Verdi’s Il Trovatore is the transcendental Italian opera of the first half of the 19th century. It is the culmination of that style of operatic writing introduced by Rossini and further advanced by Bellini, and most importantly for Verdi’s development Donizetti. That Verdi was moving in a new direction was shown by Rigoletto (1851). That opera was without precedent in Italian opera. It clearly indicated where Verdi would go over the next 40 years of his extraordinary career. Il Trovatore was a look back. In style and construction it is like any other opera written by any of Verdi’s Italian contemporaries. In inspiration it is in another universe.
Verdi wrote this opera at the exact same time that he was writing La Traviata. He would go from one score to the other. The two operas were premiered just six weeks apart in 1853. Traviata was as forward looking as Trovatore was a last effort with the old style of composing. It’s therefore no surprise that the latter was an immediate and spectacular success while the former was a flop. It took revision and some time for Traviata to succeed. It is almost impossible to understand that the same composer could be simultaneously be working on two operas which are so different. And that he could produce a supreme masterpiece with both.
Much has been made over Trovatore’s incredible libretto. A little analysis shows that it’s not so incredible after all. It’s about the id gone wild just as its sister Traviata is about the triumph of the superego. Every one of the four principals of Trovatore is a slave to his emotions. No one is capable of self restraint. Each must act at the extremes of behavior whenever confronted by the slightest event that stresses his emotions. This is the most operatic opera ever written. The music reflects these swings in emotions with what may well be the most inspired score ever written for the stage. The melodic beauty and raw dramatic thrust of Il Trovatore are without equal in opera. It has been called “The Via Crucis of Italian song.” One might just as well say it is Italian opera. Trovatore was the final word on the Italian opera that had proceeded it. After it Verdi would gradually take the art down a new path that only he trod.
Verdi toyed with the idea of calling this opera The Gypsy indicating how central Azucena is to the plot. This is the lady who tosses the wrong baby into the fire much to the delight of a host of second rate British satirists. But we can’t even be sure that she did burn the wrong baby as we only have her word for it and she’s totally insane.
The other female lead, Leonora, kills herself rather than submit to the sexual demands of the baritone. But in the first act she runs towards him and then gives the excuse that she thought he was the tenor. Freud must have loved this opera. The tenor is a fallen Spanish grandee whose pride is cosmic and who spends the entire opera trying in succession to rescue his lover, then his mother, and then his lover again. The end result of all this tumult is that the lovers end up dead.
The baritone, the Count Di Luna, is the most interesting of the four. He is consumed with desire and sexual jealousy. Everything he does increases his frustration. The woman whom he loves beyond sanity kills herself rather than be with him. And if this weren’t enough the opera ends with him thinking he has just beheaded his brother. And perhaps he has. He also gets to sing like an angel. His aria ‘Il balen’ is perhaps the most beautiful ever written for a baritone and is a supreme test for any baritone who attempts to sing it. George Bernard Shaw in his incarnation as a music critic wrote that the Count should never sit down. This injunction against repose results from the torrid agitation that possess the Count.
The title character, Manrico, is the hardest of the four to cast. I have never heard a tenor in performance who had all the part requires. On recordings Jussi Björling was ideal, but though he did sing the role at the Met his voice was a little too small for him to be ideal in a house as large as either the old or new Met.
The standard for Leonora was set more than 50 years ago by Zinka Milanov. No one since has come close. Similarly her coeval Leonard Warren was the ideal Count. Dolora Zajick, the Azucena of the current production, has been just as good as the gypsy Azucena as it’s possible to be for more than 20 years.
The production of Il Trovatore that was presented in HD format today is a revival of that originally mounted at the Met in 2009 with the same four principals. It was the 625th time that the company has staged this seminal opera. Marcelo Álvarez does a workmanlike job as Manrico, but he’s not going to conjure the shade of Jussi Björling. His lovely lyric voice has coarsened such that the lyric moments of his role escape him. ‘Ah! si, ben mio’ lacked legato as well as the two trills often omitted by tenors- Richard Tucker was the only tenor I heard in performance who hit them square on. ‘Di quella pira’ was transposed down a half step as is customary. For some reason Álvarez omitted the second ‘All’armi!’ of the three that conclude the stretta.
Sondra Radvanovsky, as Leonora, had her voice under better control than she did two years ago, but her sound was a little more shrill. Nevertheless she was quite good. She managed ‘D’amor sul’alli rosee’, the supreme test for a Verdi soprano, with sensitivity and a smooth line. On the ZM scale it was about a 7.5. She lacks the rich velvet sound needed for the heavy Verdi soprano roles.
Dolora Zajick, despite her 59 years, is still the best Verdi mezzo around. Her voice was firm, focused, and powerful. She projected the full force of the demented gypsy out for blood and vengeance. She sounded better than she did two years ago. Remarkable!
Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who was disappointing as the Count in 2009 was in spectacular form this afternoon. His voice was refulgent, his top notes ringing, and his vocal line nuanced. His reading of ‘Il balen’ was followed by a deserved ovation. His characterization of the eros possessed nobleman was as good as his singing. He didn’t sit down. A great performance.
Bass Stefan Kocán showed a rich lyric voice and acted his part convincingly. The compirmario roles were all well handled. Marco Armiliato conducted with vigor and passion.
David McVicar’s staging moved the opera forward a few centuries, but this had little effect on the production’s effectiveness. He used a set on a turntable that allowed the scene changes to flow from one to the next without lowering the curtain. Doing the four act opera with only one intermission improved the overall impact of the piece.
In summary an excellent performance of an opera which makes almost impossible demands on its principals.
Giuseppe Verdi–Salvatore Cammarano
Count Di Luna………..Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Set Designer…………Charles Edwards
Costume Designer……..Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designer…….Jennifer Tipton
Stage Director……….Paula Williams