I always find it strange when, during polite conversation, smart and well-educated people tell me that “opera is boring”, “completely out of touch with modern day reality”, “a show of fat, yelling singers”. The fact that these statements are held true by so many made me wonder about the reasons behind such a drastic and extremist position.
There probably is a variety of reasons: first of all, for a very long time opera was seen as an elitist enjoyment for the rich and powerful, something that the average citizen couldn’t understand nor appreciate. Another reason is that the people working in the industry, from singers to musicologists, have basked in the glory of such a prestigious activity for decades, enhancing the sense of distance between “common mortals” and themselves.
The third hurdle might be language: the vast majority of opera is written in Italian, which could be considered an obstacle for anyone other than people who are fluent in the language. Oddly, however, Italians are not immune from this forma mentis, so I believe it safe to say that language alone is not a determining variable of the issue. Of course, when we consider language, we must also consider the fact that opera librettos are often written using archaic structure and vocabulary, which do require a certain degree of proficiency in the art of paraphrase in order to bring the speech to a modern, more understandable form.
Once you strip away the “difficulties”, however, what you’re left with is a very simple and relatively short piece of literature that is a concentrate of human nature with its joys, its miseries and – most importantly – its universality, both in time and space.
Nonsense, you might say, what could someone in 2018 possibly have in common with Azucena, an old gypsy woman from The Troubadour, an opera first performed in 1853 and set during XVth century’s civil war plagued Spain?
Well, humanity itself! Context is irrelevant: Azucena is tormented by actions that are particular to her situation, but the same torment may be true in a war veteran returning from Syria today. The feelings are the same, the only difference lies in the circumstances in which they are formed: from an evolutionary standpoint, in fact, humans haven’t really changed significantly during the past few thousands of years. The same is true when we address accusations about opera being irrelevant today: it is relevant now more than ever, as we wander into times where conveying specific meaning is becoming a more and more difficult feat to attain.
So I’ve decided to (try to) prove to you all that opera is relevant and it is useful to the understanding of human nature: it can be an example that explains events in our lives, it can be a reason for introspection, it can be an occasion for the widening of one’s own self-imposed horizons. Without further ado, let’s start with the afore-mentioned Azucena from Il Trovatore.
Who is Azucena?
If we were in a police office today, Azucena would be defined as a female in her late 30s, of Romani descent, homeless. Parents deceased, no husband, has one son of approximately 20 years of age, who goes by the name Manrico and is wanted by local authorities for his involvement in the attempted coup d’état.
If we were to describe Azucena as a human being, we would find that she was left motherless some 15 years prior because her mom was found in a Count’s home, suspiciously lurking around the Count’s very young son. The boy fell ill (probably due to the exposure to germs he hadn’t been in contact with beforehand): the old woman was accused of sorcery and burnt at the stake while her daughter Azucena – who also had a young son of her own – looked on in terror and disbelief (“The crackling flame fizzles” aria text and English translation), the words “avenge me!” ringing in her ears and resonating in her mind.
It is interesting to see how differently the two sides remember those days: Azucena explains how her mother was unjustly accused and murdered by the “evil Count”, while the Count’s closest servant recalls (“Blissful father of two sons” aria text and English translation) how the old witch sneaked into the house in order to put a spell on the young boy, who consequently caught a serious fever that rattled him for days.
After the witch died, she kept on roaming the Earth, killing one of the servants who had struck her. Superstitious and extremely frightened of the unknown, they needed to find someone responsabile for the events that happened, and cannot conceive that coincidences just… happen. Tough luck: babies get sick, especially when they’re very young and antibiotics don’t exist. Arguably, this is a case of grave misunderstanding, rather than foul play: too bad Hanlon’s Razor hadn’t been invented yet.
Soon after these events, the child disappeared. The smoking remains of a young boy were found in the same spot where the old witch had been burnt, so it is implied that Azucena had burnt him. Blinded by rage and hate, Azucena had in fact decided to take matters into her own hands: she did abduct the child with the intent of burning him in the fire. An eye for an eye, we might say.
However – and this is a piece of information that is revealed quite late in the game – she was so shaken and traumatized by the sight of her mother dying that she mistakenly threw her own son into the flames. She grabbed the wrong boy without even noticing it, watched his flesh melt in the fire and when the horrible vision was over, she turned around and saw the Count’s son standing in front of her instead of her own. Now pause for one second and try to imagine what went through her mind in that very moment. Horrible, right? It’s not like you can undo something so huge. Her boy, her flesh and blood, is dead, and the reason he’s dead is that she killed him with her own two hands.
The enormity of what she has done is such that she goes insane. Today, it could be argued that what she has is a very severe case of PTSD, which is a more than reasonable diagnosis for a person who has gone through such traumatic experiences. Her only coping mechanism, the only way that allows her mind to keep functioning is denial on the one hand and thirst for revenge on the other. Her denial translates into adopting that hated child as her own, the boy who was the cause of her mother’s and her own son’s gruesome demises.
She hates him but she loves him: of course she knows who he is, but the schism inside her mind is the only thing allowing her to survive. In this new found, precarious equilibrium lies a huge problem, however. She can’t kill that child anymore, so her aspirations for retaliation must be addressed elsewhere, and the only direction she can point her gun is the boy’s older brother, who would become the “new” Count of Luna after his father’s death.
Fifteen years pass and the two brothers still don’t know anything about each other: one is a Count who has promised to keep searching for the evil woman who had killed his younger sibling, while the other believes himself to be his abductor’s child. What is worse is that they have become mortal enemies both on political and personal grounds (they fight for opposite factions and love the same woman).
Shortly after the two duel over the woman they both love, Azucena brings herself to tell Manrico, her “son”, the story of how her mother died and how she kidnapped the baby and then killed the wrong one (“She was led in chains” aria text and English translation). She is a broken human being, having lived for fifteen years with just one thought on her mind: getting revenge. The miserable woman tells the whole story as if in a trance, as if transported back in time to those horrible days, then basically confesses to Manrico that he is not really her son, the secret escaping her as she goes through the events that led them to this point.
Surprisingly, he only timidly asks “I’m not your son. Then who am I?” before getting bamboozled by Azucena, who explains that she’s confused and asks him whether she has ever shown little love for him or proven to be less than a caring and loving mother. She manipulates him into speaking about the time when he has fought with his brother, and he becomes distracted while telling her the details of the fight. It is unclear whether he truly believes her or whether he simply loves her and appreciates her support so much that his true heritage is of no relevance to him. It is frustrating and strange that – smart as he is – he can’t put together the pieces and figure out who his family is.
He tells his mother/abductor that he couldn’t get himself to murder the man, even though he had a significant advantage. A sharp chill made his body shiver and a voice from Heaven told him not to strike: fratricide is an extremely serious sin, and Manrico’s instincts are on point. “Strange pity” Azucena replies, as if the reason behind this sudden halt were unintelligible to her. She doesn’t care if he dirties his hands with his brother’s blood, on the contrary: she manipulates him into becoming the weapon for her revenge and invites him to plunge his dagger into his brother’s heart the next time he sees him (“Fighting off poorly my fierce attack” aria text and English translation). He swears on the blade, she jubilates and the pieces are all in place for disaster to happen.
Later on Manrico is away fighting and Azucena is captured by the Count (Manrico’s brother) as she wanders around looking for him (“Forward, you witch, forward!” video and English translation). This would be a perfect time for her to confess that she messed up and the Count’s brother is actually alive. This woud bring peace and reconciliation between the two, no blood would be shed and all would end well.
Unfortunately, that’s not an outcome that is desirable for Azucena: what she wants is the man in front of her dead, she wants revenge and she wants it with every atom of her being. The sight of her mother dying on the stake is with her every step of the way. “Avenge me” the old woman said, her eyes burning out of her skull. That’s one image that Azucena cannot forget, but most important of all, cannot forgive. So she lies, again. Of course the Count takes advantage of such a precious prisoner, uses her to flush Manrico out of the castle under siege and manages to capture him (“The flames of that terrible pyre” aria text and English translation).
During their short time together in captivity, she once again fails to tell him about his heritage. To the end, she pursues her goal of getting revenge, and when the Count finally executes Manrico, she cries “He was your brother! You are avenged, mother!”. These final words have always puzzled me, because she leads the audience to believe that she does love the young man with all her heart and would never do anything to harm him, let alone have him killed.
But still, her actions and in particular her constant withholding of vital information is what kills Manrico in the end. Her desperate joy in having achieved her goal, one way or another, is the final indicator of her descent into madness (“You are avenged, oh mother” final scene with English subtitles).
The Count is horrified, as he realizes he has just murdered his own brother, and the audience – for the first time in the entire show – suddenly sides with him. Azucena’s plotting has borne the most horrible of fruits, the battle in her head finally over, with revenge victorious over love. You suddenly realize what a monster she is and has been the whole time, and at the same moment you wonder how you could have possibly trusted her. The Count is – in the end – the true victim: manipulated and lied to until it is too late and the people he loves are all dead.
And all this because one day an old gypsy decided it was a good idea to go inside someone’s house and stare at a baby.