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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the October 24,

2001 edition

of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Boheme Opera: Untangling `Il Trovatore’

Giusseppe Verdi’s melody-studded "Il Trovatore"

has been the most viewed opera in the repertory in many places on

the earth. Already during the lifetime of the popular Verdi, who died

a century ago, it was his most presented opera. Joseph Pucciatti,

co-founder of Trenton’s Boheme Opera, says, in a telephone interview

from his Trenton home, "It was one of a set of three operas


when Verdi was at the height of his powers. Verdi could do no wrong.

Everything was coming together for him." Public enthusiasm soon

demanded frequent repeats of the trio of operas. The 1856-’57 season

at the Theatre des Italiens in Paris, for example, consisted of 87

performances, of which 54 were devoted to the three exemplary pieces:

"Rigoletto" (1851) and "La Traviata" and "Il


both composed in 1853.

Pucciatti conducts "Il Trovatore" at the Trenton War Memorial

Friday, October 26, at 8 p.m., and on Sunday, October 28, at 3 p.m.

Marc Verzatt directs. The principal singers are based in New York

and have had extensive experience at opera houses in the United States

and abroad. Leonora is sung by Nova Thomas; Manrico, Keith Buhl;


Ellen Rabiner; Count di Luna, Daniel Sutin; and Ferrando, Randall

Gregoire The performance is in Italian, with English supertitles.

Some have described Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto for


as "the acme of absurdity." Based on an 1836 play, "El

Trovador," ("The Troubador") by Spanish playwright


the action is set in 15th- century Spain. The plot is a tangle of

mistaken identities, rivalry in love and war, emotional stress, and

revenge. There are burnings at the stake, an execution, and a suicide

by way of a poisoned ring.

Yet when Pucciatti summarizes the story, he provides a thread that

makes it possible to navigate the maze of Verdi’s plot. He focuses

on the gypsy Azucena. Verdi himself, he observes, considered Azucena

the center of the opera. Pucciatti is responsible for the pre-concert

talk, accompanied by a sign language interpretation, which precedes

the opera.

For viewers of "Trovatore," Pucciatti’s advice

to keep your eye on the gypsy Azucena provides a secure handle on

the opera. Some 20 years before the action of the piece starts,


mother was burnt at the stake by the old Count di Luna. About to


in the raging fire, she asks her daughter to avenge her. Azucena,

mother of a baby herself, kidnaps one of the Count’s babies and


to the pyre, intending to throw the young Count into the flames. By

mistake she throws her own child into the fire. Returning to her


she brings up the young Count as her own son, Manrico, expecting that

somehow he will avenge her mother.

As the opera opens Manrico, now a troubador, commands the forces of

Biscay, against the army of Aragon, led by the young Count di Luna.

Only the gypsy Azucena knows that the opposing commanders are the

sons of the old Count di Luna.

Both commanders are in love with Leonora, a lady-in-waiting to the

Princess of Aragon. Leonora loves Manrico. Di Luna has ordered


captain of the guard, and his men to apprehend the minstrel knight,

his rival in love. While they wait, Ferrando tells the story of the

abduction of the young Count’s brother, and his being thrown into

the flames. Manrico is caught under Leonora’s window and di Luna


him to a duel. Although Manrico bests di Luna in a sword fight he

does not kill him. He rejoins Azucena at a gypsy camp.

At the camp Azucena tells the story of her mother’s death and urges

Manrico to avenge her. Manrico learns that Leonora, believing him

dead, is about to enter a nunnery. Di Luna and his followers are about

to abduct Leonora from the nunnery, but Manrico and his forces prevent

them from carrying her off. They take her to the fortress Castellor.

Di Luna’s forces lay siege to Castellor. They capture Azucena. Di

Luna has her thrown into prison and orders her burned at the stake.

Just as Manrico is about to marry Leonora he hears of Azucena’s

imprisonment. He and his men rush to save her. Di Luna defeats Manrico

and throws him and his forces into the dungeon where Azucena is being


Outside the tower, Leonora wearing a ring containing poison,


di Luna. She promises to marry him if he will free Manrico. After

di Luna agrees, Leonora enters the dungeon and takes the poison in

the ring. She dies in Manrico’s arms. Di Luna finds the lovers and

orders Manrico to be executed. He insists that Azucena witness his

death. After Manrico’s death, Azucena tells di Luna that her supposed

son was his brother and that she has now avenged her mother’s death.

Born in Trenton, Pucciatti, 47, is the co-founder of Boheme Opera

with his wife, Sandra Milstein-Pucciatti. A career teacher, now at

Trenton Central High School, he conducts the orchestra there and makes

a point of expanding his students’ musical horizons. "The


is that kids listen only to contemporary music," he says. "I

don’t want to take anything away; I want to add on. My orchestra plays

pops from today, and also Tchaikovsky."

Pucciatti is convinced that playing in the orchestra helps students

with other subjects. "They become aware of details, and develop

cognitive skills and perceptions. It helps them perform better in

everything they do."

Composer of three one-act operas, Pucciatti says that he was much

influenced by Puccini, to some extent by Verdi, and by American


Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Carlisle Floyd. "I never

got into the real 20th century atonality," he says. "I must

be a throwback to earlier times when melody was king. Listening to

bleeps and blips and blops doesn’t do a thing for me."

Pucciatti talks about "Il Trovatore" vividly,

and with passion. His insight into the characters and the action make

the opera come alive and yield contemporary implications.

"This was the medieval period," Pucciatti says. "It was

a time of superstition and hatred. In the opening scene Ferrando has

made Azucena into a "strega," a witch. He turns her into an evil

monster. A gypsy is not a witch, but the superstitious soldiers are

frightened. Ferrando talks about vicious gypsies who turn themselves

into owls and other birds, who will come into your house and scare

you to death. There’s a whole dynamic playing out. The evil propaganda

propagated by di Luna’s generals and commanders is really racism


the gypsies, who are just a migrant people. That permeates the whole


"When we think of September 11, there’s a parallel. There was

the aftermath of going after Arab-Americans for no reason at all.

The Spaniards were going after gypsies the same way."

"Stage director Marc Verzatt has wonderful ideas about how to

present the narration of what has happened before the opera


says Pucciatti. "It can be boring. That’s why I like this


Verzatt knows the text, is true to it, and has that racist slant about

Ferrando, feeding into his men’s horror. He’s turned the men into

a lynch mob. That’s what makes the narrative so exciting."

"When Count di Luna captures Azucena, Verzatt shows that he’s

not a nice man," Pucciatti says. "He’s ready to kill her.

She’s interrogated. There’s no due process. The soldiers around the

campfire are drunk. They’re bloodthirsty mercenaries out for


Nobody will come to Azucena’s defense. There’s no mercy to be had.

War is an ugly thing."

Pucciatti finds Azucena a sympathetic character. "Azucena still

hears her mother calling for revenge twenty years later," he says.

"She can still see her mother burning at stake with the fire


That has to do something to you."

"Trovatore" is Verzatt’s third collaboration with Pucciatti

at Boheme. The two are enthusiastic co-workers. "You almost don’t

need the English supertitles when Marc directs," Pucciatti says,

"but we’ll have them because people want to know every step of

the way."

Pucciatti credits production manager Howard Siskowitz with making

possible his work and Verzatt’s. "Scenic designers are not


at our level," he says. "There’s a lot of rental. The


manager looks into that. I rely on Howard 100 percent. He started

work on renting sets from Syracuse in July. He must have been on the

phone weekly asking `Is this too big?’ `Is this too heavy?’ `What

about the anvils?’ `What about the shoes?’ He tells me where I need

to be looking. He watches the show and reminds the director if a


is three feet in the air and will fall. Marc and I just want to come

in and make magic. He sets it up for us."

The magic that Pucciatti seeks requires the avoidance of what he calls

"spaghetti opera," a style of presentation consisting of what

he calls "plant and sing." Distinguishing between what he

calls "a pseudo-concert" — "spaghetti opera" —

and opera as it should be, Pucciatti says, "opera is more than

standing there, putting on a costume and singing. Spaghetti opera

is not what Verdi wanted. You have to ask yourself, `Why did he write

music like that?’"

By his own explanation, Verdi composed music like that out of a


theatrical sense. "There is hardly any music in my house,"

he wrote. "I have never gone to a music library, never to a


to examine a piece. I keep abreast of some of the better contemporary

works not by studying them but through hearing them occasionally at

the theater. . . I am the least erudite among past and present


Convoluted plots and unlikely situations bothered Verdi not at all.

"In the theater," he said, "the public will stand for

anything but boredom."

— Elaine Strauss

Il Trovatore , Boheme Opera, War Memorial Theater,

Trenton, 609-581-7200. In Italian with English supertitles. $20 to

$55. Friday, October 26, 8 p.m. and Sunday, October 28, 3


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