Thursday, September 29, 2011

Il Trovatore: Symmetry & Polarity

[What follows is a critical or academic essay on Il Trovatore. Readers unfamiliar with the opera and its plot can find summaries online at sites like "Production notebook" entries are below this one, discussing some of the aspects of our new production.]

Il Trovatore: Symmetry & Polarity

El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (Goya)

I have borrowed Pierluigi Petrobelli’s epigram from his illuminating essay on Il Trovatore collected in Music in the Theatre: Essays on Verdi and Other Composers (Princeton, 1994).

Like many devotees of Verdi’s melodramatic middle-period masterpiece, I am in love with Trovatore for the searing power of its music, and the archetypal force of its quartet of principal characters. If its characters appear at times monstrous, if its bizarre plot blurs the boundaries of the reasonable, so be it. Verdi’s music always trumps. It is grounded in the sure-footed technique of a master and it is visionary as any dream.

Julian Budden’s The Operas of Verdi (Volume 2; Clarendon, 1978, 1992) is generous with excerpts from Verdi’s letters and full of prose vivid and apt as its musical subject. Trovatore charred the landscape of 19th century musical theatre, leaving it “burned up in the white-hot heat of a dramatic force Italian Opera had not yet known.” Here was a work “without parallel in the whole operatic literature – a late flowering of the Italian romantic tradition possible only to one who had seen beyond it.”

Budden says Verdi’s impressive oak of an opera is “melodrama purged of all inessentials.” The most successful of Verdi’s works at the time, it was a work that fit its time even as its anachronisms challenged trends and critics. “The nineteenth century was an age of moral confidence and certainty which found its ideals mirrored in an opera in which no one hesitates for one moment as to what action he or she should take.” Regardless of the implications of that claim, such mirroring resonance may be part of the reason it has returned with a vengeance over the last 50 years. It is worth noting two great singers of the 20th century, the Italian tenor Franco Corelli and the African-American soprano Leontyne Price both made their Met debuts in Il Trovatore – debuts which were greeted with a 42-minute standing ovation in 1961. Is such a curtain call still imaginable?

is a romantic melodrama and contemporary classic at once. Its force is elemental for its directness. It contains some of the most beloved arias and ensembles of its prolific composer’s career. The “Anvil” and “Soldier” choruses are among Verdi’s most famous. And Trovatore is his most pilloried. If imitation is the highest form of flattery then Trovatore is the most favored opera in the Verdi cannon. Parody is always - at some level - a form of envy.

And Trovatore was a target for parody, from the “barrel-organ” & “organ-grinder” labels affixed by critics to those popular choruses and the farcical plot device of the baby-swap “stolen” by Gilbert & Sullivan. The Marx Brothers’ classic film, A Night at the Opera depends upon the broad-side-of-the-barn-sized target of Il Trovatore. From their hilariously seamless insertion of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” into the opera’s Introduzione to the mad-cap up-staging of the tenor’s heroic aria near the climax of the opera (and the film), the Marx Brothers have as much fun as any of the comics & critics in the century following the opera’s 1853 premiere.

Yet its staying power is synonymous with Verdi’s, whose “secret…lies as deep as Wagner’s, and is much less obvious.” Speaking of Verdi’s “Opus Ultimum” Falstaff, the musicologist Alfred Einstein uses the supremely intelligent comedy of Verdi’s twilight to assert “the master who could create such an opera did not write Trovatore as mere hand organ music.”

Il Trovatore is a keen example of sharply etched musical architecture. Impressive in stature, the score is a bold union of form and content. Its four parts create a symmetry whose “structure…helps to concentrate the emotional fire” (Budden) of its four principal characters, and the two interlocking triangles of relationships at its molten core. Four principals and four acts. Two lovers at the common angle of two triangles anything but equilateral. Mirroring symmetries. Polar extremes. A bold palette. Here is the palette our design team chose for our new production:

Other Verdi characters are genuinely Shakespearean for their complex and sympathetic humanity. And like the Bard, Verdi creates villains as interesting and engaging as his protagonists. Iago is vital and central as Otello. Yet Azucena, Leonora, Manrico and Di Luna are more classically Greek than Shakespearean. They are archetypes, neither Shakespearean nor Verismo.

And the classical parallels begin at the beginning. Rather than a narrative prologue to introduce the drama a la Greek chorus, Verdi (dispensing with an overture to cut immediately to action) assigns the narrative to a supporting principal figure. The Captain of the Count’s guard, Ferrando narrates the melodramatic back-story, functioning as a choral prologue with the chorus of soldiers as his audience.

That back-story concerns machinations worthy of Greek tragedy. At a recent chorus rehearsal I described the revenge drama’s bizarre plot. Here’s the Met summary of the opening:

Ferrando, captain of the guard, keeps his men awake by telling them of a Gypsy woman burned at the stake years ago for bewitching Di Luna's younger brother. The Gypsy's daughter sought vengeance by kidnapping the child and, so the story goes, burning him at the very stake where her mother died.

We know Azucena murdered her own child by mistake, and consequently raised her enemy’s son as her own (Manrico). Manrico is torn between love for his (supposed) mother Azucena and his beloved Leonora. Leonora is torn between her secret love for Manrico and duty (to faith and family). Azucena is torn between love of her adopted son and the desire to avenge her mother’s execution. The mistaken identities, blurred boundaries and complex relationships - fraught with tension and ambiguity – are worthy of the moniker "Oedipal." One of my adult choristers commented on that parallel immediately. If that doesn’t help us unbend the twisted storylines, the Greek plays, equally full of melodramatic fantasy, are also the original psychological dramas. Our focus on special effects, the graphic (though not gratuitous) external details often obscure the inner truths and deeper meanings of our dramas (on stage & screen). As the director Peter Sellars observes, our audiences might comment on the “how” or “what” of Oedipus poking out his eyes; the ancient Greeks would plumb beneath the surface to ask “why?”

I’m not sure if Petrobelli had a particular canvas in mind in including the Goya epigram above, but I recall the famously disturbing one by the visionary Spanish painter depicting the mythical horror scene of Saturn Devouring his Son. I think of Trovatore, and I ask myself "why?"

Before we return to Trovatore, please allow another classical digression. The names Agamemnon & Aegisthus should be familiar from the Trojan War, and opera lovers will recognize them as characters from Glück and Strauss. In the latter’s Elektra, the title character’s brother Orestes returns from exile to avenge their father Agamemnon, murdered at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. Euripides and his fellow Greek tragedians were our first psychiatrists, and these plays, poems and stories chronicle (among other things) dysfunction. One of the principal reasons the Greeks wrote trilogies was to trace a set of “issues” through three generations of a family. And this family sure had their share.

The enemies Agamemnon and Aegisthus were the respective offspring of a prototypical pair of brothers-as-enemies, Atreus & Thyestes. Like the Biblical Jacob deceiving Esau out of his birthright, the Greek brothers fought over a “golden lamb, talisman of sovereignty” of their father, Pelops (himself both victim and perpetrator in the cruel games of fate played by the gods). Roberto Calasso, in his marvelous panorama of the Greek myths, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony says Atreus and Thyestes were “both afflicted by the curse of their father, Pelops, which echoed and renewed the curses…[beginning with] Zeus on Tantalus.”

Fighting over a talisman (which can be any coveted prize, title or trophy - and may be a person) Atreus murders Thyestes' children and feeds them to him. And this is just one extreme in a terrible and fascinating tale of obsession and revenge off the charts.

After this gruesome episode of infanticide & cannibalism, Calasso notes “from this point on the vendetta loses all touch with psychology, becomes pure virtuosity, traces out arabesques…” Tracing back to Il Trovatore, we find pure virtuosity in spades, and vendettas all around.

Vendetta is one of those great cognate words appearing often in Verdi and requiring no supertitle to be understood. In a gripping duet near the conclusion of Trovatore, Leonora invokes the name of God for mercy from the Count – who is about to execute her lover Manrico - his mortal enemy and (unbeknownst to both) brother. With exceptional baritonal vehemence, Di Luna replies E’ sol vendetta mio Nume (“My only God is vengeance”). The pith in that phrase epitomizes Trovatore’s undiluted strength at its purest.

Every scene in Trovatore is compact. The concentration of material and the musical (and dramatic) compression focuses the power of the music’s impact. Its nearly relentless perpetual motion sets the few moments of repose in even sharper relief, heightening the sheer beauty of the lyrical cavatinas of Leonora and Manrico. The playwright and opera connoisseur George Bernard Shaw praised the opera’s “tragic power, poignant melancholy, impetuous vigour and a sweet and intense pathos that never loses its dignity.”

These qualities should be kept in mind when listening to the popular choruses so easily dismissed as over-simple kitsch. Polarities imply extremes. And theatrical extremes– from the archetypal characters to the over-the-top melodrama – require extremely effective solutions where form and content meet in drama.

The so-called “barrel organ” music is an example of extreme directness and forthright simplicity whose functionality is as perfectly suited to the personae and setting as every other element in this elementally powerful opera. Like soldiers playing games, horsing around or singing a popular song together before the storm of battle, such moments in the opera are a release valve – if only for a minute – of the incredible musical and dramatic tension which makes Il Trovatore one of the most gripping operas ever composed.


  1. I am so excited to be able to participate, even just in a small way, in this very evocative and powerful opera. Some of the best music is that which many people may not even be very familiar with--you will not want to miss it!

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