Freelance Writer and Editor
Articles for In Classical Mood – Opera. Illustrated book series for IMP Publishing
THE FLYING DUTCHMAN
There are several versions of the Flying Dutchman legend. The Phantom Ship , by the 19th-century novelist, Captain Marryat, tells of a captain’s vow to round the Cape of Good Hope. In another, by the poet Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), the hero swears an oath by all the devils in the universe, which makes for a very uncomfort-able life until he can find a woman to redeem him.
In all versions, the captain is Dutch. Wagner’s opera describes him as swarthy, and he is often dressed in Spanish clothes. This may relate to another version, in which the captain is an Algerian pirate. After killing a dervish, he brings a curse upon himself and his crew, causing death to all who look on them.
The theme of redemption through love, central to the plot of the Flying Dutchman , runs through most of Wagner’s operas. But the vision of Senta soaring heavenwards with the Dutchman came into his revised version of the opera, not the original. In the Ring , Wagner created a funeral pyre for her dead husband, Siegfried, and rides into the flames. Her death is also seen as ending the old, corrupt order, so allowing the world to be reborn. In his own life, Wagner believed that his chosen partner must sacrifice her needs to his art – which is exactly what his second wife, the intelligent and talented Cosima, did.
EARLY DAYS IN PARIS
In 1839, in the way from London to Paris, Wagner met the oustandingly successful composer, Giacomo Myerbeer. Encouraged by Meyerbeeer’s favourable comments on the libretto of his unfinished opera, Rienzi, Wagner arrived in Paris, ready for the city to greet his genius with open arms. He was to be disappointed. As the cultural centre of Euurope, the city was full of artists, writers and musicians, hoping to find advancement through their contacts, just like Wagner.
The support of Meyerebeer did not help to get Rienzi staged, although it was a grand opera, tailor-made for a Parisian audience. Wagner spent two and a half miserable years in Paris, and, as ever in his early career, was plagued by debt, so that he was even threatened with prison. However, he completed Rienzi and began the Flying Dutchman there.
FROM COOL TO WARM
The first season of the Flying Dutchman in Dresden ran for only four performances. A combinationn of too few rehearsals, a sombre story and the miscasting of the two central roles contributed to its lack of success. The leading singers were popular and accomplished, but unwilling to adapt to the new style of bravura singing required by the composer. It was not staged again in Dresden for another 20 years. In 1870, at Queen Victoria’s request, it became the first Wagner opera to be heard in Britain, translated into Italian. Its first American performance was also in Italian, six years later. It has since become a mainstay of the world’s opera repertoire.
A plaque above the door to Wagner’s hotel in Paris read: ‘Molière was born here’. He saw it as a small, encouraging omen to be living in the birthplace of France’s greatest dramatist. Fortunately, Wagner did not realise that the inscription was on the wrong building!
The theme that touched Verdi most deeply in Gutiérrez’s El Trovado, was that of Azucena’s conflict – between her adopted son, Manrico, and the desire to avenge her mother’s death. When he Cammarano’s first draft of the libretto, Verdi was concerned that ‘Azucena no longer has her strange and novel character’, and asked him to place her at the centre of the story. He also wanted to make it clear that, in the final scene, Azucena is not mad, but understandably overwrought, terrified and confused. Verdi, who had been profoundly affected by the recent loss of his own mother, wanted her presented with compassion and dignity.
THE STORY OF IL TROVATORE
In the palace guardroom, Ferrando tells his fellow soldiers the story of the Count’s baby brother, who fell ill after a gypsy had told his fortune. As punishment, the gypsy was burned, and in revenge, her daughter, Azucena, carried off the child. When the charred bones of an infant were found, it was assumed that Azucena had thrown the abducted baby into the flames.
In the garden, Leonora tells her maid, Ines, of her love for Manrico, who serenades her every night.
Later, the Count appears, and in the darkness, Leoonora mistakes him for Manrico, and declares her love. But Manrico has overheard her and accuses her of faithlessness. The Count is furious: he has a rival – and one from the enemy camp. He challenges Manrico and the two leave to fight a duel.
THE GYPSY AND HER SON
At a gypsy encampment, Azucena tells the wounded Manrico how she burned her own baby, not the Count’s brother, on her mother’s pyre. Challenged by Manrico, who believes he is her son, she reassures him and pretends her words are the ramblings of an old woman. Manrico is then summoned to lead the rebel forces at the fortress of Castellor. He hears that Leonora, believing him dead, is about to enter a convent nearby. He intervenes just in time with his troops, and the lovers are united. As the Count besieges Castellor, Azucena, who has come looking for Manrico, is arrested as a spy and sentenced to death. Manrico prepares to rescue her.
THE TRUTH REVEALED
Manrico has been defeated and he and Azucena are prisoners in Aliefera castle. Leonora is outside, and the lovers bid each other farewell. The Count orders the execution of the prisoners, and a desperate Leonora offers to marry him in return for Manrico’s freedom. The Count agrees, but Leonora takes poison. She tells Manrico he is free, and dies in his arms. Forced to watch Manrico’s execution, Azucena reveals that it was her own baby she had sacrificed: the Count has killed his brother. Her mother’s death is avenged at last.
The technical challenges for the leading singers in Il Trovatore are so great that the legendary tenor, Enrico Caruso, remarked that to do it justice, ‘you need the four best voices in the world’. To sing Leonora, a soprano must combine an exacting range with delicate phrasing; the baritone, Count di Luna, must be both thunderous and lyrical; Manrico requires expert fluency and coontrol, and should be able to reach the tenor’s famous ‘high C’; and Azucena, perhaps the greatest mezzo role in opera, suppresses, then lets fly exremes of emotion, using an immense vocal range. And although the opera is intense and vigorous, the roles have little depth, so skilful acting is needed. At the time, some critics complained that by making such heavy demands on his singers, Verdi was destroying the art of bel canto – the pleasant, ‘beautiful song’ style – but the challenges have attracted the world’s greatest singers. These have included Beniamino Gigli and Placido Domingo as Manrico, Leontine Pryce as Leonora and Grace Bumbry as Azucena.
TORRENT OF APPROVAL
On January 19, 1853, when Il Trovatore first opened at the Apollo Theatre in Rome, nature staged its own drama outside, as the River Tiber burst its banks. Verdi’s opera triggered a comparable flood of excitement, with the audience demanding an encore of the entire final act. The following morning, Verdi was hailed as the greatest composer that Italy had ever known. Trovatore became one of the most popular operas of the 19th centuryy, and was once staged in Venice by three different companies at the same time. Despite the melodramatic plot, it has never lost its popular appeal.
Manrico’s famous ‘high C’ at the climax of ‘Di quella pira’ was not written by Verdi. It is said that an early Manrico became so carried away that he sang it by accident. The composer approved, and it has since become a vital part of the opera.