Giuseppe Verdi: Il Trovatore

Hooray for libraries! Had I grown up in France, where they didn’t have lending libraries until about 30 years ago, I probably would only have discovered half the classical pieces I love. My small hometown public library in Mishawaka, Indiana (pop. 33,000 circa 1972) had quite a respectable collection of classical albums. Whenever I heard a new piece on the local classical music station, I’d write the name down and pay a visit to the library to check it out.

In the olden days, when you checked records out from the library often they were in less than pristine condition. Back then most everybody had these huge old console stereos with tone arms that weighted about 12 pounds. True, when hi-fis were in vogue, the records were made of pretty strong plastic. When the next generation of stereos hit, with feather-weight arms that held magnetic, not ceramic, cartridges, record labels started to scrimp on the plastic and then things became really bad. You’d check out one of these flimsy records and it would sound like a hail storm. I swear you could hold these disks up to the light and see through them from where the old steel styli had worn through them. Okay, so I’m exaggerating a bit. Only Deutsche Grammophon continued to use high-quality, thick plastic right up to the end. These were the Mercedes of LPs.

When CDs arrived on the scene, they were a big improvement. True, if you abused a CD it might end up skipping about a 1000 times a second, so that Brahms ends up sounding like it’s performed by a Rap group. But a problem with checking out CDs from the library is that the staff aren’t diligent about finding people who do not return them with the liner notes and booklets. Often, therefore, you don’t even know what the names of the tracks are if they aren’t printed on the disk itself. Of course, even more annoying are record labels that scrimp on the booklet, which are often pathetic advertisements for other records on the label. They don’t have any meaningful text in them or description of the music in them.

Again, in the era of LPs, you could actually learn something from the liner notes. True sometimes these were written by pompous gas bags, but most of the time they included some biographical information or anecdote about the composer or the orchestra or even interesting facts about the piece itself. Sometimes, they actually hired someone who understood music theory to explain the piece. Not being a music major, a lot of this information–about keys, chord progression, etc.–went over my head, but it was nice to know it was there anyway. And I’m sure some people understood it.

Rock albums on CDs also have been hit by this cost-saving measure, or else record companies just spend their money on artsy advertising. That’s not such a loss, as rock critics/journalists sometimes can’t string two sentences together, or they gush in flowery or gonzo-type prose, which is really ghastly. For example, here is an excerpt from a recent album review I found in Rolling Stone:

The whole album thumps like the soundtrack to a lost Eddie and the Cruisers sequel, one where Eddie gets crucified by Roman soldiers, while Gaga stands under the cross weeping and sending dirty texts to the DJ..

Which brings us back to today’s piece. One of the albums I used to check out from my hometown library was Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Il Travatore (The Trubador). As in the case of many pieces during this period, I was drawn to it for a particularly rousing section that had been used in some film or commercial. This was the “Anvil Chorus.” It appears in Act II, scene one, in which a band of gypsies sing a chorus about a beautiful gypsy maid while bashing away on their anvils. The sound of crashing metal worked into a classical piece excited the little boy in me, no doubt. That leads into a soprano solo, in which the gypsy woman, Azucena, sings an ominous aria.

One time a friend of mine and I went to see a revival of the Marx Brothers’ film, A Night at the Opera. In one part, Harpo is chased onstage during a performance of an opera, which turns out to be Il Travatore. He dresses in the costume of a gypsy woman, and when Azucena starts to sing, he rises up next to her an makes his trade mark ugly face, the “Gookie.”

This of course has nothing to do with the opera, but I found it hilarious, and it only served to make me appreciate the piece more. (Not to mention how intellectual comedies used to be.)

I include a link here to the plot of Il Trovatore. It involves the rivalry between a Count and a gypsy Troubador. The Count has sworn to revenge the death of his infant brother, who supposedly was burnt to death by the gypsies in a vendetta. Only today have I read the synopsis, and I am surprised to find out how complex and powerful is the story line. You’d never guess listening to the “Anvil Chorus.” But it turns out to be almost as moving as Romeo and Juliet with an evil character on a par with Iago in Othello.

Thirty-nine years ago, when I discovered Il Travatore at the local library, I would have laughed at the plot. It’s too melodramatic. How many people burn babies and kill to revenge themselves of events that happened generations previously? Since then, however, we’ve seen continued fighting between Jews and Arabs; Iraqis and Iranians; Serbs, Croatians, and Muslims; and countless other toil, strife and genocide, the roots of which go back for centuries. The plot of Il Travatore, unfortunately, seems much more plausible and contemporary to me now than it did all those years ago.

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