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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Verdi Project: Il Trovatore

Sometimes too much popularity can be a bad thing.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Metropolitan Opera does the Anvil Chorus in the David Macvicar production of Il Trovatore.
Image © 2017 The Metropolitan Opera.
There is no opera that needs defending more than Il Trovatore. Verdi's eighteenth opera burst upon thestage at the Teatro Apollo in Rome like a cannon shot in 1853. It was the second of the operas still referred to as Big Three, following Rigoletto and preceding La Traviata and it quickly earned a place as one of his most popular and reliable stage works. It has some of Verdi's best tunes. It was brilliant, terrifying and original. It played everywhere.

And then came the Marx Brothers.

Il Trovatore was chosen by the comics as the opera to send up at the climax of A Night
at the Opera, their 1935 MGM film that had Groucho, Chico and Harpo making mayhem out of melodrama, addingbits of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" to the beginning of Act I, and most memorably having the brothers ruin "Stride la vampa" by mugging with Groucho going "Ooh-boogie-boogie! Oooh boogie-boogie!" from his seat. Trovatore has never quite recovered.

The libretto was adapted from a Spanish play El Trovador (by Antonio García Gutiérrez) by the always reliable Salvatore Cammarano, in what would be his last opera for Verdi.) The story is filled with coincidental and melodramatic situations. In an opening narrative, we learn that a gypsy woman seeking revenge for her mother's death, kidnapped a nobleman's baby, and threw the infant on the smoldering ashes of the stake where her mother had been burned as a witch. Later, we learn that then she accidenatlly killed her own infant son, raising the abducted as her own Manrico, the opera's hero . (He is "the troubador" of the opera's title.) It sounds kind of cliché, huh?

It wasn't clichéd  wasn't when the opera premiered. Il Trovatore was an utterly compelling, original theatrical work, an experiment by Verdi in puting together characters that burst with life and vitality and interact with the sort of fierce clashes that modern audiences expect from an Avengers movie. The opera's four main characters: Manrico, his mother Azucena, his rival Count di Luna and Leonora, the object of both men's affections are two dimensional, clashing together in a series of violent encounters. Leonora is in love with Manrico, and di Luna lusts after her. Both men are soldiers on opposite sides of a civil war that rages through the background of the story, adding to the tension.

At the work's climax, Manrico is about to marry Leonora but learns that his mother has been captured by the enemy. After belting out "Di quella pirra" (most tenors only manages the first stanza) he storms  off to save his mother from being burnt to death. He is captured. Leonora offers herself to di Luna to save him. When he agrees, she takes poison and dies a glorious Verdian death.  A furious di Luna orders Manrico's execition. At the last moment, Azucena tells him "That was your brother!" Horror-struck, his response is "And I still live!" Curtain.

This astounding, inventive and yes, lean score (the four acts clock in at under two and a half hours, even with all the cuts opened and an indulgent conductor) is still thrilling, the 19th century equivalent of a film by Sam Packinpah or maybe Quentin Tarantino. And it takes four really great singers to bring off. Manrico is a high lyric tenor who must be able to sing with power in "Di quella pirra" aria and have the right sound of metal in his voice to hit that big high C. Di Luna is equally challenging, for the singer to show the Count as more than a mustache-twirling villain. Leonora follows the operatic convention of singing high lyric lines that get prettier as the character gets more demented. And Azucena is a plum mezzo role, the beating heart of the opera and a character so obsessed with revenge that it costs the life of the man she raised as a son.

Verdi's Il Trovatore remains one of the most exciting nights you can have at the opera. It is jammed with memorable melodies, from the soprano's introduction "Tacea la notte" to the "Anvil Chorus" which has gypsy laborers banging rhythmically on real anvils. That number is twined together with "Stride la vampa" (Azucena's narrative of the stake.) At the climax of the fourth act comes the "Miserere" scene, where an imprisoned Manrico and a desperate Leonora sing of their love for each other against a relentless orchestral pulse and a background of chanting monks prayong for mercy. That too was borrowed by the Marx Brothers but they didn't make fun of it.

Nobody would.

Recording recommendations:

There are a lot of recordings of Il Trovatore and not all of them are good. Placido Domingo made three. Luciano Pavarotti made two, and both may be ruled out for very different reasons. Jussi Björling, Jose Carreras, Mario del Monacom Franco Corelli....the list of singers who have sung Manrico goes on and on. Leontyne Price has three recordings of Leonora in the catalogue. And conductors love to take this opera on, with results that vary as wildly as the twists and turns of the opera's plot. Here are FIVE safe bets for adding this wonderful opera to your collection.

Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala cond. Tullio Serafin (DG, 1962)
Leonore: Antonietta Stella
Manrico: Carlo Bergonzi
Azucena: Fiorenza Cossotto
Comte di Luna: Ettore Bastinanini
It took me a long time to settle on this particular Trovatore as my "go-to" recording. This one, recorded in Milan in 1962 isn't perfect, but it's likeable, energetic and well sung. Carlo Bergonzi simply hits it out of the park as Manrico. Fiorenza Cossotto is a haunting presence as Azucena, making the most of this complex character. Ettore Bastianini is a dastardly Count Luna with just a hint of humanity.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (DG, 1962)
Leonora: Leontyne Price
Manrico: Franco Corelli
Azucena: Giulietta Simionato
Comte di Luna: Ettore Bastinanini
This is a semi-legendary live performance from 1962, recorded at the Salzburg Festival. It preserves the great Leontyne Price as Leonora. She is perfectly partnered with Franco Corelli, the embodiment of the manly Italian tenor. Both her "Tacea la notte" and his "Di quella pira" embody their respective characters perfectly. Cossotto is a wonderful, haunting Azucena.

London Symphony Orchestra cond. Zubin Mehta (RCA/Sony 1969)
Leonora: Leontyne Price
Manrico: Placido Domingo
Azucena: Fiorenza Cossotto
Comte di Luna: Sherrill Milnes
Forget the (stellar) pair of leads, the real show here is La Cossotto's suffering, passionate Azucena. This is Placido Domingo's first Trovatore on record, and he would better it in years to come. Here, he pairs well with Ms. Price (in studio conditions) and his old sparring partner Sherrill Milnes as the villainous Di Luna.

Chorus and Orchestra of the Academy of St. Cecilia Rome cond. Carlo Maria Giulini (DG, 1984)
Leonora: Rosalind Plowright
Manrico: Placido Domingo
Azucena: Brigitte Fassbander
Comte di Luna: Giorgio Zancanaro

This is a recording that you're going to like if (like me) you're really into conductors. Carlo Maria Giulini takes a detailed and academic approach to Verdi that may not be to everyone's taste but he also conducts a musical and thoroughly involved performance. The sound is bloody terrific, as is Mr. Domingo. Rosalind Plowright is a cool Leonora, but crazy under the surface as the character should be. Brigitte Fassbander brings a pin-point lieder singer's expertise to Azucena, sounding hollow and haunted. Gripping.

London Symphony Orchestra cond. Antonio Pappano (EMI/WBC 2002)
Leonora: Angela Gheorghiu
Manrico: Roberto Alagna
Azucena: Larissa Diadakova
Comte di Luna: Ildebrando d'Arcangelo
Antonio Pappano (he wasn't a knight yet) made a stack of Verdi recordings for EMI with Roberto Alagna. This passionate Trovatore is one of the best, capturing the tenor and his then-wife Angela Gheorghiu with the spitfire chemistry that made their interactions onstage so memorable. Excellent.

Made it through all that content: here's your reward! The Marx Brothers take on Il Trovatore in the climax of A Night at the Opera.

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