Il trovatore is the second opera of the so-called "trilogia popolare" of Rigoletto , Il trovatore and La traviata . Its composition overlapped that of La traviata.
The plot is taken from the drama El Trobador, by Antonio Garcia Gutierrez (1813-1844). Six years later Verdi would use another of his subjects for Simon Boccanegra. The structure of Il trovatore is reminiscent of the schemes that typified Verdi's early works. The characters and surrounding are similar to those of Ernani, but its structure is even more traditional. The four acts are provided with evocative titles ("The Duel", "The Gypsy", "The Gypsy's Son", "The Execution") and are each split into 2 scenes. The main characters are the usual tenor-soprano-baritone triangle. Verdi always wanted an element of surprise and interest at the heart of his plots, however: something "innovative". For Il trovatore it was the character of Azucena.
In Verdi's mind Azucena was to be the main role of the drama: he initially wanted to title his opera La zingara ("The Gypsy") or La vendetta ("The Revenge"). There is a first draft of the plot by Verdi, written before Cammarano had been chosen as the librettist. Azucena is the main character, and her revenge is the heart of the plot. She intentionally lets the Count imprison her in order to attract Manrico in a deadly trap - basically the same ending we know, but with its meaning changed in a radical way. Verdi brought this theme to the surface with explosive power in the few ending lines of the finale.
After the successful staging of Rigoletto in Venice (1851), Verdi returned to his native Busseto. He immediately began working on both the next two operas he was planning, having already made some preparatory work. He had spoken on the subject of Il trovatore with Piave as early as 1849. Piave was already working on Rigoletto, so he did not accept another task. Verdi turned to the old Cammarano, the author of many famous libretti, including Lucia di Lammermoor. The fact that the work was to be first staged at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples played a role in this choice, as Cammarano, a native of Naples, was the most highly respected librettist there. Besides, Verdi had a kind of reverential respect for him: during work on the other libretti he had written for Verdi (La battaglia di Legnano and Luisa Miller) he was even allowed to make strictly musical suggestions.
Progress on the work was slow from the beginning. Verdi handled Cammarano with great respect, and and could not simply impose his ideas as he was accustomed to doing with Piave. Moreover, his ideas must have seemd bizarre to the older and conservative writer. In a letter to Cammarano (April 1851) Verdi wrote the famous wish about the dramatic structure of operas:
In quanto alla distribuzione dei pezzi vi dirò che per me quando mi si presenterà della poesia da potersi mettere in musica, ogni forma, ogni distribuzione è buona, anzi più queste sono nuove e bizarre più io ne sono contento. Se nelle opere non vi fossero né Cavatine, né Duetti, né Terzetti, né Cori, né Finali etc. etc., e che l'opera intera non fosse (sarei per dire) un solo pezzo, troverei più ragionevole e giusto.We can hardly say if that was really Verdi's wish for Il Trovatore; however the libretto provided was even too traditional, with many traditional three-part scenes. But Cammarano fell ill, and died in July 1852. Verdi heard the news when he was traveling and was deeply concerned. He immediately took care of providing for the widow.
Only 2 acts were fully complete, and most of the 4th act was missing. Emanuele Bardare, a friend and collaborator of Cammarano, was charged with completing the text. He agreed to respect all the existing drafts and renounced his right to appear as the co-author of the libretto - or even to be named in the printed scores. Verdi's directions were not restricted to the missing parts: he also asked for changes to the already-completed scenes. As an example, he requested a new aria for Azucena in the 2nd act:
Nella parte seconda desidererei una canzone caratteristica per Azucena (che mi giuocherebbe, musicalmente parlando, in diversi punti del dramma). Invece delle due ultime strofe "Stride la vampa...", sulle quali difficilmente si potrebbe fare un motivo popolare, vorrei due strofe di sei versi l'una, come per esempio (ridete!!):The content and structure are exactly the same as in the definitive text (one can only wonder why "bianco-vestita" was changed to "nerovestita"). Verdi's proposals were even more definite for recitativi. For the end of the final scene he wrote:
Stride la vampa, la folla indomita
urli di gioia al cielo innalza.
Cinta di sgherri giunge la vittima
bianco-vestita, discinta e scalza...
Sorride, scherza, la folla indomita,
urli di gioia innalza al ciel.
(da farsi quattro versi)
Sorride, scherza, la folla indomita,
urli di gioia innalza al ciel.
Questa dovrebbe essere la forma ed il metro. Il poeta aggiusterà e farà come crederà meglio.
Ho accorciato pure le ultime parole dopo la morte di Leonora, ed invece di fare dodici versi che assolutamente, in quella posizione, sarebbero stati freddissimi, ne ho fatti cinque soli di recitativo servendomi quasi di tutte le parole di Cammarano.
Sia tratto al ceppo! (indicando Manrico)
Madre!.. oh madre addio!!! (parte)
(vedendo il Conte) Ov'è mio figlio?
A morte corre!
Ah ferma!... m'odi... (il Conte trascina Azucena verso la finestra)
Egli era tuo fratello!
Ah! quale orror!
Sei vendicata o madre!
E vivo ancor?
Bardare aggiusti pure tutte le parole che crede.
The "adjusting all the words he likes" that Bardare allowed himself was to change "Ah! quale orror!" to "Ei! quale orror!". Aside from that he merely revised the punctuation...
The last words of Il trovatore have the effect of a flash that reveals all former events to the Count. The way he reacts - he instantly understands and believes all - seems highly improbable. But the Count, like the other characters, is extraneous to the plot, and does not need to show rational behaviour. Il trovatore's story is steadily turned to the past, and its action consists of the fragmentary revelation of pieces of the past. Even the initial drum roll sounds as an echo from the past, and soon begins the first of many tales that provide the structure of the opera. Most of the action does not take place on stage: it is merely described. That is true even for the events events of the present, such as the battle of Castellor or Manrico's death. This lack of real action creates a surreal atmosphere in which nobody seems to have a clear role.
Already during Ferrando's narration, with the introduction of the "abbietta zingara" and the "buon Conte di Luna", the main characters become the doubles of their late relatives: Azucena of her mother, the Count of his father, Manrico of the burned infant. There is a sort of parallel stage in the next world that interferes with the living one, as a murderous shadow, as a "voice from above".
The figure of Leonora remains apart. She has no apparent links to the past that drives all the other characters - nothing is known of her. She enters into the crucible of Il trovatore as a catalyst, essential for the reactions that take place but playing no active role herself until her own self-removal in the finale.
The ambiguousness of these characters, along with the method of evoking rather than playing the action, is responsible for Il trovatore's repitation as an absurd, incoherent story. It is easy to spot inconsistencies even in major matters: the weak link between title and contents, Manrico's improbable social role for a young gypsy, his age...
Unity is achieved by the orchestral colour and the recurrence of some basic symbols (night, firelight, the iron of hammers and chains) that show an implacable, ineluctable fate. Not a capricious fate that plays with the characters, as in La forza del destino, but a fate that has already been destined by the actions of others. You do not question the likelihood of mythic tales or Greek dramas; and Il trovatore is more Homeric than Shakespearian!