August 9, 2011

Trovatore's atheism: when the light in the darkness goes out

Last week's essay examined two arias from Verdi's Il Trovatore as manifestations of what I called "musical DNA", or the use of melodic structure as a clue to the blood relation of two brothers  separated at birth.

One of my Facebook friends wrote me to ask if I had any similar insights to share about the character of Leonora, the woman for whose affections Manrico and Count di Luna come to blows.

Well, funny you should ask...

When I consider Leonora, I cannot help but feel that Trovatore is one of the darkest, bleakest operas ever written, an expression (conscious or not) of the composer's own spiritual crisis and rejection of religion; indeed, of the very existence of God.  In a real sense, Il Trovatore is perhaps the first great opera with a pronounced atheistic outlook. 

If you are even casually acquainted with Verdi's life story, his attitude towards God and religion will not come as a shock.  Early in his career, Verdi seemed blessed by domestic happiness, marrying his childhood sweetheart Margherita and quickly producing a son and daughter.  All this happened as he achieved his first professional success as a Maestro di musica with published compositions.

Yet, by age 26, his dreams had turned to ashes, losing both children and his wife to illness.  Crushing depression followed, marked by a protracted period of catatonic inactivity.  It is a testament to Verdi's personal strength and integrity of character that, long before the days of psycho-therapy and anti-depressants, he was able to climb out of this black hole and resume his compositional career.

But a residue of bitterness remained, even as he found a new woman to love in Giuseppina Strepponi.  Traces of his trauma are well-documented in his long series of operatic masterworks, notably in the survivor's guilt depicted in the gallery of tortured father-figures such as Rigoletto, Amonasro, Miller, Boccanegra and many others.

Il Trovatore dates from 1853-1854, when Verdi's views on life were still in a highly depressed state.  When the public found the opera to be overly dark in tone, Verdi remarked in a letter to the Countess Maffei, "People say the opera is too sad and there are too many deaths in it.  But after all, death is all there is in life.  What else is there?"  This is the lesson Verdi had learned to date; he had learned it well.

But here's my take on Trovatore:  it's not the body-count that makes it "sad" or (as I'm contending) atheistic.  Death is not the worst thing one can imagine; it's said that joy in life could be observed among the prisoners at Auschwitz and Dachau.  The truly depressing aspect of the opera is the clear absence of God on every page..

Read the libretto without the music playing sometime, as you would read a play by Shakespeare.  You may observe what I observed:

1)  Virtually all of the scenes take place at night; in darkness.
2)  There are poetic references to light, most of them describing aspects of Leonora - just as one finds in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet
3)  Thus, Leonora represents the presence of God, just as a lit candle traditionally represents the presence of God in a church.
3)  As one finds in many vintage Italian operatic librettos, there are many generic references to God.  The characters inhabit a world in which prayers are addressed to God.
4)  At the final curtain, all prayers prove to be unanswered and, with the death of Leonora, the light is extinguished.  Ergo, God is dead.

Now let's examine the scenes in a little detail:
  • Act I scene i takes place at night, with Ferrando spinning tales to keep guardsmen awake; tales of horrific crimes which also took place under cover of darkness at night.
  • Act I scene ii is also set at night.  Leonora sings of the night she first saw Manrico in "Tacea la notte"
  • Upon her exit, the Count enters, noting "Tace la notte" (the night is silent), before remarking that Leonora must be awake since he sees "the flickering of [her] lamp". 
  • When Manrico's serenade is heard, Leonora mistakes the Count for her lover, causing her to exclaim "Ah, in the darkness I have made a terrible blunder".
  • Romantic love is routinely described as a "fire" or "flame" by all three characters:  another "light in the darkness".  In other words, the hope of true love is the only reason to live in a world marked by cruelty and sadness. 
  • Act II begins in darkness, "before daybreak".  The gypsies, who have a naturally happy approach to life, sing "The endless sky casts off her somber nightly garb, like a widow who lays aside at last her sad black veils of mourning."
  • In Act II scene ii, back in the milieu of tortured nobles, we read:  "It is night" - big surprise.  Now comes di Luna's famous aria, a love-song to Leonora.  The title?  "Il balen del suo sorriso" (The light of her smile).  Romeo's fair Juliet may be "the light that through yonder window breaks"; she may "teach the torches to burn bright", but she's got nothing on a 100-watt bulb named Leonora.
  • When Leonora prepares to enter a convent for a life of penance to God, declaring that she will turn to "Him who is the sole comfort of the sorrowful", di Luna abducts her.  In a line so rich in ironic significance for Verdi's life that he surely must have taken note of it, the Count tells his captive lady that "not even a god can take you away from me." 
  • When Manrico shows up to snatch her from the Count's clutches, he confidently asserts that "God confounds the sinful".
  • In Act III, when Azucena receives rough treatment from the Count and his henchmen, she screams out to God:  "O Dio!  O Dio!"
  • In the second scene, we learn that Act III also takes place at night; Manrico, about to wed Leonora at a chapel, informs her "At dawn we shall be attacked".  Leonora, most pathetic of brides, "How sad the light which shines on our wedding."  Light, love and Leonora are still all bound together in the opera's imagery -- but the light is dimming now.
  • Instead of a traditional love duet, the wedding couple sing a chaste innocent paean to their love accompanied by organ; they savor the "holy sound".
  • This isolated moment of contentment is interruped by reality; the news of Azucena's peril.  The bride is abandoned for the mother.
  • Act IV begins with these stage instructions:  "It is a very dark night."  Leonora, cloaked to obscure her identity and, metaphorically, to "hide her candle under a bushel", enters to be near Manrico.  She sings "In this dark night ... I am near you, though you do not know."
  • Monks pray for the condemned Manrico's soul.  Oddly, Leonora (the near-nun) finds no comfort in them:  "This hymn, these solemn mournful prayers oppress the air with terror."
  • In the final scene, the stage directions tell us "A dim light hangs from the ceiling" in Manrico and Azucena's prison cell.  Light is dying; the end is near.
  • Manrico bids Azucena sleep, saying "Rest, O Mother, while I lie here in silent prayer to God."
  • The door opens.  Manrico exclaims "Heavens - can it be?  In this pale light?"  We should now be catching on to the coded meaning of this reference to light:  yes, it's Leonora, bringing with her the hope of the presence of God; the hope of answered prayers.
  • But Leonora, in a Christ-like gesture of self-sacrifice (um, you remember Christ?  "The Light of the World"?), has taken poison so that Manrico might gain his freedom.  Have Manrico's prayers been answered by the light of Leonora's love and God's protection?
  • You know the rest.  They all die.  All of them - the mother, the son, the lover.  Di Luna is still breathing as the curtain falls, but with the breaking news he receives from dying Azucena ("You murdered your own brother!!"), I believe he surely takes his own life not long after.  With Leonora dead and his familial honor corrupted, he will have nothing to live for.
And the light is out.  And, for Giuseppe Verdi, still decades away from the sunny, sweet reconciliation of Falstaff, the universe is a cruel, dark, empty and godless wasteland where unanswered prayers echo in the void.

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