Onstage at Opera San Jose is the safest way to experience the grand, dark passions of life—the destructive forces of revenge and jealousy in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” February 9 – 24 at the stunning California Theater in downtown San Jose. If you’re on a budget, don’t think that opera is out of your reach. If you go online (http://www.operasj.org), you can find ticket promotions, including $11 tickets—which can only be purchased 90 minutes before each show—for students 25 or under.
“Il Trovatore” has all the eye-popping front page news that stuns us when we read it and think to ourselves, “How could anyone possibly do this?” Verdi was born 200 years ago in 1813, but the passions he writes about are timeless. “Il Trovatore” tells the tale of two destructive quests for revenge, unrequited love turned to deadly jealousy, mistaken identities, child murder, fratricide, and suicide. And, oh, yes, gypsy curses and descriptions of witch burning that make the Spanish Inquisition seem mild. Wow! It’s all there in one, two-hour and 45-minute opera set in 15th-century Spain during a civil war. The dark opera is sung in passionate Italian (Opera was born in Italy!) with English supertitles in case your Italian is rusty or non-existent.
If, like me, you’re more of an opera dilettante than an opera buff, you’ll benefit by knowing the story of “Il Trovatore” (The Troubadour) before you experience the opera. I highly recommend attending the 45-minute pre-performance introduction to the opera given by General Manager Larry Hancock. His talk begins at 6:30 p.m. prior to evening performances and at 1:30 p.m. before afternoon performances. You can just drop in (like my companion and I did for the February 10 performance) and learn everything you need to know to get the most out of Opera San Jose’s powerful “Il Trovatore,” first performed in Rome in 1853.
Hancock told us that in “Il Trovatore” the singers tell us through their songs what happened; we don’t see it ALL happen—too bloody! The swords and knives the singers carry are real, but the blades are dulled, and what fight scenes there are, must be rehearsed every day under the direction of a fight supervisor.
“Il Trovatore” has two parallel stories of revenge. As a young woman, the gypsy Azucena (Az-zoo-CHAIN-ah) watched as her mother was burned alive by the powerful Count di Luna, who believed the mother had bewitched the younger of his two sons. The dying woman commanded her daughter to avenge her, which Azucena did by carrying off the count’s young son with the intent of throwing him into the same fire that had just devoured her mother. The second story of revenge is that of the older son of the deceased Count di Luna, also called Count di Luna, who spends his life seeking to avenge the presumed death of his younger brother—or to find him still alive.
Intertwined with the two stories of revenge is a story of unrequited love and jealousy. The young Count di Luna, a nobleman in the court of Aragon, is in love with Leonora, a titled lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Aragon. Leonora, however, loves Manrico, a mysterious knight in the rival service of the Prince of Biscay. Manrico also happens to be a troubadour—a medieval poet-musician who sings lyrical verses, particularly about courtly love. Now here’s the twist of fate.
It turns out that the gypsy Azucena did not, after all, throw the younger son of Count di Luna into the fire. By mistake, she instead threw her own young son, who was about the same age, into the fire to his death. Not telling him the truth, she raised and loves the count’s son as her own, naming him Manrico. “No mother on earth has loved her son as I love him,” Azucena sings in Act II, Scene I. But now, Manrico is a grown man and is just as passionately in love with Leonora as she is with him. Neither Manrico nor Count di Luna know that they are long-separated brothers in love with the same woman. Act by act, scene by scene, the passions of these four key characters seal their tragic fates.
Except for two scenes, the set is dark gray, cold, moody, and foreboding, with only slight light from storm clouds in the distance. The count’s men carry tall, pole weapons topped with heads. One exception is in Act II, Scene I, at a gypsy camp in the mountains. In this scene, everything is bathed in an orange red glow as Azucena relives and recounts the terrible death of her mother and her natural son in the flames. “The flames are roaring, crackling!” she sings. The famous “Anvil Chorus”—in praise of women, wine, and the gypsy life—is part of this scene as the gypsies hammer and clang away, making weapons to sell.
In Act III, Scene II, it is the planned wedding day of Manrico and Leonora. However, Manrico learns that his mother has been captured by Count di Luna and, like her mother, is to be burned at the stake. So instead of marrying Leonora, he leaves to save Azucena. “Death will be no more than the moment I precede you to heaven,” he sings to Leonora as he departs.
“Il Trovatore” continues to its tragic conclusion in Act IV, in which Leonora has changed from a silver gray gown to an orange-red gown for her death scene in the arms of Manrico, whom the count has captured and is now in a dungeon cell with his mother. (The gowns worn by the women, by the way, cost from $2,000 to $5,000 each!) Leonora takes poison rather than allow the count to kill Manrico and then take her for his own. She both lives and dies for the words of her troubadour, proving that, at least in matters of the heart, the pen of a slain troubadour is mightier than the sword of a live count.
On a cheerier Verdi note, Verdi’s comic opera “Falstaff,” based on Shakespeare’s comedy “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and on “King Henry IV,” opens Opera San Jose’s 2013-2014 season September 7-22. “Falstaff” is Verdi’s last opera, written when he was 80.