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Saturday, June 6, 2009

Sparks (on Giuseppe Verdi's opera Il Trovatore)

Salvador Commarano (libretto), Giuseppe Verdi Il Trovatore / The Metropolitan Opera, May 8, 2009

My seeing Verdi's operatic warhorse Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera had more to do with contingency than with choice (it was the only production I could see during the few days of my stay in the city). But as with many of my activities it now seems, in the context of the concerns of My Year 2009, appropriate. Like so many of the essays of this year, the plot of Verdi's opera is also about "facing the heat," the characters having to endure the punishments for their own present errors and judgment as well as the sins of their ancestors of the past.

In this case, the gypsy woman Azucena's mother has been burned at the stake for "bewitching" an infant in her care, the current Count di Luna's infant brother. To avenge her mother's death, Azucena apparently kidnapped the young boy and threw him into the flames that burned her mother to death. Only the charred remains of a baby were discovered on the pyre, and since that day the Count has sought out the murderer with intention of confirmation or further revenge.

Meanwhile, the Count has fallen desperately in love with a young woman serving his wife in the court. The woman, Leonora, meanwhile, is smitten with wandering troubadour, Manrico, who also happens to be the leader of the partisan rebel forces threatening the Count's rule—who is, incidentally, Azucena's son. Discovered in Leonora's presence, Manrico is challenged by the Count to a duel, a fight unto death. Manrico quickly overpowers the Count, but strangely resists murdering him. He releases the Count. The war between the two forces continues, with the Royalist forces winning, and resulting in Manrico's near-death. He lives only because he has been dragged from the battlefield by his mother and nursed by her back to health.

In the gypsy camp the gypsies sing of their tireless work, their spirits raised only by the site of a pretty woman, the famed anvil chorus, performed in this production as an almost sexual assertion of masculinity. Indeed, the strikes of the hammers upon the anvil sent almost real sparks into the audience, and certainly Verdi's joyous chestnut does foretell of the fire of the past and of the future.

For, as almost anyone can foretell from the brief and somewhat absurd plot spelled out above, Manrico is doomed in his love for Leonora. Azucena is captured near the camp and is held captive in di Luna's castle, and when Manrico's army is defeated, he too joins his mother within the cells of the castle.

Leonora escapes, returning to the castle and promising herself up to di Luna if he will release his prisoners. Di Luna agrees to release Manrico, and Leonora rushes to tell him. Manrico, however, is outraged at what he believes to be her betrayal of their love. Leonora, having planned all along to cheat di Luna of her presence, has taken a poison which acts faster than she has expected, and she dies in Manrico's arms. Di Luna, witnessing the death, sends Manrico to his execution, while Azucena reveals the truth: mistakenly she had thrown her own son onto the pyre and, accordingly, Manrico is di Luna's long-sought brother. Her revenge has at last been accomplished.

Yet, despite these facts, Il Trovatore is not really a revenge tragedy but a story of four failed human beings who all come together in the "Moon Count's" castle (di Luna), creating a kind of lunatic world. Three commit unspeakable acts and the fourth is apparently incompetent. Azucena has been so caught up in revenge that she has, "accidentally"—a nearly unthinkable word in the context— murdered her own son, and although she has been a loving mother to Manrico, we nonetheless must recognize her as a reprehensible being. The Count, for his part, is also caught up in the past, becoming so determined to find his brother's killer that he destroys the sibling in the act. Manrico, the troubador, is a terrible warrior, unwilling even to kill a brutal enemy in a duel; he is, moreover, a man who loses all battles, evidently, in which he participates. He is not even a good "troubador"—a devotee of courtly love—attacking Leonora at the very moment that she has sacrificed her own life for him. Leonora, in turn, enacts a suicide that has no positive results, resulting a death that saves neither her lover nor his gypsy mother. The fires within each of them, fueled by love, envy, anger, and hate, sparks each other's inevitable destruction.

The production I saw at the Met, with Hasmik Papian as Leonora, ┼Żelijo Lucic as the Count, Marco Berti as Manrico, and Mzia Nioradze as Azucena was a superb rendition of this opera, with Papian (better known for her Norma) and Niordze as standouts for their performances.

New York, May 9, 2009

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