“Versami un tratto; lena e coraggio…”
There’s no let up from the death and despair in Verdi’s Il Trovatore (The Troubador) which blends infanticide, kidnap and vengeful gypsies against the backdrop of medieval Spain.
The opera opens with the Count di Luna pacing beneath the window of fair Leonora whom he is attempting to woo.
As she is a no show at the window and fearing that his rival in love, the troubadour Manrico, may arrive he has his men keep watch.
However, they grow tired and so the captain, Ferrando, tells them the story of the gypsy curse afflicting the count’s family.
Many years before, one of the children of the former Count di Luna (the father of the current one) had fallen ill. A gypsy woman was blamed for this ill-fortune and burnt at the stake.
As she died she called on her daughter, Azucena, to avenge her. Azucena abducted the child and supposedly threw it on the pyre with her mother.The count refused to believe his son died however and when he died ordered the new count to track down Azucena.
While the count wanders love-struck outside and the captain warbles away, inside Leonora is professing her love of Manrico to her friend Iñes.
Now, it just so happens that Manrico has been condemned to death for supporting the Prince de Urgel against the count’s master, the Prince of Aragon. He is also the son of Azucena the gypsy and, this being opera, he also handily turns up so that Leonora can fall, lovingly, into his arms right in front of the count.
Despite the pleas of Leonora, the count in a fury, challenges Manrico to a duel, whereupon Act I ends.
Our drinking song, such as it is, takes place at the very beginning of Act II and the action has transferred to the gypsy camp.
Now the famous “Vedi le fosche notturne” or “Anvil Chorus” is sung. It is dawn and the gypsies are firing up their furnaces and singing in praise of hard work and, all importantly wine that will sustain them in their labours.
“Vedi! Le fosche notturne spoglie
De’ cieli sveste l’immensa volta;
Sembra una vedova che alfin si toglie
i bruni panni ond’era involta.
Chi del gitano i giorni abbella?
“See how the clouds melt away
from the face of the sky when the sun shines, its brightness beaming;
just as a widow, discarding her black robes,
shows all her beauty in brilliance gleaming.
So, to work now!
Lift up your hammers!
Who turns the Gypsy’s day from gloom to brightest sunshine?
His lovely Gypsy maid!”
And then the men sing:
“Versami un tratto; lena e coraggio
Il corpo e l’anima traggon dal bere.”
“Fill up the goblets! New strength and courage
flow from lusty wine to soul and body.”
What follows is somewhat confusing as Azuncena realises she made a mistake all those years ago and threw her own child onto her mother’s pyre rather than the count’s.
Heaven alone knows how she managed this but it means that Manrico is actually the brother of the count.
This she reveals to Manrico who nonetheless decides he still loves her as a mother. He tells her how he defeated the count in their duel, wounded him but was held back from killing him by a strange feeling.
He is then informed that Leonora, evidently less confident in her paramour’s fighting abilities, believes him dead and is about to become a nun.
Manrico rescues her from the nunnery but then finds himself besieged by the count who subsequently captures Azucena and makes ready to burn her at the stake too in order to lure Manrico out.
This he does and captures our hapless hero who is imprisoned by Act IV. Leonora pleads for mercy for her lover and claims she’ll marry the count if he spares Manrico.
This he does and Leonora swallows poison. Before it can take effect she runs to Manrico and Azuncena’s cell and tells him to flee.
As she cannot go he refuses and then she dies in agony in his arms and tells him she has killed herself “rather than live as another’s”.
This is very sweet of her but the count has heard and so orders Manrico’s execution anyway, despite Azuncena’s protests
When this has happened Azucena tells him the truth, that Manrico was his brother, before crying “Sei vendicata, o madre!” – “mother you are avenged!”
This, by the way, was a critical smash hit when it premiered in 1853 and is still widely performed today.
Next time: A lighter touch returns in the tale of Béatrice et Bénédict
Previously: The Damnation of Faust