With Il trovatore, Verdi dealt another blow to the moral standards of his time. Two years earlier he had staged a hunchback and a dissolute monarch and a few months later it was the turn of a grande horizontale. Here we have a gypsy, an outcast by society – only an alleged madness makes Azucena an acceptable protagonist. Originally the opera was to be entitled The Gypsy.

Vincenzo Milletarì
© Tabocchini Zanconi

In the case of Rigoletto and La traviata the censors requested the backdating of the events to weaken the shock. For Il trovatore the more exotic (15th-century Spain) and folkloric setting (the colourful and lively gypsies) made this unsound plot, taken from Antonio García Gutiérrez' drama El Trovador, more suitable to the bourgeois audience; it was the biggest success in the history of Spanish theatre at the time.

But it is not only the subject that diverges from tradition, it is also the music. Caruso has been credited with the joke that Il trovatore is very easy to stage: all you need is a suitable soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone! It implies that the scenery is not essential, and in some cases it would be better without it – unless you want to transform the performance into the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera!

Il trovatore
© Tabocchini Zanconi

In Macerata, where Festival at the Arena Sferisterio is taking place despite the pandemic, a reduced Il trovatore is performed in concert and the drama unfolds with the force of music alone. And what music it is! The second of the popular trilogy has a dark, nocturnal character, a night lit only by the flashes of fire, the fire of the bivouacs and the ravages of the war, but also of bonfires. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, the word “cielo” (heaven, sky) is constantly recurring, in both its meanings: there is no hope of light on earth, but only a distant afterlife to find solace.

All this is clear to Vincenzo Milletarì, a conductor of Sicilian origin educated in Northern Europe, who dealt with the endeavour with great awareness, right from the placement of the orchestra: the instruments are on stage, in due distance from each other, occupying most of the vast space – between the harp on the far left and the percussion on the right were more than fifty metres, with a perceivable stereophonic effect, unprecedented in an opera hall. The arrangement of the orchestra is only partly traditional: the cellos are in a single row on the right in front of violas and double basses, while the woodwinds occupy the center, the horns are on the left and the other brass instruments on the right.

Roberta Mantegna (Leonora)
© Tabocchini Zanconi

Milletarì's gestures are broad and manifest, the attacks are precise. He breathes and pauses with the singers and the result is a Trovatore less bombastic than usual, but full of the nocturnal colours and the sober timbres of this unusual score. The agogic range chosen by the young director is broad: oases of lunar calm moments alternate with moments of fiery excitement, but never too pompous. In a letter to the librettist Salvadore Cammarano, Verdi complained of the many isolated pieces (“more concert pieces than real opera”) and here, Milletarì might not exhibit a totally convincing unity of intent. Nonetheless, his conducting has a narrative pace supported by a great tension.

Il trovatore is a sequence of scenes formed by an introduction, an aria and a cabaletta, thus proving how much Verdi owed to Donizetti, who in turn much owed to Mozart. Leonora's arias are next in line with those of Donizetti's heroines, but also with the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro. The poignant tunes of “Tacea la notte placida” and “D'amor su l'ali rosee” were entrusted to the soprano Roberta Mantegna, the same Léonore once appreciated in Parma in the French version, Le trouvère. She showed excellent breath and legato, a well-controlled emission and coloratura performed with ease. Luciano Ganci (Manrico) did not do much to make the title character less simpleminded, but he was vocally bold and, though lowered in tone, he rounded the promontory of “Di quella pira” at full sail. Veronica Simeoni, a last-minute replacement, was a young Azucena, not the usual cavernous-speaking hag. Maybe some accents were a little verismo style and “Ai nostri monti” not as dreamlike as one would like, but the character was firmly outlined. Unfortunately, Massimo Cavalletti (Conte di Luna) had some strained and unhappily tuned sounds. Much more convincing than the night before as Masetto was Davide Giangregorio (Ferrando) whose compelling narrative in the opening scene was full of colours.

On the visual side, the projections of cloudy or lunar skies on the back wall were of little account: the dusk hues and the lighting adequately created the atmosphere that can almost entirely be found in the music itself.