Trees, trios and the total triumph of Il trovatore

Article by Dominic McHugh

In the middle of the fifth episode of The Life of Verdi, the famous television biopic of the great Italian opera composer, we see Verdi (played by Ronald Pickup) plant three trees outside his home in Busseto.  Each represents one of the operas that he wrote between 1851 and 1853 – Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata – the so-called ‘middle-period trio’ that arguably cemented his reputation as the most important active Italian opera composer of the day (Rossini was still alive but no longer wrote new stage works and both Bellini and Donizetti were dead).  The narration accompanying the scene tells us that ‘in Verdi’s mind, these three operas formed a unit, a complete entity’, while Mary Jane Phillips-Matz confirms in her seminal biography of the composer that ‘it is a family tradition that Verdi marked his career by planting selected trees: a sycamore for Rigoletto, an oak for Il trovatore, and a weeping willow for La traviata’. The gesture is a striking one: both by linking these three works and rendering them apart from the operas that surround them, the composer seems almost to participate in an act of music history.

But does Il trovatore really come from the same mould as its near neighbours in the Verdi canon?  Part of the problem with the idea of the ‘middle trio’, which is largely a construct formed with the benefit of hindsight, is that it tends to do Il trovatore a disservice.  By forcing a comparison with Rigoletto and La traviata, the notion of a trinity can often make us look for things in Il trovatore which it perhaps inevitably can’t provide.  Both Rigoletto and La traviata feature a main protagonist who undergoes a massive psychological journey before the eyes of the audience.  This journey is heightened by a biological impediment (Violetta’s consumption, Rigoletto’s hunchback) that acts as a physical symbol of a social scar but which runs its natural course, even when the social disgrace is lifted; so although Germont père has finally accepted her, Violetta dies because of her fatal illness, a theatrical conceit described by Christopher Wintle as ‘tragedy of affliction’.  In this manner, these two operas point the way towards the verismo, not merely a form of operatic ‘realism’ but a brand of opera featuring a new immediacy of communication and emotionalism.

By contrast, the larger-than-life story and almost pantomimic sounding characters of Il trovatore –the gypsy, the troubadour, the dastardly count, the damsel in distress – have long been derided, albeit to an unfair extent, and the experiences depicted in the piece don’t tend to reflect everyday life.  Musically, too, there’s an apparent disparity between Il trovatore and the other two.  Unusually, the main protagonist in Rigoletto doesn’t have a single conventional showcase aria to his name, expressing himself instead in freer structures.  In La traviata, the encounter between Giorgio Germont and Violetta in Act Two, Scene One, finds Verdi using a sophisticated technique whereby a chain of small movements in contrasting tempos and keys (reflecting the characters’ shifting thought processes and emotions) replaces the larger lyric movement of a conventional duet.  Il trovatore, on the other hand, reads almost like a textbook of ottocento conventions, with its cavatinas, opening chorus, cabalettas, three-part arias and so on.  Yet by turning to the play El trovador (1836) by the Spanish Romantic dramatist Antonio García Gutiérrez, Verdi was continuing a trend of creating operas out of literary subjects which were less than two decades old that included Rigoletto, based on Victor Hugo’s 1832 play Le Roi s’amuse, and would continue with La traviata, derived from Alexandre Dumas’s autobiographical novel of 1848 (and its 1852 stage adaptation) La Dame aux camélias.

We may think of Il trovatore as one of Verdi’s more ‘old-fashioned’ pieces (‘the quintessence of Romantic chivalric fable’, as John Rosselli generously describes it), but in fact he intended it to be as modern and direct as its immediate predecessors, Stiffelio and Rigoletto.  However, fate intervened, and the combination of Verdi’s artistic struggles with his librettist Salvatore Cammarano followed by the latter’s death at a crucial stage of the creative process meant that the final text did not deliver some of the ideals for which Verdi had striven.  The play was first mooted as a possible choice for a libretto on 2nd January 1851, when Verdi wrote to Cammarano: ‘It seems to me very beautiful, imaginative, and full of strong situations.  I should like to have two female roles: the principal one is the gypsy, an unusual character after whom I will name the opera.  Of the other I will make a subsidiary part.’  This was the beginning of a series of messages in which Verdi would encourage his librettist to think outside the box and create something bold and new while Cammarano dug his heals in and shied away from too much innovation.  The letter also proves that the two men were going in antithetical directions from the word go: Cammarano was inclined to reduce El Trovador to a conventional love triangle between Manrico, Leonora and the Count di Luna while Verdi wanted to make the whole drama revolve around Azucena and even name the piece after her.

Furthermore, it may come as a surprise that it was in reference to Il trovatore that Verdi made perhaps his most famous plea against the constrictions of early nineteenth century operatic convention.  On 4th April 1851, he wrote again to Cammarano: ‘If in operas there were no more cavatinas, no more duets, no more trios, no more choruses, no more finales, and if the whole opera were one single piece, I would find that more reasonable and right.’  A casual reader might even think this was the Wagner of gargantuan Tristan like structures speaking, not the Verdi of Il trovatore.  Verdi’s reaction to Cammarano’s first suggestion for a scenario continues: ‘It would be a good thing if, at the beginning of this opera, the chorus and Leonora’s cavatina could be left out and we begin right off with the Troubadour’s song and make one single act out of the first two acts; for these isolated pieces and the scene changes always seem like numbers from a concert piece rather than an opera.  If you can do it, then do it.’  The message seems clear: ditch the expected and do something different.  And the fact that the final product contains all the elements Verdi claimed to want to remove would also seem to prove Cammarano’s failure to provide what was required. Yet when the librettist provided the text for what would become the Introduzione to the first act, Verdi replied by saying: ‘Let us set aside all compliments, all discussions; go on with Il trovatore as you have done in the Introduzione, and I will be immensely pleased.’  Thus the notion that the Verdi-Cammarano collaboration on this work was marred by a difference of opinion all the way down the line is flawed.  But it’s true that Verdi, without justification, was convinced that Cammarano did not like the idea of the project: in one letter he snaps, ‘Let us drop Il trovatore if you don’t like it’.  He also complains that Cammarano ‘thinks nothing about time, which is extremely precious to me’, yet Verdi himself was distracted from the project in the middle of 1851 by the death of his mother and the battles he was experiencing regarding the social acceptability of his relationship with his companion Giuseppina Strepponi.

He only resumed thinking about the opera on 9th September, and then the Teatro San Carlo in Naples (for whom he had agreed to write an opera as early as 14th February 1849) began to lose interest; Verdi considered staging the piece in Venice or Rome instead and begged Cammarano ‘with all his soul’ to finish the opera as quickly as possible.  In December he went to Paris with Strepponi, and in February 1852 heard that Cammarano was ill.  Writing to his friend Cesare de Sanctis, Verdi expressed concern about his librettist’s health but at the same time reiterated his impatience to have a completed draft.  Still not having received a libretto by 3rd May, the composer nevertheless assumed that Cammarano had recovered and wrote again to De Sanctis, who replied on 24th May but sent Verdi no further bulletins about the librettist’s health.  It was something of a shock, then, when Verdi read of Cammarano’s death on 17th July from a theatrical journal.  In a typically generous gesture, the composer sent the librettist’s widow and six orphaned children a gift of money as well as the fee still owed to him for the Il trovatore libretto.

Although Cammarano had completed Manrico’s ‘Di quella pira’ a week before his death, inevitably there were small last-minute changes to be made; these were entrusted to Leone Emanuele Bardare, a young Neapolitan poet and friend of De Sanctis and Cammarano who had been assisting the latter from when he fell ill in August 1851.  Though the libretto was substantially completed, Bardare was solely responsible for the Count’s cantabile ‘Il balen del suo sorriso’ and the famous lyric strophe at the start of Leonora’s aria from Part IV, ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee’.  The exact dates are sketchy, but Verdi probably started composition in September 1852 and had written the draft score by November, by which time he was also able to sign the contract with the Teatro Apollo in Rome after months of discussions about casting.  The composer wrote to De Sanctis on 14th December to announce the opera’s completion.  Whereas his usual practice was to write the orchestration for each opera during the rehearsal period so that he could adapt it to suit the singers and the theatre, Verdi arrived in Rome with Il trovatore fully orchestrated because he needed to spend the time writing his new piece for Venice, La traviata.  Illness confined him to his rooms, and arguments arose between the singers Rosina Penco (Leonora) and Emilia Goggi (Azucena), so Verdi feared the worst for his new opera; yet when it opened on 19th January 1853 it proved to be one of his biggest successes.  He was presented with a crown of laurel leaves and after the third performance was carried home by a mob of eager Romans who also serenaded him with music from his operas well into the night.  He rewarded them by staying on for the fourth performance in the run instead of leaving the city after the third – not merely significant because of the way he broke with his usual procedure but a massive gesture in light of his urgent need to complete La traviata, which was to be premiered in Venice less than two months later.

What should we make, then, of this ‘total triumph’?  For too long, people have been willing to turn their noses up at the work’s ‘tunefulness’; in fact, Verdi’s uncanny ability to deliver one great melody after another and yet weave them into the fabric of the drama is one of the work’s greatest assets.  Some have found the piece static because of its frequent recourse to the racconto form (a ‘recounting’ or narrative of the back-story to the plot).  In fact, this device is not entirely unlike Wagner’s use of long narrations to tell the history of the gods and the gold in the Ring Cycle, and it has a similar effect: by gradually revealing the unhappy web of events through reflective stories rather than by literal representation, Verdi tantalises us as to the denouement, which has considerable punch as a result.  In Il trovatore, one’s jaw doesn’t drop merely because of what one witnesses but also because of what one discovers by ‘overhearing’ characters talk to one another, almost as if by accident; this also means we don’t know every detail and we don’t know who’s telling the truth.  From start to finish, parallel stories are running alongside one another: not only do we witness on an obvious level the struggles and ultimate destruction of Manrico and Leonora, but it also takes the entire span of the opera for the legend of the gypsy and her mother – first mentioned in Ferrando’s racconto in the opening scene – to be completely unravelled.  There’s also a neat device in the use of a double vendetta in the plot: just as Azucena must avenge her mother, which she partly achieves by carrying off Di Luna’s brother who turns out to be Manrico, so too must Di Luna follow his dying father’s orders to have his revenge on the gypsy for the kidnapping.  This is the source in Il trovatore of the dramatic pressure Verdi sought to instil in all his operas: there’s an inexorable push to the finale as to whether Di Luna or Azucena will achieve their revenge, and the shock at the end – however inevitable in the sense of the conventions of tragedy –is that just when we believe Di Luna has everyone in his power and can finally do the deed, he kills the very brother whose kidnap he sought to avenge.  In this sense, too, we might reasonably feel that Verdi did achieve his goal in placing the focus on Azucena.  Her mother’s story dominates the opening scene, the Azucena-Manrico scene in Act Two, the trio in Act Three and the final seconds of the opera.

The great success of Il trovatore was both a curse and a blessing to Verdi.  Almost a decade after it opened, he commented that ‘when you go to the Indies or the middle of Africa, you will hear Il trovatore’, perhaps betraying mixed feelings about the way in which the popularity of the great tunes had eclipsed the artistic integrity of the whole.  For this is a work of more subtlety than meets the eye: even the so-called ‘Anvil Chorus’, dismissed in some quarters as banal, is actually a deliberately cheerful and simple chorus of aspiration in which the gypsy workmen cheer themselves through song as a new day dawns.  Yet ultimately, Verdi’s talent for writing music that functions brilliantly in its intended dramatic setting whilst appealing to the people even out of context is what really links the ‘middle trio’ and in particular makes Il trovatore, in the words of the composer’s boyhood friend and biographer, Giuseppe Demaldè, a ‘total triumph’.

Dominic McHugh is researching a PhD on new sources for Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady at King’s College London, where he has also taught courses on Mozart, Verdi and the American musical theatre.  He is the editor of the classical music review website MusicalCriticism.com.