Il Trovatore, one of Giuseppe Verdi’s most beloved operas, begins with a Spanish nobleman convinced that a Romani woman has cast a wicked spell over his infant son.
Enraged, he has her burned at the stake. She screams out to her daughter, Azucena (incarnated on alternate nights by mezzo-sopranos Shay Bloch and Veronica Simeoni), to avenge the crime. The nobleman forces his remaining son, Di Luna (Sebastian Catana/Ionut Pascu), to swear that he will find the missing infant. This son goes through life not knowing whether his brother is alive, or even what he looks like.
Years later, Di Luna, now serving the Prince of Aragon, comes into conflict with a troubador named Manrico (Leonardo Caimi), who serves the Prince of Urgell. They clash over politics and love.
Both want to marry Leonora (Marta Torbidoni/Maritina Tampakopoulos). It is Manrico’s love song to Leonora that lends the work its name.
Will love triumph over the weight of the past, or will the need to avenge the crimes of the father blight all joy?
Il Trovatore: Verdi's most beloved opera
Il Trovatore, explains opera director Daniele Abbado, is part of Verdi’s trio of highly popular and groundbreaking operas that includes Rigoletto and La Traviata.
Verdi breaks with the convention of crafting operas around the mighty and the good, replacing them with a clown (Rigoletto), a sex worker (La Traviata) and a Romani (Il Trovatore). He uses music to conduct a deep examination of how conflicts shape us and our societies – even if we are not aware of the full picture, like Di Luna. Abbado explains that whereas in La Traviata the conflict is an intimate one, Rigoletto is an opera of thoughts, dialogues, reflections. (“Who am I? What am I doing?”)
Yet in Il Trovatore, he says, “there is no reflection at all, it is a running opera, it is as fast as a bullet.”
Bloch says that women speaking their minds to powerful men, as Il Trovatore makes plain, were often burned as witches who were in communication with dark forces.
Describing Romani in the 19th century imagination, Bloch tells The Jerusalem Post: “If a European princess has to look pretty and behave well, a Romani woman, like Carmen, will sit comfortably and speak her mind.”
Therefore, “Romani roles,” she says, “will usually be given to mezzo-sopranos and the roles of noblewomen,” like Leonora, “to sopranos.”
This creates a contrast between the edginess a mezzo-soprano possesses and the lyrical purity of a soprano. In male roles, a bass singer usually plays an evil sorcerer or another negative character, while a tenor is given a heroic role.
Bloch compares playing the role of Madam Flora in Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium with that of Azucena in Il Trovatore. She says both women suffer from trauma. Madam Flora witnesses the suffering that World War I brought to Europe; and Azucena sees her mother burned alive.
“Madam Flora becomes insane,” Bloch says, “she hears voices and uses a pistol to shoot at ghosts.”
Azucena, on the other hand, “is not crazy.” Verdi made this very clear, she says.
“[Azucena] is haunted, she is terrified, she had a hard life – but she is not mad, she deeply loves her son, and she is a survivor.”
When Anita Rachvelishvili played Azucena at NYC’s Metropolitan Opera, she pulled out a knife to protect herself from the mob in the storyline as she sang “Stride la Vampa” (“Rise Flames”). And when Ekaterina Sememchuk sang the aria at Madrid’s Teatro Real, a massive altar shot out flames at key moments, a powerful visual reference to the burning.
When Bloch encarnated Azucena in a Buddhist temple at an open air production in Japan, she was given a large sword to create a slow movement during this aria. She was also given a book (not an altar), the idea being that Azucena stands for kismet, an imploration from, to quote Menotti, “our dear little dead”, which cannot be denied them.
In Abbado’s vision, brought to life in Tel Aviv thanks to the efforts of Tel Aviv Opera’s associate director Boris Stetka, Il Trovatore is set during the Spanish Civil War.
“Both sides,” on the stage, “refer to the same culture, Latin and Catholic,” Abbato said. “So on stage, you will see a very large Madonna that both parties want to control.”
With the Madonna as a figure that symbolizes motherhood and divine mercy, it is ironic that both sides are willing to murder their own brothers to possesses the image.
“Azucena and the other gypsies are a minority,” Abbado adds, “they get in the way of that.”
While discussing his famous 2014 production of Verdi’s Nabucco, Abbado says that for Verdi, “the enemy is inside of us.”
Verdi’s Il Trovatore is showing at the Israeli Opera June 16-28 conducted by Giuliano Carella. Tickets are NIS 195-NIS 445. Call (03) 692777 to book. Sung in Italian with English and Hebrew subtitles. The Opera is at 19 Shaul Hamelech St., Tel Aviv.