There’s a restaurant in Italy that offers a very expensive wine for free to anyone explaining Il Trovatore’s synopsis unmistakably. Known for its complicated and incoherent story, Il Trovatore still is a loved and frequently staged opera. Member of the ‘popular trilogy’ along with La Traviata and Rigoletto, it’s music will capture you. But let’s first examine the issue with the plot.
The Most Brief & Easy-to-Read Synopsis of Il Trovatore
First act opens with Ferrando explaining a story of the Count to the soldiers. This story is at the heart of the opera; and leads the rest of the narration. So, most of the story is already happened. A gypsy that is believed to bewitch a boy -Count’s brother- end up burning alive at a stake. Her daughter, Azucena, witnessing the events, kidnaps the boy and throw him into fire. Count’s father dies of grief and Count is still seeking revenge of the event.
Giving the background, Leonore who’s the Count is in love with, explains how she loves a troubadour -hence the title- Manrico. When Manioc arrives, the Count obviously get jealous and they duel over her.
Act 2 starts the duel already happened, Manrico defeated the Count but spare his life. Now, he’s in the mountains with his mother, Azucena. She tells the obvious story. But here story has a different ending. Turns out she threw her own son to the fire out of rage and raised the boy -Count’s brother- as her own son. Manrico suspects rightfully his own parentage, but somehow convinced with the excuses Azucena created to defeat his suspicions. Manioc learns that Leonora is about to take the veil, believing him to be dead, goes to her and kidnaps her from Count’s side.
Act 3: While Azucena is searching for her son, captured and taken as prisoner by the Count who recognises her. On the other side, Manrico prepares to be married to Leonora but hears about his mother and goes to save her.
In Act 4, Manrico is defeated and taken prisoner, off stage. Leonora arrives to save her. She offers herself to the Count for Manrico’s freedom. But she drinks a bottle of poison first. Trying to free Manrico, not knowing the poison, Manrico gets angry about the deal she made and refuses to be free. She dies, he gets upset. Count understands her intention, gets angry and sends Manrico to death. Manrico dies off stage. Azucena reveals to the Count that he killed his own brother and she took her revenge.
The main reason for the complications is so much of the story is happening off stage. Most of the action is only told that diminished the believability of the story and keeps us away from the characters. Even Manrico’s death is off stage and we don’t feel anything about it - neither does the music. Count is actually the victom, only bearing his father’s sins and we don’t feel anything for him. His only fault is accepting Leonora’s deal, which was a common thing in operas at that time :)
Manrico, as a title character, doesn’t have a standing point. He doesn’t insist too get to the bottom of the story. He only concerns about Leonora. But why he didn’t send her a letter after the duel ? He was serenading her before but now after a duel he made for her, he just returns home long enough for Leonora to take action? Doesn’t add up really.
Manrico, Azucera and the Count is related by their past. Leonora is an outside character that has no dept in the story. Up until her sacrifice at the end, audience is distanced to her. Her wonderful arias compensate for that absence.
The main problem for me is this; is Azucera really loved Manrico as a son, and out of grief of his death, reveals the truth to the Count to make him suffer too or she get arrested on purpose and this was her plan all along to get revenge by the death of Manrico? It should be the first one. But we know that Verdi initially want to name opera after Azucera and the second suggestion was the direction he wanted to pursue.
This is not a Verdi & Piave piece, and yes, you can tell. Verdi couldn’t get his wishes done as easily as he does with Piave while collaborating with Cammarano. He didn’t want any standard forms (opening with chorus, cabalettas etc) and want the story to be bizarre and unusual as possible. Cammarano died before completing the text and Barware finished the text.
Let’s get to the reason this opera captures the hearts even with these problems. Verdi couldn’t get what he desire from the librettist about the standard forms to be freer. However, he also showed how he mastered these cantabile-cabaletta forms. Here is few notable moments from the opera:
Stride la vampa.
Azucera states she should revenge her mother.
Condotta ell'era in ceppi
Azucera tells how she threw her own child to the flames.
Il balen del suo sorriso. Per me ora fatale.
Count di Luna signs his love for Leonora.
Ah si, ben mio coll’essere. Di Quella Pira.
Manrico states her love for Leonore before their wedding. In cabaletta, he learns her mother being captive and prepares for a fight.
D'amor sull'ali rosee. Miserere.
The peak moment of the whole piece. Leonora begs for mercy to free Mancino and offer herself for his freedom. This recording belongs to famous Turkish soprano, Leyla Gencer. It’a an old recording, but please bare with it. See how she made high notes very piano and see how dirty her voice is, how she felt the character…
Udisti… Mira, di acerbe lagrime… Vivrà! Contende il giubilo
Count di Luna and Leonora made a deal, but she drinks a poison to kill herself.
Staging is always essential but if there are issues with libretto, it’s director’s job to make it more believable. So I have many expectations from Il Trovatore staging to conceal all my concerns about the story somehow.
Let’s follow the Met Opera’s 2015 production by David McVicar. With a starry cast of Anna Netrebko, Yonghoon Lee and Dimitri Hvorovstosky. Setting is very dark, there’s a burnt woman poses like a Jesus on cross, black trees and grey castle wall with stairs. The turning two different setting separated with the stairs is very effective. Also I love the connection that it give to a non-connected story. It showed the other perspective for us; the same story sharing a wall but different. Grey/black colours turn into yellow scheme, as it is always warm colours when it comes to Gypsies.
The only problem I have with this staging is the ending. At the end, Manrico is prison alongside of his mother. Azacure signs an aria with Manrico about freedom, than falls asleep. Leonora comes, they fight and she’s still sleeping. After she wakes up, she just stood at the background. Somehow it would be better if she realises the events right before Count orders Manrico’s death. Otherwise, we should wonder why she didn’t reveal his true identity to stop the Count.