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One of the best loved of Verdi’s operas, Il trovatore has accumulated a considerable critical literature, and yet commentators have rarely enquired into its ‘meaning’, apparently out of the conviction that, precisely because it is a pre-eminently ‘popular’ work, it has no particular ideological, social or indeed human message to convey. One received opinion concerning the opera is that it has an obscure libretto: much of the story refers to a prior event that is not presented on stage. We know that Manrico and the Conte di Luna have clashed, but we don’t know how often, or anything about the dynamic of this confrontation, while Manrico’s true identity remains elusive. However, rather than condemning the intrinsic absurdity of Il Trovatore, we would do better to view this as a structural characteristic. The evocation of facts from the past and the lack of clarity concerning their chronological order allude to a temporal structure typical of traditional narrations in which the distinction between before and after and the relationship of cause and effect are ignored. Personal identity is not a problem for the logic of the emotions, which has no knowledge of the principle of non-contradiction, according to Freud’s theory of the unconscious as developed by Ignacio Matte Blanco. In applying this principle to the theory of literature, Francesco Orlando revealed the formal procedures by which the work of art achieves the reinstatement of contents that have been repressed on account of social censorship, attenuating them and disguising them to make them acceptable. This essay argues that in Il Trovatore poet and musician have given scenic and musical form to an idea that is central in Western, and particularly Romantic, imagination, one which Freud reformulated in his maturity: the presence, in human nature, of an inextricable alliance of the urge to live and the death drive (in mythological terms, of Eros and Thanatos). These two impulses are incarnated in variable proportions in all four protagonists, with a progression that culminates in the absolute predominance of the death wish in Leonora. This thesis is verified by means of an analysis focusing on both the verbal components of the drama’s message – including a comparison with the Spanish play on which the opera is based – and the function of the musical components, in particular the virtuoso vocal writing assigned to Leonora. This interpretation requires a revision of the position usually attributed to Il Trovatore in Verdi’s creative development as a retrospective work. Precisely the systematic use of old-fashioned vocal forms and styles denotes a new phase in the composer’s parabola, as the tenacious adhesion to life and love of the heroes of the youthful operas, even when defeated, gives way to the disillusionment and quest for «peace» and «forgetfulness» that characterise Verdi’s mature and last works.
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