And the Count suffers the final irony when he orders the execution of his own brother; the final words of the opera are his: “Horror...and I still live!”

Cammarano, who was best known for his libretto for Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, created a libretto in the style of that opera, with cavatinas, cabalettas, concerted finales and picturesque choruses.  Leonora’s opening scene (“Tacea la notte placida”--‘The serene night was silent and lovely’) is virtually identical in structure and even words to Lucia’s first scene (“Regnava nel silenzio”--‘[The deep, dark night] reigned in silence’).  Nonetheless, Cammarano managed to condense Gutiérrez’ long and complex play into a manageable opera libretto, a libretto which has been criticized, even ridiculed from almost the beginning.  (Poor Cammarano died before quite finishing it, so it was finished by the young Leone Emmanuele Bardare.)  During the HD transmission, Dolora Zajick (Azucena), amiably repeated an old story about a restaurant in Italy that would give a bottle of expensive wine to anyone who could explain the plot of Il Trovatore

Almost immediately after the extraordinarily successful premiere (in Rome in January, 1853), the parodies began.  Especially rich was the essential plot element that Azucena had accidentally thrown the wrong baby into the fire years before to avenge her own mother.  Best known for us are the parodies in Glibert and Sullivan, who used the switched baby device in no less than two of their operettas.  (Probably, the best preparation for seeing Loveland Opera Theater’s Pirates of Penzance next winter is listening to Trovatore and following the libretto closely.) 

Verdi’s white-hot music has been immensely popular from the start, and it wasn’t long before every barrel organ in Italy was playing the Anvil Chorus, the Miserere and “Di quella pira.”   Sullivan’s famous chorus from Pirates (“With cat-like tread” and “Come, friends who plough the sea”) is a blatant plagiarism of the Anvil Chorus, or perhaps it was just Sullivan’s way of telling us where his musical inspiration was coming from.  (Today we know Sullivan’s tune best as “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s all here”). 


The truth is in that Romantic melodramas like Gutiérrez’ or Hugo’s, plot coherence and logical character development are less important than powerful stage moments which emphasize an emotional truth which is beyond realism.  In setting this kind of drama, meant to give the emotions full reign, the still-young Verdi could not be bettered.  In Trovatore Verdi’s unequalled gift for melody is perfectly allied with a magnificent sense of how to bring that emotional moment to a powerful climax.  It does not much matter whether the audience understands all the details of the plot (although they are all there in Cammarano’s libretto if you care to follow them); the music sweeps us along to emotional climax after climax.


The Met’s HD broadcast of October 3, was magnificent, and more than a simple opera performance, it was an Event with a capital “E.”  The “event” was originally supposed to be Anna Netrebko’s Met debut in the role of Leonora.  But it turned out to be more of a celebration for Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the silken-voiced Count di Luna.  Hvorostovsky had announced in June that he was suffering from a brain tumor and was canceling his engagements to undergo treatment.  That treatment began in London this summer, but the Siberian baritone was well enough to sing at least the first few performances of Trovatore, after which he will return to London for more treatment.  At his first appearance, Mr. Hvorostovsky was greeted with such applause that he broke character, smiled and acknowledged the audience’s accolades.  At the curtain calls, members of the orchestra showered him with white roses.  At the first performance, a few days before the HD broadcast, the roses were evidently a surprise, and reportedly brought the cast members to tears.


trovatoreMr. Hvorostovsky’s illness did not impede his vocal excellence or acting in the least.  His “Il balen del suo sorriso” was a model of beautiful legato singing.  (The aria gives the stock villain a new dimension; the poor guy really loves Leonora.)  I only wish the repeat of his powerful cabaletta, “Per me l’ora fatale” had not been cut.   Manrico, the tenor Yonghoon Lee, was the only one of the principal singers who was not a veteran.  Mr. Lee is a handsome young man with a solid, heroic tenor voice.  The high “C’s” of “Di quella pira” held no fear for him, and he acted pretty well too.  I was only sorry that he did not sing the cabaletta restatement.  Oregon-born, Nevada-raised Dolora Zajick was the real veteran here: she made her debut in the role of Azucena in San Francisco in 1986.  Perhaps Zajick’s voice is not as fresh as it was in 1986, but she has grown in the role.  Her “Strida la vampa” was quiet rather than overly melodramatic as it often is, and her duets with Manrico were great.  Most of all, she now so inhabits the role dramatically that one can only imagine that she would fully satisfy Verdi’s ideas of this complex character.

There are many who habitually disparage Anna Netrebko as “the artist du jour” or with similarly belittling epithets.  I am not one of them.  I have followed her career since she was a very young and beautiful soprano singing Ruslan and Lyudmila at the San Francisco Opera in 1995.  I have watched her triumph in numerous light soprano coloratura roles at the Met, and now in her movement to heavier Verdi roles.  Last year she gave us a thrilling Macbeth, and now this wondrous Trovatore.  She gave a well-nigh perfect rendition of “D’amor sull’ali rosee,” one of the most difficult arias in the standard repertory, complete with perfect trills, thrilling ascents, and a flawless legato.  And then with no time for applause, the chorus launched into the “Miserere”; Netrebko’s part (Quel suon, quelle preci” (“That sound, those prayers”) showed us her newfound, deep chest voice and the strength of her ability as a dramatic soprano.  Her cries of “Di te, di te scordarmi! (“Forget you!  Forget you!) were heart rending.  Finally, Ms. Netrebko favored us not only with the stunning cabaletta, “Tu vedrai che amore in terra” (“You will see that never on earth [was there a stronger love than mine]), which is often cut entirely as it was when Opera Colorado did this opera a few years ago, but she sang the repeat as well, embroidering the iteration as it should be done.  In fact, Ms. Netrebko had enough respect for Verdi (and enough clout as a prima donna) to sing the repeat of the cabaletta “Di tale amor che dirsi” that follows her entrance aria too. Her years as a soprano in the bel canto repertory have uniquely prepared her for these roles, which combine bel canto technique with dramatic soprano heft. 


Marco Armiliato led the Met orchestra and chorus with style and verve.

I found the Met’s production by David McVicar, which is now a few years old, to be serviceable if not truly compelling.  McVicar updates the story to the Peninsular War when Spain fought Napoleon in the early nineteenth century, which does nothing particular to clarify the libretto even if it does it no harm.  (To start with, troubadours belong to the Middle Ages when the opera is supposed to take place and not the nineteenth century.)  Brigitte Reiffenstuel designed the colorful costumes while the concrete slab sets were by Charles Edwards.  (McVicar was inspired by Goya, whose paintings [especially the famous Third of May, 1808] commemorate the horror of that war.)  The lighting (by Jennifer Tipton) was fine, except that I found the dark night when Leonora mistakes the Count for Manrico to be remarkably bright, perhaps for the television cameras.

The seemingly sold-out crowd at the Met were on their feet, and the applause and cheering went on and on.  There was cheering in the Cinemark Theater in Ft. Collins too, and not a few tears.  A performance like this is why we keep going back to the opera.  There is an encore performance on Wednesday evening.

NB: I found droll Susan Graham at this performance to be the best of the Met’s HD hosts so far.  She seemed relaxed and amusing, and not as “canned” as some of the other hosts.

Charles Jernigan


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