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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the October 24,
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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
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
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
Trenton, 609-581-7200. In Italian with English supertitles. $20 to
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