Il trovatore

Giuseppe Verdi and Il trovatore

It was while Verdi (1813-1901) was experiencing success with Rigoletto (1850) in Venice that he suggested to librettist Salvatore Cammarano that they collaborate on an operatic version of Gutierrez’s El Trovador. Verdi was always attracted to strange and bizarre characters, and it was the character of the gypsy Azucena that he found particularly intriguing. In many ways Azucena is the female counterpart of Rigoletto, being a character that is driven both by vengeance and filial love. The composer originally hoped that, like Rigoletto before it, Il trovatore would break away from the aria forms and accepted ‘formulas’ of Italian opera in favor of a more realistic, dramatic type of musical theatre.  By the time of its first production however, it evolved into one of the more traditional of Verdi’s scores for the stage.

Other more personal things were going on in Verdi’s life at the time. He and his partner, soprano Giuseppina Strepponi were still living openly as an unmarried couple in Verdi’s small hometown of Busseto where the composer had his farm, Sant’ Agata. This caused a not inconsiderable amount of tension between himself and the villagers, pious Catholics all. The topics tackled in his latest operas (adultery in Stiffelio and rape in Rigoletto) weren’t much help, either. Verdi eventually married Strepponi eight years later, but for a time during the winter of 1851-1852 they lived in Paris in order to avoid the outrage of provincial Italian mores. It was from Paris that Verdi directed Cammarano to find a copy of El Trovador.

Il trovatore was not a commission. Being at this point in his career the best-known and most beloved of Italian opera composers, Verdi had the choice of theatres for a first production of any new work. After flirting with the Teatro San Carlo in Naples he finally settled on the Teatro Apollo in Rome, where the censors were not quite as strict and he was assured of a good cast. But all references to witchcraft and magic spells, mention of the stake (which was identified with the Inquisition and still a very sensitive issue) and all on-stage acts of violence had to be removed as well as any specific religious references.

The premiere of the work took place on January 19, 1853 and it was an immediate success. Very soon afterward it became audiences’ favorite Verdi opera and was heard in hundreds of productions throughout the world. Later in the decade Verdi prepared a version of the opera in French for the Paris Opéra entitled Le trouvère. Paris demanded a ballet, of course (much against the composer’s wishes as he truly detested having to place ballets in his operas), and it was wedged into the score after the opening chorus of Part 3.

An Italian newspaper reflected on the score’s success: “The composer deserved this splendid triumph, for he has here written music in a new style, imbued with Castilian characteristics. The public listened to each number in religious silence, breaking out into applause at every interval, the end of the third Act and the whole of the fourth arousing such enthusiasm that their repetition was demanded.”

An account of the opera’s effect on Rome after the premiere is left us by the soprano Blanche Roosevelt: “Trovatore’s success had been so great, that the morning after the first performance the streets were filled with an immense affluence of people: not only surging to and from the theatre doors, but the crowd was so great that it covered the bridge from one end to the other, whilst the shoutings and echoes were heard across the water even to the very door of the castle. The whole day long the Roman streets…[rang with] ‘Long live Verdi, the greatest composer Italy has ever known!’…If I pay so much attention to Trovatore it is because the airs of this favorite score are as well known throughout the length and breadth of the land as the legendary cradle or nursery song with which we were rocked to sleep in our babyhood.”  

It is interesting to note that Verdi wrote both Il trovatore and La traviata simultaneously. While completing Il trovatore he was communicating with Francesco Maria Piave to write a libretto based on La Dame aux camellias and began writing the Dumas-inspired piece during rehearsals for the former work. (The premiere of the La traviata took place barely two months later, in March, 1853.)  These two operas could not be more different, one dark and extroverted, the other tender and more inward-looking. One is more traditional while the other takes more dramatic chances, experimenting with deeper psychological insights into the characters. It is amazing that these two dissimilar works came from the same pen at virtually the same period of time!

The Libretto and Source of Verdi's Il trovatore

The source for Il trovatore is the Spanish play El Trovador by Antonio García Gutierrez, a great admirer and literary follower of Victor Hugo. Gutierrez wrote the play in 1836, and on the heels of negative reaction to first readings of the work he decided to enlist in the army. But during the time that he was away the actor Antonio Guzmán read it and committed himself to producing the work at a public theatre. Once it was seen on stage it was appreciated as a great play and compared to the works of Calderón and even Shakespeare. Like many 19th century Romantic dramas, the play is a sprawling melodrama that demands that the audience understand and appreciate rich historical detail. In an interesting biographical note, the playwright had to go AWOL from the army in order to see Guzmán’s production of El Trovador. He was greatly embarrassed to be called to the stage after the successful performance, dressed in his army uniform and being in a place where he shouldn’t have been!  (Gutierrez is also the source for Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra.)

El Trovador is a play only a Spaniard could have written. It is filled with strange and bizarre occurrences, not least of which is the story of the gypsy Azucena who, 20 years prior to the curtain going up, threw her own son into a bonfire thinking that it was the son of the villain Count di Luna. Manrique (Manrico in the opera), Eleonora (Leonora in the opera) and the Count are rather stock characters, a standard hero, heroine and antagonist. But their situations and actions set them apart from standard characters: Manrique and the Count are brothers unknown to each other, Azucena plays them against each other for revenge for her baby’s (and her mother’s) death, and Eleonora, a noble woman of high moral standards, loves Manrique so much that as the drama develops she becomes more and more immersed in a life of sin. After she takes the veil in a convent she renounces her religious vows, follows her lover, and in the end commits suicide by poison.

Verdi’s librettist for Il trovatore was Salvatore Cammarano, who had also written the libretti for Alzira, La battaglia di Legnano and Luisa Miller for the composer, as well as Lucia di Lammermoor for Donizetti. It was this librettist’s chore to take the original Spanish play and make it conform to operatic structure.  But Cammarano’s most challenging duty was to create a libretto that would be acceptable to the Neapolitan and, eventually, the Roman censors (Leonora’s leaving the convent to join her lover and then committing suicide would never have been acceptable to the strict censors in Naples or Rome!)  Cammarano also had to be willing to accede to the wishes of a composer known for making extraordinary demands on his librettists.

Cammarano’s language for opera is ‘high’ Italian and he was particularly concerned about how various words and phrases would sound. As a librettist for composers like Donizetti, Pacini and Mercadante, he was well attuned to the bel canto style of musical sensitivity to text and so we can assume that he worked very closely with Verdi in coming up with the definitive text of Il trovatore. Although Verdi pushed him to come up with unusual forms and to experiment with operatic structure in the way that Rigoletto stretched traditional operatic formulas, Cammarano eventually came up with a work that emphasized those same traditional structures: the cavatina, the cabaletta, and the standard ensembles.  So despite the fact that Rigoletto (1850) and La traviata (1853) experiment with standard opera forms, Il trovatore (1853) is a more conventional piece that follows the traditions of mid-19th century Italian opera.

The libretto of this opera is often condemned as being the height of operatic silliness. One of the reasons for this is that Cammarano, in editing the El Trovador for singing on the opera stage, had to leave out much of the political detail that provided background for the play (a civil war in fifteenth century Spain). But the libretto is perfectly understandable if read carefully and is certainly no more outlandish than some of the involved stories found in today’s soap operas and telenovelas.

Cammarano died while finishing the libretto for Il trovatore, and it was left to the Neapolitan Leone Emanuele Bardare to complete. Verdi felt the loss of Cammarano deeply, as evidenced by this note to a friend in July, 1852: “I was thunderstruck by the sad news of Cammarano. I can’t describe the depth of my sorrow. I read of his death not in a letter from a friend but in a stupid theatrical journal. You loved him as much as I did, and will understand the feelings I cannot find words for. Poor Cammarano. What a loss.”  Verdi paid Cammarano’s widow a generous fee after the poet’s death, and ensured with his publisher that Cammarano’s name would be the only one credited in the published score.

The Music of Verdi's Il trovatore

The most obvious thing about the score of Il trovatore is its melodic invention. There are more ‘quotable’ tunes from this Verdi opera than from any other. It is this melodic generosity that propels the drama of the opera. The 19th century music critic Edoard Hanslick said that the characters in Il trovatore seemed to have been shot from a pistol. It is the directness of the composer’s melodies that made Hanslick and all those who encounter the opera feel this way. Consider the opening of Act II where we go from the ‘Anvil Chorus’ of gypsies directly to Azucena’s aria “Stride la vampa”, the narrative aria “Condotta ell’era in ceppi” and then the duet between mother and son. There is a richness of melody in this scene that moves the drama along in an electrifying way and we can find examples of this kind of melodic ‘telescoping’ throughout the opera.

The thing that is perhaps not so obvious to listeners is the interesting way that Verdi establishes musical conflict between the characters in order to parallel their dramatic conflict. Although they never really meet, the greatest conflict is set between Leonora, Manrico’s lover, and Azucena, Manrico’s mother. Julian Budden, the great Verdi scholar, points out that all of Leonora’s music is of an ‘aspiring’ quality, eminently lyrical, featuring long-breathed phrases in the grand tradition of the great bel canto heroines. On the other hand, Azucena’s music is made up of ‘short, commonplace phrases based on the repetition of short rhythmic patterns.’ (The Operas of Verdi, Vol. II, p. 70, Budden)  Even their tonalities conflict: Leonora’s music tends to the key of A-flat major, Azucena the keys of E minor and G major. The other distinction is that Azucena, like Carmen some twenty years later, seems always to be dancing. Many of her more memorable moments find her practically swaying to music in a triple meter but at varying tempi: “Stride la vampa” could be described as a kind of valse triste, “Condotta ell’era in ceppi” as a mordant folk dance with accented downbeat and so forth.

Now although the opera is thoroughly Italian, Verdi wasn’t immune to the fact that the story is placed in 15th century Spain and there are quasi Spanish elements evident in the score. Most obvious is the guitar-like texture and flamenco flavor of the driving rhythm beneath Manrico’s great cabaletta “Di quella pira”. One cannot ignore the exotic turn of phrase over the word ‘terra’ in Manrico’s off-stage troubadour tune in Act I, “Deserto sulla terra”, giving his first utterance in the opera a Moorish tinge. There are also typical ‘gypsy’ touches here and there, like the triangles, cymbals and drums that accompany the Anvil Chorus.

Overall, however, the most striking thing about Il trovatore when comparing it to Verdi’s other middle-period operas, is its tinta: it has an overall darkness that isn’t matched by any other opera until Don Carlo, another Spanish tragedy. Verdi emphasizes the darkness in the story by tipping the orchestral balance to instruments in the lower range or instruments playing in their lower range, and a preponderance of numbers in a minor key. Even the lighter moments (i.e., numbers in a major key) have a weight to them that point to the inexorable tragedy of the drama.

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