One of opera's most comical and telling facts was that Giuseppe Verdi was poised at the height of his middle period -- between "Rigoletto" and "La Traviata" -- to first tackle nothing less than "King Lear," until finally deciding on "Il Trovatore" (The Troubadour).
Could any two themes be less alike?
There is another wonderful contradiction in all of this. If nothing could tempt a composer more toward "music drama" than Shakespeare, then nothing is more a vindication of opera as opera than the one-time infamous "Il Trovatore." The opera was overwhelmingly popular with the public since its’ premiere in 1853 of the well-known Italian version (and loathed by those embarrassed by its plot).
It is filled with some of the most preposterous of dramatic motives, one being a child kidnapped by gypsies with shamelessly melodramatic flair; there are not one, but two burning pyres, threats of suicide, filial confusions, false parentage, insolent vagabonds, and haughty aristocrats. All of this magnificent nonsense is paired with some of Verdi’s most memorable music, including "Vedi le fosche," the Anvil Chorus.
It's no wonder that the Marx Brothers used "Il Trovatore" as the basis for their comedy "A Night at the Opera." However, there are also some of the most cherished, delicate and dramatic of arias; for tenors "Di quella pira" (The horrible blaze of that pyre burns), which featured in the great annals of recordings the likes of Jussi Bjoerling, Franco Corelli and later Placido Domingo, for soprano, the roaring "D’amor sulli ali rosee," which was recorded by Maria Callas, Rosa Ponselle and, of course, Leontyne Price, with her husky undertone that has brought down many a house all over the world.
The general plot is this:
Two men of different classes, Manrico and the Count di Luna, vie for a single woman, Leonora. She begins as a literal captive in the aristocrat’s house, and throughout the opera is found, lost, then recovered again by her lover, Manrico. Di Luna is bent on a blood feud, which was handed down from his father. He is sent on a life-long quest to find and kill the gypsy, Azucena, who is charged with the murder of the Count’s infant brother. In between battles, fantastic ensembles and arias we move from castles to battle camps, to a monastery, a prison and finally a horrific scene of execution gone terribly wrong.
And those are just the highlights! People wonder why we love opera. It is at once insane and irresistible. It requires no grand theory, only an open heart and an ear for beauty.
This Saturday on Metropolitan Opera
To the illustrious singers listed above, the Met adds in this Verdi anniversary year (1813-2013) Patricia Racette as Leonora, Stephanie Blythe as Azucena, Marco Berti as Manrico and Alexey Markov as the Count di Luna.
This irresistible fusion of the Arts starts this Saturday at noon on KPAC and KTXI for the Metropolitan Opera performance of one of music’s most beloved and glorious of guilty pleasures, Verdi’s "Il Trovatore."
- For more on this performance of "Il Trovatore" go online to: www.metoperafamily.org