Hammer time: Love, revenge and the world's most famous anvil song make Il Trovatore special
Even if you've never heard Verdi's Il Trovatore before, you've heard it before. You can experience firsthand one of Verdi's most popular works this week as the Houston Grand Opera closes out its season on a grand scale.
After triumphant performances as Elisabeth in Don Carlos and Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw, Tamara Wilson, a former HGO Studio artist, returns again to play the part of the lovelorn Leonora. Tenor Marco Berti returns to the HGO as Manrico, while Tómas Tómasson returns as Count di Luna and Dolores Zajick as Azucena. Conducted by Patrick Summers and directed by Stephen Lawless, Il Trovatore runs through May 11.
Il Trovatore is an opera so operatic that its gypsies, star-crossed lovers and lost and found children are just not enough. It also features a mother who accidentally tosses her own child on a burning pyre.
And don't forget the anvils.
It's the anvils that you've heard before. At the opening of the second act, the gypsies sing a morning song and a work song that has been reverberating in the heads of listeners since the premiere of Il Trovatore in 1853. Emphatic, stately, and unforgettable, this chorus has inspired exacting performances and unexpected experiments.
For a base line of this often imitated song, here's a clip of a Met LIVE in HD production:
There's no reason no to expect grand singing and lush productions from the Met. But you may not have known that the big band bandleader Glenn Miller also found inspiration in Verdi's Il Trovatore. Here's his lighting, swinging anvil-less version:
Miller and Verdi are, of course, also in the excellent company of the Marx Brothers, whose A Night at the Opera, features scenes from Il trovatore and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. This montage offers a tantalizing view of a Marx brother hammering away about 13 seconds into the clip:
And just in case the ironies of the opera business are unclear to you, here's a little Marx Brothers boot camp in opera contracts as Groucho and Chico barter over "the greatest tenor in the world":
There's something about the clarity and regularity of a pounded anvil and the unity of a community singing together that offers listeners brief respite from narrative complications.
And no wonder: Il Trovatore weaves a tangled web of love and revenge in 15th century Spain. As rival princes battle for supremacy, two lovers, Count di Luna and the troubadour Manrico compete for the hand of Leonora.
Of course a mere love triangle is far too simple for an opera like Il Trovatore.
Prior to the start of an opera, a gypsy woman is burned at the stake after being blamed for the illness a child. That gypsy's daughter, Azucena, kidnaps the child to get revenge but instead of throwing it into the fire, she accidentally casts her own child into the flames. So the child Garzia grows up as Manrico. And if your instincts for convoluted operatic plots are sharp, you've already guessed that Manrico and Count di Luna are, unbeknownst to them, brothers.
Shakespeare had a special fondness for the dramatic family reunions made possible by children lost and then found again. But there's no happy ending for Il Trovatore as Count di Luna slays his own brother and Azucena feasts on avenging her mother but only at the cost of the death of her adopted son.
Il Trovatore imagines a world remarkably complex: Leonora keeps confusing her would be lovers, Azucena fatally confuses her child with another, and two brothers never quite have the chance to recognize one another before it's too late. In spite of these horrors, audiences come flocking back to the sharp sweet clarity of the anvil hammering out time in the midst of chaos.