No chapter of Giuseppe Verdi's remarkable career was more extraordinary than the period from 1851 to 1853, when he produced three of the mainstays of the operatic repertory: Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Il Trovatore. Each of these works has its own rewards for opera lovers, whether it's the Shakespearean dimension of Rigoletto or the insightful proto-realism of La Traviata. But for sheer dramatic energy and raw emotional power, few operas: by any composer: surpass Il Trovatore. Verdi's thrilling drama of a heroic troubadour-turned-soldier, his half-crazed gypsy mother, and the noble woman both he and a brutal aristocrat love has thrilled and even infuriated: but never bored: audiences for a century and a half.
For David McVicar, whose new production opened at the Met on February 16, there is no question that Il Trovatore is both a musical and dramatic masterpiece. The issues that the story is built around, the director explains, resonate today as strongly as when it was first seen on stage. "I think the message of Trovatore," McVicar says, "is what happens when a society rips itself apart, and brother is pitted against brother without acknowledging or even being cognizant of their blood relationship and the love they should have for one another."
Marcelo Álvarez and Dmitri Hvorostovsky square off in McVicar's production, which is conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, as Manrico, the troubadour of the title, and his rival Count di Luna. Sondra Radvanovsky plays Leonora, the object of their affections, and Dolora Zajick reprises her fearsome Azucena. It's a powerful quartet, which is only fitting for this opera: Enrico Caruso famously quipped that producing Il Trovatore was easy: all you needed was the four best singers in the world.
For his concept, McVicar found visual inspiration in the paintings and drawings of Francisco Goya, the great Spanish artist of the late 18th and early 19th century. The intense chiaroscuro of Goya's work (and its themes of violence and demonic impulses, which resonate in the opera) strongly influenced the production's design. "[Goya's] drawings really struck a nerve," the director says. Their intense artistic vocabulary perfectly mirrors the emotional extremism in Verdi's dark yet hauntingly human drama. McVicar is collaborating with designers Charles Edwards (sets), Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes), and Jennifer Tipton (lighting), as well as choreographer Leah Hausman, to bring out the vivid and powerful essence of the story of Il Trovatore.
That story, of course, is legendary, if not downright notorious. Il Trovatore's abundance of melody has been admired by critics and audiences ever since the 1850s. But the opera's narrative has: unfairly: come to represent everything that is far-fetched and excessive about Italian opera. A young woman confusing her lover with his hated rival in the dark of night? A mother throwing her baby into the fire by mistake? There can be no question that Il Trovatore is full of emotionally extreme situations. But it's not as if Verdi didn't know he was pushing the envelope. At several points in their collaboration, his librettist Salvadore Cammarano tried to tone down the excesses of the source material, only to have the composer insist instead that they be magnified. The word critics should be using for the drama of Il Trovatore is "outrageous": that is, having the power to outrage audiences out of their indifference and into a heightened emotional sphere.
Musically, Il Trovatore has had an easier time pleasing listeners; no one can argue with the fact that the opera is rife with unforgettable tunes. What is also significant when it comes to Il Trovatore is the rhythm that pulsates throughout the score. The orchestra often takes on a role that is more percussive than harmonic, and the music abounds in "incomplete" meters, with prominent 3/4 and 6/8 time signatures. This creates a feeling of unstoppable forward motion, the sense of a situation as difficult to control as a runaway train.
The sets of the new Met production are mounted on a turntable, which helps illustrate this idea. Not only does this minimize necessary scene breaks, it's a perfect way to augment the idea of momentum that Verdi so memorably created. "We wanted to keep this thing powering ahead," McVicar says. "It's important to be swept along by the virility and power of the music."
That virility, while propelled by the orchestra, resides primarily in the vocal line. "Verdi calls upon every possible color and dynamic shade that a tenor could sing," Álvarez explains. "There are moments of full-throated singing, as well as long legato lines. Manrico encompasses many different emotions and moods." In other words, the drama comes to life through the musicality of the singing, rather than from a summary of the somewhat convoluted: and much-parodied: plot. Heroic vocalism of the grand tradition is necessary for some moments. But if the opera is to fulfill Verdi's complete vision much else is needed besides.
McVicar agrees. While the tenor concludes Act III with a stentorian call to arms (in the celebrated stretta "Di quella pira"), the director finds the preceding introspective aria to be every bit as gripping. "It's almost certain [Manrico and Leonora] are not going to get out of there alive... I find the Byronic sense of doom, a fatalism expressed at that point, a really good way to understand Manrico and to create an intelligent and dignified character."
The director's vision of the opera embraces the frank emotionalism of the score, which is gloriously expressed in its irresistible melody. "Verdi was a self-consciously populist composer," McVicar explains. "He was not ashamed of that, and I think that's a very healthy thing." To illustrate the point, he mentions the single most famous tune in the opera, and one of the most recognizable melodies ever written, the "Anvil Chorus" that begins Act II. "There's no way you can't acknowledge that it's a famous tune," he says. "The audience is waiting for it. It's a hit number, and a hit number has to be delivered. But it has to be delivered with show biz aplomb."
Il Trovatore will enjoy five additional March performances: March 7, 10, 13, 16 and 20. It will return April 21 with a new set of lead singers.
For tickets and information, visit the Metropolitan Opera.