Because our school was all-female, male roles in the opera had to be taken by deepest voices available. This didn't faze us, we'd grown up with Christmas pantomime as part of our experience. Genders in pantomime are mixed or matched randomly. My favourite school prefect, Judy was her name, focus of a schoolgirl crush, was to play the part of Manrico.....oh, wait a minute...
In case a passing reader isn't familiar with the story told in Il Travatore (The Troubadour): it is set in 15th century Spain, near Zaragoza, capital of Kingdom of Aragon. The Count di Luna, a nobleman, is in love with Leonora also of a noble background. Leonora, though, is in love with a troubadour, Manrico. There had been some nasty business in the past involving a gypsy woman who had cast a spell upon a baby son of the elder Count di Luna, that baby was brother of the present Count. Further nasty business ensued with each party promising revenge upon the other. These promises have reverberated from the past into present operatic scenarios. Mancico's stepmother, Azucena is involved in the revenge plot, via her mother who had been murdered by the elder Count di Luna. It's all a bit medieval soap-opera-ish, far fetched, tragic and vastly overdone. There's no happy ending. Leonora eventually promises herself to the Count in order to save Manrico's life, but then she takes a fatal dose of poison to save herself from the Count. Melodrama aplenty, but some wonderful meoldies among the more mundane-sounding narrative bits. The story itself was based on a play El trovador (1836) by Antonio García Gutiérrez.
Some of the most memorable of Verdi's melodies:
Here Ferrando, Captain of the Guard, tells his men the story of the elder Count's two sons.
Many years ago, a gypsy was wrongfully accused of having bewitched the youngest of the di Luna children; the child had fallen sick and for this the gypsy had been burnt alive as a witch, her protests of innocence ignored. Dying, she had commanded her daughter Azucena to avenge her, which she did by abducting the baby. Although the burnt bones of a child were found in the ashes of the pyre, the father refused to believe in his son's death; dying, he commanded his firstborn, the new Count di Luna, to seek Azucena.
Here's a familiar one....The Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles thrills an audience with Verdi's "Anvil Chorus", English name for the Coro di zingari ("Gypsy chorus"), from act 2, scene 1. Spanish Gypsies strike their anvils at dawn and sing the praises of hard work, good wine, and Gypsy women -
See how the clouds melt away
from the face of the sky when the sun shines, its brightness beaming;
just as a widow, discarding her black robes,
shows all her beauty in brilliance gleaming.
So, to work now!
Lift up your hammers!
Also in Act 2 is Azucena's aria Stride la Vampa, the old gypsy woman recounts her undying vow of vengeance on the Count di Luna who murdered her mother years before. She tells of the blazing flames among which her mother was put to death. Part translation:
upon horrible faces
beside the gloomy flame
that rises to the sky!
Screeches the blaze!
The victim arrives
dressed in black,
A fierce shout
of death arises;
the echo repeats
from hill to hill!
Di quella pira', Manrico sings at the end of act 3. He is with Leonora in a room adjoining the chapel. They vow their love, and are about to take marriage vows when Manrico's comrade enters to report that Manrico's mother Azucena is to be burned at the stake. Manrico calls together his soldiers and sings of how they will save Azucena from death: "Di quella pira l'orrendo foco tutte le fibre m'arse avvampò!..." ("The horrible blaze of that pyre burns, enflames all of my being!...")
This aria is particularly famous for it's high C's which, for a tenor, is a very difficult note to hold. Malaysian tenor Solomon Chong sings the aria in this video.
Miserere - Manrico has failed to free Azucena and has been imprisoned himself. Leonora attempts to free him by begging Count di Luna for mercy. She offers herself in place of her lover. She promises to give herself to the Count, but secretly swallows poison from her ring in order to die before di Luna can possess her.