What to Listen for in IL TROVATORE

By John Baril, Music Director

IL TROVATORE | https://centralcityopera.org/event/il-trovatore

One of the many brilliant things about Verdi’s music is that, generally, he creates a mood with the orchestra using the most economical of means. For instance, the very beginning of Il trovatore features three bass drum and timpani rolls, each time getting louder than the last. Arguably, this suggests darkness, mystery, intrigue, fear. In other words, it isn’t party time music such as the beginning of La traviata (his next opera) or Rigoletto (his previous). These both commence with simple preludes indicative of mood and certainly some foreshadowing. Trovatore does no such thing. When the full orchestra joins in, they play arpeggios (individual notes outlining a chord) in unison, suggesting martial activity. Soon, you’ll hear a horn call (solo horn playing a short motif). In “olden days” horn calls were used as methods to communicate, just like bird calls or cat calls or secret passwords. Listen for another horn call late in the opera. 

Opening, Ferrando and chorus


By way of contrast, the elaborate opening of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, fantastically conjuring up the Rhine river and taking about 5 minutes to do so (before anyone sings), was composed in 1853, the same year as Trovatore. By five minutes into Trovatore we are already halfway through the first scene!!


The soldier Ferrando is entreated by his (and the Count’s) men to tell the story of Garzia, the Count’s brother. At the very end of this scene, listen to how scary it sounds, just like ghost stories around the campfire; they talk about scary owls and night creatures and then the scene is interrupted by sudden, loud chimes (from a nearby church) indicating midnight and all the men are terrified. 

Di due figli, Ferrando and chorus


In theater, the catalyst for the continuation of a story is often another character. In Italian opera, when a leading female character is introduced, it is often her maid (not a cleaning woman, more like a valet) or duenna or governess who beseeches the character to finish telling the story and, sometimes, to warn her of evil or bad things to come. This conversation can be represented as follows: short orchestral introduction indicating mood, time and/or place; recitative (accompanied sung speech); dramatic aria recalling “that day when….”; reaction by the companion (again, recitative); faster aria indicating resolve to do the very things the companion has warned against (usually). This is the famous “double-aria” or “aria/cabaletta” of Italian opera (yes, cabaletta derives from cavallo or horse, and the accompaniment often suggests galloping).

Entrance, Inés and Leonora


You will encounter several double-arias in Il trovatore; sometimes the faster, second aria includes the chorus, such as in the Count’s great scene and Manrico’s famous Act III aria, “Di quella pira” where he and his followers run to save Azucena (Manrico’s mother….or is she?) from burning at the stake.


In the gypsy scene, listen for the anvils. Yes, anvils! They will be played onstage by the gypsy blacksmiths in rhythm with the orchestra. Oddly, Das Rheingold also features anvils (many, many of them and for a long, long time in the Nibelheim scene). I suppose it was a new thing in 1853. The “Anvil Chorus” is one of the most recognizable excerpts from Italian opera in general and certainly the most famous from Il trovatore, right up there with “The Toreador” song from Carmen

Anvil Chorus, chorus


Azucena sings her first aria “Stride la vampa:” an invocation of fire and destruction. 

Stride la vampa, Azucena


Throughout the opera, the tune repeats when Azucena remembers that day…. This was the first of Verdi’s operas in which there are two equal female leading characters.  While Leonora is a soprano and high-bred royalty, Azucena is a low, dramatic mezzo and a simple, poor, older gypsy woman; listen to the end of her second aria, about burning babies, to hear how low she can go!!

Condotta ell’era in ceppi, Azucena


One of the fascinating features of the early and middle period Verdi operas, I think, is the way in which he writes for the male chorus. Listen for the men singing very softly (sottovoce) using very short notes (staccato), and in a major (“happy”) key whilst doing something bad or naughty and sneaking around. In Rigoletto, they are about to kidnap Gilda and take her to the Duke; in Macbeth, they are about to murder Banco’s son; in Il trovatore, they are about to abduct Leonora so she doesn’t enter the convent (to become a nun) thereby staying out of the Count’s reach.  As Leonora approaches the convent, note the a cappella (unaccompanied) women’s chorus, unusual and very beautiful. 

Chorus, Count di Luna, Ferrando, men’s chorus, nuns’ chorus, Leonora, Inés


In Leonora’s second big scene at the beginning of Act IV, listen for the intensely dark mood created by two clarinets and two bassoons. 

Siam giunti…D’amour sull’ali rosee, Leonora (part one in the double aria)


The scene continues, but this time the intervening factor in Leonora’s double-aria is not the maid’s pleadings but rather an offstage chorus of monks, singing the solemn Miserere (Latin prayer for those about to die and the afterlife which awaits them). This is juxtaposed with the horrified responses of both Leonora and the full orchestra playing march-style death rhythms as soft as humanly possible. Then, as if out of nowhere, Manrico, accompanied only by a harp offstage, sings goodbye to Leonora from his cell.  All three of these things combine; it is truly one of the most inspired moments in all of Verdi.  

Miserere, Monks, Leonora, Manrico


Then, and only then, does Leonora sing the second half of this double-aria, wherein she resolves to save him. 

  Tu vedrai che amore in terra, Leonora


In the final scene, listen for the mood created with simple, soft chords played by the entire orchestra. In an odd, unwitting foreshadowing of next season, Benjamin Britten used this exact device prior to the final scene in Billy Budd. Britten’s is more elaborate and uses dynamic extremes to separate the scenes, but is essentially the same tactic. Listen for Azucena to recount that day with “Stride la vampa” playing in her head (this time by flute and clarinet). After Manrico calms her down, they sing an extraordinary duet about their homeland, in 3/8 time. It is a fun game for Verdi lovers to see how many famous tunes from Verdi operas they can name and which feature only “boom-chick-chick” accompaniments.

Madre, non dormi, Manrico and Azucena

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