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Verdi's 'Il Trovatore': Profound Or Preposterous?

Opera fans who also love comedy -- or at least fans of "a certain age" -- may well know the names of two legendary but very different performers: Anna Russell and Florence Foster Jenkins.

Russell was a singer and comedian who made a long career, beginning in the 1940s, by poking fun at opera. Her routines featured vocal parody along with satirical "lectures" on operatic conventions. In discussing the vagaries of opera plots, she became famous for the line, "I'm not making this up, you know!"

Jenkins started getting laughs a couple of decades earlier than Russell -- though that wasn't her objective. A self-styled soprano, she was quite serious about her singing, but was so inept that her performances evoked open titters, giggles and guffaws from her devoted audiences. Still, intentional or not, the hilarity both women provoked had similar roots -- in the very nature of opera.

For whatever reason -- or, more likely, lots of reasons -- opera has always been easy fodder for jokes. Even the greatest of operas often seem to teeter on some weird edge between the profound and the preposterous, and Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore is a prime example.

The opera has a raft of over-the-top characters populating a story so complex and unlikely, it could be fairly described either as incomprehensible or implausible, if not both. And, speaking of dramatic excess, the whole story turns on a grisly case of infanticide. It hardly sounds like a recipe for success.

Still, when Il Trovatore was premiered in 1853, sandwiched between Verdi's Rigoletto and La Traviata, it was wildly popular right from the start. So what saves it? Why is Trovatore one of the most popular operas of all time?

The answer can be heard in just about every number in the score: It's the music. Trovatore features one of the most spectacular tenor arias in any opera, a series of memorable soprano arias, some truly searing music for the mezzo-soprano and a couple of Verdi's signature, achingly beautiful baritone arias. And that's not to mention the famous "Anvil Chorus."

In the end, all that music has been more than enough to keep the work firmly planted in the world's opera houses for more than 150 years. Its story may be more than a bit muddled, making it hard to keep track of just who betrayed whom, who threw which baby into the fire, and exactly how all these confounding characters wound up in the same opera in the first place. But if you don't go away from this opera whistling a tune, it's only because there are too many to choose from.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Il Trovatore in a production from the Maggio Musicale in Florence, Italy. It stars two young American singers, tenor Stuart Neill and soprano Kristin Lewis, as the lovers Manrico and Leonora, with a compelling performance by mezzo-soprano Anna Smirnova as Azucena.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2010 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.