Murder, vengeance, witchcraft, red-hot romance, and deadly obsession. It wouldn't be opera without a little drama. This week we wind back the clock to our 2011 Festival and director David Lefkowich's glorious production of Verdi's fiery classic, Il Trovatore. Soprano Marjorie Owens and tenor Dongwon Shin starred as doomed lovers caught up in a tangled web of passion, deceit, and dark family secrets.
II Trovatore is about emotion - raw, irrational emotion. The story line has been criticized as incoherent and unruly, but it serves only as a skeleton for the masterfully written music. The characters in II Trovatore are ruled by their passions, which don't always follow a logical path, and Verdi focuses on the moments of high drama within the story to create emotional snapshots. In this case, he was much more interested in drawing out an audience's feelings than giving it a neatly packaged tale. To that end, the inconsistencies in the story matter very little. Instead, the opera paints a picture, a very vivid one, of people wrestling with conflicting emotions of love and hate of jealousy and revenge.
VERDI'S BIG THREE
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) wrote 28 operas, and roughly a dozen of those operas make up the backbone of what is now standard operatic repertoire, securing him as the most important composer of Italian opera in the nineteenth century. In the early 1850s, he gave the world in rapid succession the three operas that would be recognized as his masterpieces: Rigoletto, II Trovatore, and La Traviata.
By this time,Verdi had acquired enough fame and fortune that he could compose
what he wanted without relying on a commission. He had the freedom to choose his subject and begin composing before securing the theater to premiere his opera. His early success as a composer gained him entrance to the highest social and artistic circles, and in the 1840s, through connections within these circles, Verdi was exposed to a wider scope of literature than he had previously known, including works by both French and Spanish writers. He was an avid reader, seeking any story line that would make an opera worth his time. Being of a dark nature, he was naturally drawn to gloomy and violent subjects, but this trait often put him at odds with censors from the church who also kept close rein on any political overtones in the librettos.
He began work on Rigoletto (after the Venetian censors eviscerated his previous opera Stiffelio on religious grounds) absolutely determined to produce a worthy operatic version of Victor Hugo's Le roi s'amuse - a play so shocking it was banned even in a much more liberal Paris. Verdi's librettist for Rigoletto, working closely with the censors and the composer, managed to tone down the political implications while keeping the macabre tone and subject in place, though not without many hard-won arguments. At the same time though, Verdi was already searching for his next subject. When he read the Spaniard Antonio Garcia Gutierrez 's play El trovador. he found in it not only a perfect companion piece to Rigoletto, but also the strong emotional and dramatic situation that he needed for inspiration. So, less than a month before Rigoletto opened in Venice, Verdi had already contacted another librettist, Salvadore Cammarano, asking for him to begin condensing Gutierrez's play into a suitable libretto.
Art in the romantic era had a quality of darkness to it. It's truly no surprise that when Verdi discovered El trovador, it resonated with his own morbid emotional sentiments. Prior to the nineteenth century, during the Age of Enlightenment, rationality and logic were seen as the highest virtues, but by Verdi's time, artists were reacting against such thoughts and going to the other extreme. Romantic artists instead focused on strong emotional responses, prizing feelings over thoughts, striving to find ways to elicit pure natural, primitive emotion. As such, nature itself, due to its mysterious ways, always has a place in romantic art.
The theme of nature actually takes on a deep meaning in II Trovatore. A good portion of the opera takes place outside, most of the first half in fact, and the characters' purest emotions are expressed out-of-doors: Leonora's blossoming love for Manrico, Count di Luna's unrequited love for Leonora and hatred for Manrico, and Azucena's drive for vengeance but also motherly love for Manrico, all of which are shared outside in nature. Verdi very cleverly paired the idea of being outside with expressive freedom from the very opening of the opera, so then by the end, when the action moves indoors, and not merely inside but into a prison, that is when the audience sees Count di Luna's absolute descent into inhuman cruelty. He has become trapped by his circumstances at the same time he has trapped his enemies in prison.
Romantic artists were fascinated with the idea of man vs. nature or man vs. fate or man vs. anything. The struggle of the individual against society or man-made systems and rules, that too, was a very common theme throughout the era, yet it is important to recognize that the romantic artists were never interested in offering a solution to man's struggle. They only wanted to draw out the heart-wringing emotions of watching people crushed under the weight of circumstances beyond control.
TELL ME AGAIN - WHICH BABY WAS BURNED?
If a lesser composer than Verdi had attempted to explore the emotional depths of this story through music, it would have come out as a muddied wall of sound with no forward momentum or direction. For Rigoletto, the composer had broken away from the traditional structure of opera at the time, and he was praised for it. Yet for II Trovatore, Verdi chose instead to contain the opera in a meticulously crafted formal structure, returning to long held rules of opera composition . While Verdi was criticized for stepping back from the innovations he introduced in Rigoletto, the fact is the story of II Trovatore is cumbersome and the only way an audience could take this emotional journey is if they could relax into an operatic format that they already knew intimately.
One of the ways that II Trovatore differs significantly from other operas is that the story line is not exactly in a line.When the curtain rises, we are already in the middle of the story, which in and of itself is not all that unusual in opera, but the way Verdi hastens into the opening without a formal overture, using muted horn calls and drum rolls, it launches the audience into a tale already in motion. Then the audience hears the burned baby story for the first, but not for the last, time.
Again, most operas have a single story line on which everyone agrees. It's not so with II Trovatore. For one example, the audience hears two very different takes on Azucena's mother and the death of a baby boy. When Count di Luna's officer Ferrando first begins to tell the tale, Verdi colors his vocal line with the darker sounds of clarinets and bassoons, setting an eerie tone. The first part is completely narrative, so the audience can understand not only his words but also the great importance of this event to the rest of the opera. Ferrando then moves into a much more expressive section where he begins to talk about the gypsy herself. The rhythm goes into a triple meter and shifts into a minor key as Ferrando begins to give into his feelings of terror towards this evil witch who cursed the infant son of the older Count di Luna. The third part of the scene includes Ferrando's fear infecting the rest of the soldiers, whose shared dread can be heard in their unison singing, while the orchestra's music darts about like visions of ghosts. Then just as the suspense becomes unbearable, it explodes in a moment of sheer panic and the audience is swiftly whisked away to a completely different emotional experience - Leonora's budding love.
The second time we hear the story, it is from the viewpoint of someone who was there -Azucena -the now much older daughter of the burned gypsy and the mother of the burned baby. In perfect symmetry,Verdi opens the second scene as he opened the first, with one character telling the story, which has now become legendary, to a group of like-minded people. However, the audience's sympathy towards Azucena is immediately roused because we know she is speaking of her own mother's gruesome death. In this case, the details leading up to her execution are glossed over because they no longer matter. What does matter is Azucena 's emotional response to her own story, and unlike Ferrando's version, her point-of-view is centered on the cold-blooded actions of her mother's murderers.
The chords that sound beneath her vocal line echo over and over again, showing that she has lived under the weight of her horror every day since then. Like Ferrando's telling, the gypsy's emotions towards the story begin to become more and more expressive as she continues, but her vocal line begins to splinter as she literally re-lives the moment that her love for her mother and her own motherly instinct warred so deeply inside of her that she accidentally killed her own son. Again, in perfect symmetry, after the explosion
of tension, Verdi carries the audience into the gentler realm of love, except this time the love is that of Manrico towards Azucena, the woman he believes is his mother.
II Trovatore is truly a masterpiece of Italian opera. All of its individual elements are planned exceptionally and executed perfectly. Verdi took a very dense story and musically pulled back layer upon layer of meaning and symbolism to reach right into the emotional heart of the matter. And while scholars continue to argue over the quality of the opera, the true worth of it can be found in the fact that thanks to Verdi we can still enjoy and understand the outpouring of human emotions just as they were over 150 years ago.
Program Notes by Hannah Smith.
Former Director of the Fort Worth Opera Studio/ Education, Hannah Smith earned her master’s in musicology and bachelor’s in vocal performance from Texas Christian University. Before joining FWO in 2008, she worked for the Van Cliburn Foundation, where among other duties, she was editor for all their printed materials.
CAST AND CREATIVE
Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Salvadore Cammarano After the play by Antonio Garcia Gutiérrez
Sung in Italian
Featuring the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra
CONDUCTOR Joe IIick DIRECTOR David Lefkowich
SCENIC DESIGNER Dejan Mitadinovic COSTUME DESIGNER Milanka Berverovic
MAKEUP AND WIG DESIGNER James P. McGough LIGHTING DESIGNER Chad R. Jung PROJECTION DESIGNER Daniil Efros
STAGE MANAGER Brett Finley ASSISTANT DIRECTOR Michael Yeshion
CHORUS MASTER Stephen Dubberly REPETITEUR Tyson Deaton
ENGLISH SUPERTITLES Keith A. Wolfe
SPANISH SUPERTITLES Gabriela Lomonaco
The Cast in Order of Vocal Appearance
FERRANDO Tyler Simpson
INEZ Laura Mercado-Wright
LEONORA Marjorie Owens
COUNT DI LUNA Malcolm MacKenzie
MANRICO Dongwon Shin
AZUCENA Victoria Livengood
RUIZ Logan Rucker
All photos by Ellen Appel