Note: The story of Il Trovatore is often thought to be muddled and confusing. That is because it does not consist of a single plot, but rather of three separate, intertwining sub-plots. Because the three sub-plots not only run concurrently, but also involve many of the same characters, a straightforward linear recounting of the various narrations and events of the opera with the characters' motivations and reactions to them can indeed be hard to comprehend at first. The following is a synopsis in the strict sense of the word: it presents a description of the same events viewed in the context of each of the semi-independent threads of the story.
Manrico has risked his life to come to the royal palace of Aliaferia, site of the court of Aragon, on an amorous affair. Intercepted by the Count di Luna, he reveals his identity as the rebel commander, and the two prepare to fight.
Manrico prevailed in their duel, and was on the point of slaying the Count, when a mysterious force stayed his hand, as he subsequently relates to his mother, Azucena. The two met again on the battlefield of Pelilla, where Urgel's forces were routed. Manrico alone bravely stood his ground, but was cut down by the Count di Luna and left for dead. Searching the field, Azucena found him and nursed him back to health. They have returned to their native mountains, where the gypsies lead a carefree existence. Azucena berates Manrico for not having killed the Count di Luna when he had a chance, and he swears to do so if they should meet again. The rebel soldier Ruiz arrives with a message: the strategic castle at Castellor has been seized by the rebels, and Manrico has been ordered to take command of its defence. Ignoring Azucena's pleas to remain and warnings that his wounds are still not healed, Manrico hurries off.
In a camp before Castellor, soldiers under the command of the Count di Luna await the attack on the castle. Reinforcements arrive, and they look forward eagerly to an easy victory and rich loot. Azucena, who has come down from the mountains in search of her son, is now brought before the Count di Luna: she had been found wandering near the camp and taken prisoner. Recognizing in her the mother of his hated enemy, the Count exults in the punishment he will wreak on her. In the castle, Manrico hears of her capture and rushes out to save his mother, or to die in the attempt.
Manrico has been vanquished and captured. He and his mother both lie imprisoned in a tower of the royal castle Aliaferia, awaiting death. Manrico comforts Azucena; they recall the peace and happiness of their mountains. At last she falls asleep. The Count arrives and orders Manrico off to be beheaded. He drags Azucena to the window to witness his triumph over his enemy.
Leonora strolls with her confidante Ines in the gardens of the palace of Aliaferia by night. She vainly awaits the return of a troubadour with whom she has fallen in love. She describes their first meeting: how an unknown knight in black armor appeared at a tournament, how she bestowed on him the victor's wreath. Civil war broke out, and he disappeared; only her memories of him remained like a dream. Then one lovely night she heard from her chamber the song of a troubadour, and in his heartfelt verses she heard her name repeated. Running to her balcony, she saw that it was he! Since that time she has known only ecstacy and the intoxication of desire. To Ines' forebodings and councils to forget him, Leonora replies that she is destined for him: if she cannot live for him, she will die for him.
As Leonora and Ines retire to their rooms, the Count di Luna arrives. Seeing the light from her balcony, he approaches, intent on paying her a visit; but he is suddenly frozen by the distant sound of a lute- the troubadour! As the troubadour sings his serenade and the Count seethes with rage, Leonora comes running out of her apartment. In the darkness, she flies into the arms of the startled Count, declaring her love. As the troubadour cries out at her faithlessness, moonlight breaks through the clouds, revealing a visored knight. Recognizing him, and her error, Leonora throws herself at the troubadour's feet, swearing her love and loyalty. The Count furiously challenges the troubadour to reveal his identity, which he does: he is Manrico, a follower of Urgel and condemned traitor to the king. He has risked his life to appear at the royal palace. Leonora pleads with the Count to spare Manrico, but his jealous fury will not be stilled; contemptuously, Manrico defies him. The two men prepare to fight as the desperate Leonora collapses.
Manrico's mother Azucena, a gypsy, has been nursing her son back to health from wounds sustained in battle. Manrico tells her the story of his duel with the Count, and how he had spared the Count's life. The rebel soldier Ruiz arrives with a message: believing him killed in battle, Leonora has determined to renounce the world and take the veil in a convent that very night. Ignoring Azucena's pleas to remain and warnings that his wounds are still not healed, Manrico hurries off.
Aware of Leonora's plans, the Count di Luna arrives with his followers at the convent of the Holy Cross, near the castle of Castellor, where Leonora plans to take her vows. He is prepared to prevent Leonora from entering the convent. He hopes that the ardour of his love for her will win over her heart at last, but he is ready to seize her by force: he vows that not even God shall keep her from him. As the nuns are heard in the background, the Count and his men conceal themselves. Leonora arrives in the company of Ines and her attendants. Leonora bids farewell to her ladies, hoping that after a life of penance she will be reunited with Manrico in heaven. Suddenly the Count emerges and bars her way: only the wedding altar shall await her. The stunned Leonora hardly has time to remonstrate when Manrico himself, whom all had thought dead, appears. Leonora deliriously confides herself to Manrico, the Count threatens him with death, and Manrico taunts the Count. Soldiers of Manrico's now arrive and quickly disarm the Count and his own followers. Manrico departs with Leonora for the castle, and the women take refuge in the convent.
The Count di Luna, maddened by the thought of Leonora in the arms of his rival, plans an assault at dawn on the castle of Castellor. Azucena, who has come down from the mountains in search of her son, has been found wandering near his military encampment. She is brought before the Count di Luna for questioning. Recognizing in her the mother of his hated rival, the Count exults in the punishment he will wreak on her.
In the castle, Manrico and Leonora are preparing to wed. Ruiz interrupts with news of Azucena's capture. To the stunned Leonora, Manrico confides that this gypsy woman is his mother. Crying out that his filial devotion takes precedence over even his devotion Leonora, he rushes out to save his mother, or to die in the attempt.
Manrico has been vanquished and captured. He and his mother both lie imprisoned in a tower of Aliaferia, awaiting death. Leonora arrives at the castle in the company of Ruiz, determined to save her lover's life at any cost. Leonora dismisses Ruiz, telling him not to fear for her: she looks significantly at a ring on her finger. She prays that Manrico may be comforted by her unseen presence, and that he be spared the tortures that rack her own heart. She is terrified to hear the chant of monks praying for mercy on the soul of the condemned. Manrico's voice is heard from the tower as he sings a farewell ballad to Leonora. She swears that her love for him shall defy even death.
Leonora conceals herself as the Count emerges from the palace. His love for Leonora is as strong as ever; he would even betray his duty to the king for her. When the castle was stormed she was nowhere to be found. As he wonders where she is she abruptly steps out and confronts him. His surprise quickly turns to jealous rage as she pleads for Manrico's life. She offers to die in Manrico's place, but her evident devotion only fans his anger. Leonora then tries a different tack: she offers herself to the Count in return for Manrico's being set free. The Count at first cannot believe his ears, but she swears that if the Count will let her into the prison to set Manrico free, she will be his. The Count consents. He instructs a guard to free Manrico; as he is doing so Leonora secretly swallows the poison she has concealed in her ring. She will belong to the Count, but as a corpse. The Count and Leonora exult, he in his happiness to have won Leonora, she to be giving her life to save Manrico.
In their dungeon, Manrico comforts Azucena; they recall the peace and happiness of their mountains. At last she falls asleep. Leonora arrives and tells Manrico he is free, bidding him to leave at once. When he discovers that she cannot go with him he gallantly refuses. Suddenly an awful thought occurs to him: at what price has Leonora purchased his freedom? Accusing her of having betrayed their love, he denounces and curses Leonora. Leonora is now succumbing to the poison. As she lies dying she confesses that she would rather die Manrico's than live another's. Manrico is beside himself at having cursed this angel. The Count appears and understands how he has been deceived. Furiously he orders Manrico off to be beheaded. He drags Azucena to the window to witness his triumph over his rival and enemy.
In the mountains of Vizcaya, a band of gypsies are gathered round a large fire. As dawn breaks they are forging metal trinkets, which they soon go off to sell. Azucena broods over the fire. She sings a ballad of a pitiful woman being dragged by a howling mob toward the flames. As the others depart, Manrico, who has been lying at her side, asks her to tell her the story that inspired such a sad song. She is surprised that he does not know the story of his own grandmother, but since boyhood ambition has led him to wander far from his home. She tells him how her mother was accused by a haughty Count of having bewitched his young son; how she was brought in chains to meet her doom at this very spot; how she herself followed, her own baby in her arms, weeping; how her mother tried to stop and bless her, but was viciously thrust upon the stake. Her mother's last words, in her death agony, were "Avenge me!" Those words have ever since echoed in her heart. Manrico asks if she was avenged. Azucena replies that she abducted the Count's son and brought him here, where the fire still burned. The baby cried piteously; her maternal feelings broke her heart; suddenly a horrible vision appeared: the killers; the torture; her mother crying out "Avenge me!" Blindly she siezed the victim in her trembling hand and thrust it on the fire. In an instant the vision was gone. Only the raging flames remained, consuming their prey; and there beside her was the son of the wicked Count. It was her own son she had cast into the fire! She shudders at the recollection of that moment; Manrico is horror-struck. Suddenly the thought strikes him: who is he, he wonders, if he is not her son? Azucena assures him that he is indeed her son, that the recollection of that awful event has brought foolish words to her lips. She has always cared for him with the tender love of a mother. When she recently heard news of his death in the battle of Pelilla, she hastened to the field to give him a proper burial, found yet a breath of life in him, and lovingly nursed him back to health. Manrico, recalling how he received his wounds from the evil Count di Luna, whose life he himself had previously spared in a duel, wonders now why he did so. The Count had fallen, Manrico prepared to thrust the sword through him, when his hand was mysteriously stayed: he heard a cry from heaven not to strike. Azucena says that the Count did not hear the same cry from heaven. She implores Manrico, if they should ever fight again, to plunge his sword to the hilt through the ingrate's heart, and Manrico swears he will do so. Urgent news now calls Manrico away. Azucena pleads with him to remain: his wounds are not yet fully healed, and he will reopen them. His blood is hers, and every drop he sheds is squeezed from her heart. But he is consumed with passion: heaven and earth cannot stop him from his mission. Ignoring Azucena's pleas, Manrico hurries off.
Azucena has come searching for Manrico. In Castellor she stumbles onto a military encampment, where the Count di Luna is preparing an assult on the castle. She is apprehended as a possible spy and brought before the Count. To his questions she replies evasively that as a gypsy she wanders everywhere freely. The Count asks where she came from, and she says the mountains of Vizcaya; her answer immediately raises suspicions in the minds of the Count and Ferrando. She tells how she has been wandering about, seeking a son who had abandoned her, a son who has cost her heart great grief: her love for him is one felt by no other mother on earth. The Count asks if she recalls a Count's child, stolen from the castle over 15 years ago. She asks the Count who he is: he replies, the brother of the stolen child. She cries out, and Ferrando realizes that she is the one who burned the child. Wildy she denies the accusation. The Count tells her that she will not escape her fate. Desperately, she cries out for her son, Manrico, to come to her aid. Recognizing in her now the mother of his enemy and his hated rival, as well as the killer of his brother, the Count exults in the punishment he will wreak on her.
In the castle of Castellor, Manrico hears of Azucena's capture: at the window he sees a pyre already lit. The horrible blaze enflames him: he will quench it with the blood of her tormenters. He rushes out to save his mother, or to die in the attempt.
Manrico and Azucena both lie imprisoned in Aliaferia, awaiting death. Azucena is maddened by visions of her mother's tortured death at the stake, of her own impending doom. Manrico comforts Azucena; they recall the peace and happiness of their mountains. At last she falls asleep. The Count arrives and orders Manrico off to be beheaded. Azucena begs him to stop. He drags her to the window to witness his triumph over his rival and enemy. "He was your brother!" she cries; "Mother, you are avenged!"
synopsis copyright Richard S. Bogart, 1997