By Jon Kaplan, Senior Theatre Writer at NOW magazine.
An infant abducted. A woman burned at the stake. Passionate duels between rival suitors for a gentlewoman’s hand. Several generations of families bent on revenge against each other. The plot for Verdi’s Il Trovatore, premiered in Rome in 1853, is one of his most complicated, with all the details, contrivances and coincidences you might find in a Dickens novel. In the opinion of some, in fact, the opera’s libretto – by Salvatore Cammarano, with revisions by Leone Emanuele Bardare – is one of his most unrealistic.
In brief, the back story deals with the family of the current Conte di Luna, whose younger brother was reportedly bewitched by a gypsy; she was burned at the stake, and her daughter Azucena, in revenge, abducted the brother and supposedly burned him on the site of her mother’s pyre.
As the opera opens, di Luna and the gypsy Manrico, son of Azucena, are not only on opposite sides of battling Spanish forces but also compete for the affection of Leonora, who loves Manrico. Azucena pushes her son to avenge her mother’s immolation, and the continued confrontations between the two men lead to multiple deaths and a few revelations.
Despite criticism of the story, there’s no denying the glory of the music, which includes such operatic favourites as the Anvil Chorus, soprano arias “Tacea la notte placida” and “D’amor sull’ali rosee,” mezzo aria “Stride la vampa,” baritone aria “Il balen” and Verdi’s thrilling tenor showstopper, “Di quella pira.”
Notwithstanding the opera’s popularity, it’s a difficult piece to pull off in performance. In fact, Enrico Caruso, one of history’s best-known Manricos, declared that all that was necessary for a successful performance of Il Trovatore was the four greatest singers in the world.
The Canadian Opera Company’s complement of powerhouse performers includes Elza van den Heever as Leonora, Elena Manistina as Azucena, Russell Braun as the Conte di Luna and, sharing the role of Manrico, Ramón Vargas and Riccardo Massi. The men are all making their role debuts.
The role of Azucena is, arguably, the opera’s linchpin; Manistina sees her as a woman “caught between two opposing feelings; love and revenge. She feels a crazy, all-consuming love for the son she raised, at war with the hatred she feels for the son of di Luna, whose father had her mother killed. She’s been torn by these contrasting feelings for 20 years, since Manrico was a child.”
Manrico is similarly caught between warring emotions: his love for Leonora and his dedication to his mother Azucena, who raised him and saved his life on the battlefield. “He’s an honest, virtuous and loyal person, someone who believes in his principles and decisions,” offers Vargas as he prepares for the part, the latest in a series of Verdi tenor roles that include the Duke in Rigoletto and the title role in Don Carlo.
“The singer has to show not only Manrico’s passion for Leonora,” adds Massi, “but also the strength of his bond with Azucena. At the very moment of his marriage to Leonora, he’s given the devastating choice of either staying with her or rushing away to save his mother. He may be facing impossible odds to rescue the gypsy, but he doesn’t hesitate to try.”
The two sides of di Luna offer a challenge to Braun, singing his first Verdi opera. “I’ve thought long and hard about how di Luna arrives at this point in his life with such an insatiable desire for revenge,” says the baritone. “He’s a man who has both an obsessive love and an abundance of power, and they feed each other like a fire that’s grown out of control.
“Di Luna’s never been given the chance to deal with the abduction of his brother and has grown up with the lore of the gypsy as a foreign, evil character; he can’t even question his own prejudice. But di Luna gets to reveal another side of himself in the aria ‘Il balen’; I couldn’t sing the role unless I found something human and sympathetic in the character. Tender, passionate and full of beautiful images, the aria reveals a man who can be open and sensitive; some of his recitatives also show his compassionate side.”
Those recitatives have turned out to be revelatory for Braun’s study of di Luna. “What I’m discovering as I work on this character is that the composer uses his short recitatives so differently from, say, Mozart. In Mozart, a recitative is used to propel the story along; in Verdi, it’s used to cast a great light into a character’s hidden emotions. Mozart’s writing contains almost no dynamic markings, but Verdi is specific about how he wants a recitative sung. It’s in his recitatives that he shows how a character is crafted.”
In some ways Leonora is the most steadfast of the four central characters, never wavering from her affection for Manrico. But van den Heever finds that Leonora develops a complexity during the course of the opera. “At first she’s an innocent; naïve about herself and the world. From the beginning her love is real and true; she’s harmed and finally dies for what she believes in. But in the process she goes from being a girl to being a woman. Her entrance aria is innocent and full of hope; she’s no less steadfast in the final act, when she dies in the arms of the man she loves, believing she’s saved him.”
All five singers agree that Verdi’s music helps them create memorable characters.
“Verdi is the greatest singing teacher for the lirico-spinto tenor voice,” suggests Massi. “His writing helps define Manrico’s emotions and ambitions. As with all the best composers, it’s all in the score.”
“He knew just how to create character through music,” agrees Vargas, “and he does it not just through the vocal line but also through the orchestration. Some people see Manrico as a kind of Italian heldentenor role, but that impression comes largely through the aria ‘Di quella pira’ and the high note often interpolated at its end. In fact, the rest of the role is lyrical, with lots of pianissimi and dolci markings. My most satisfying moment in the opera is singing the sweetness of the aria ‘Ah sì, ben mio,’ which immediately precedes the fireworks of ‘Di quella pira.’ I feel it’s almost bel canto, and, as they say in Italy, metaphorically ‘good bread for the teeth.’ Verdi always took care in how he expressed emotion in music. In Il Trovatore, you regularly hear an oom-pah-pah rhythm, which I interpret to be a beating heart into which the singer has to put his feelings.”
Manistina picked up on that image when she says that “the singer and the audience must listen to Azucena’s music not just with the ears but also with the heart. Verdi creates so many colours, so much passion, so many feelings. I see a parallel between Azucena and Rigoletto, both in their characters and the complexity of their feelings. Both are parents with deep feelings for their children – Azucena does love Manrico, no matter what other demands she makes on him – and in both cases their plan for vengeance turns around, hurting the child and the parent.”
Van den Heever views Verdi as the most masterful of operatic composers. “He has a mature understanding of what a singer needs to fulfill and serve the music, to make it come to life realistically. He doesn’t place impossible demands on the singer but knows what each character needs to make a big, important impression at the moment they’re singing. Just as importantly, he knows how to build a role over the course of an evening. His entrance arias are attention-getting but also written with the knowledge that you’re not warmed up the way you’ll be two hours later. Similarly, his last-act arias are difficult but also brilliantly realized. Leonora’s music in the final act is challenging: you have to float the high notes and sound vulnerable, sharing your feelings with the thousands in the opera house.”
In learning the role of di Luna, Braun appreciates the detail that Verdi brings to his writing. “Even in terms of colour, he’s very specific about the kinds of accents he requires of the voice,” says the singer. “When I prepare a role, the key for me is how best to understand the composer’s musical language, not so much the range of the voice but the dynamics, the texture, the emotions that are inherent in the way the composer puts notes on a page.”
And what about Caruso’s partly tongue-in-cheek statement about the four key singers, that the opera works best when it achieves a blend of expert vocal athleticism and onstage chemistry? “I think that Verdi opera is, first and foremost, a celebration of the expressivity of the voice,” offers Braun. “It’s not about volume or holding a high note but having the power to move the listener. That’s why his music has endured, because it captures the unique quality and beauty of the human voice.
“Maybe that’s what Caruso means: that the four singers have to allow themselves to be vulnerable as well as powerful and, in the process, touch an audience’s collective soul.”
This article is published in our Fall 2012 issue of Prelude magazine. Click here to read the issue online.
Photos: (top) Ramón Vargas, Riccardo Massi, Elza van den Heever, Elena Manistina, Russell Braun; (middle) Azucena (Mzia Nioradze) and Conte di Luna (Robert Hyman); (bottom) Conte di Luna (Robert Hyman). From Opéra de Marseille's production of Il Trovatore, 2003. Photos: Christian Dresse.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001