Verdi's 'Il Trovatore': Profound or Preposterous?

The opera is in four parts, each with a descriptive title. The story takes place in Spain, early in the 1600s.

PART ONE is called "The Duel." It opens as an old soldier named Ferrando tells his troops about the sad family history of their commander, Count di Luna.

The count once had an infant brother. One night, the baby's nurse woke up to find a gypsy lurking over the cradle. When the child became sick soon afterwards, the gypsy was blamed, and burned at the stake. As she was dying, she urged her daughter to take revenge. So the daughter kidnapped the infant, and, according to Ferrando, tossed him into a fire -- burning him at the very stake where her mother died. That's the story, anyway. But the Count, Ferrando says, nurtures hopes that another child actually died in the fire, and that his brother is still alive.

In the next scene, in the palace gardens, Leonora tells her lady-in-waiting, Inés, that she has fallen in love.  Leonora says she went to a tournament, and fell in love with a mysterious young knight, whose face was hidden behind his armor. She hasn't seen him since, and has no idea who he is. But sometimes she hears him singing to her, from beneath her window.

The Count then arrives to court Leonora. But at the same time, the voice of the mysterious knight -- the troubadour -- floats on the air, again serenading Leonora. Count di Luna is jealous, and challenges the interloper to a duel. The two men draw swords as Part One ends.

PART TWO is called "The Gypsy," and opens in a gypsy camp. Azucena is caring for her wounded son -- he's Manrico. And he's the mysterious troubadour who was serenading Leonora. Azucena tells the story of her mother, who was burned at the stake, and how Azucena then kidnapped an infant, intending to burn him alive to avenge her mother. Manrico is horrified when Azucena tells him that, in her delirium at the time, she grabbed her own baby instead, and flung him into the fire by mistake.

Distraught by the memory, Azucena makes Manrico swear to take revenge on Count di Luna. Manrico says that he had the power to kill the Count in their duel, but something deep inside him made him stop. His story is interrupted when a messenger arrives, with the news that Leonora thinks Manrico has been killed. In despair, she has decided to enter a convent, so Manrico rushes off to stop her.

Meanwhile, Count di Luna has also gotten wind of Leonora's plans. So he's waiting outside the convent, planning to kidnap her. When she appears, he steps out to grab her. But Manrico arrives and intervenes. As Part Two ends, his men overpower Count di Luna, as Manrico and Leonora escape.

In PART THREE, "The Gypsy's Son," Count di Luna prepares to attack the castle where the two lovers are hiding out -- and his troops are sure of victory.  Then, the old soldier Ferrando enters, dragging the gypsy Azucena behind him. "Look who I found snooping around the camp!" he says.

He recognizes Azucena as the very woman who kidnapped and, everyone thinks, murdered the Count's infant brother by throwing him into a fire, many years ago.  She did it in revenge, after the count executed Azucena's mother. The Count has long hoped that some other child was actually killed, and his brother might still be alive. Still, Count di Luna orders Azucena burned at the stake, just as her mother was.

Inside the castle, Manrico and Leonora are preparing to get married. But Manrico's henchman Ruiz rushes in to tell them that Azucena has been captured and condemned. They can all see the pyre in the distance, already burning. Manrico and his men rush off to save her.

The title of PART FOUR is "The Execution." Manrico has been taken prisoner by Count di Luna. To save him, Leonora offers herself to the Count in exchange. When the Count agrees, Leonora secretly swallows poison.  She exults at foiling the Count's plans, and rushes to the prison, where Manrico and Azucena are being held.

Leonora tells Manrico he's been released, and should flee. But when he realizes how Leonora must have paid for his freedom, he denounces her. Leonora tries to respond, but the poison has already started to take effect, and she dies in Manrico's arms.

The Count arrives and realizes what has happened. He gives orders for Manrico to be put to death. Azucena watches grimly as Manrico is led to the executioner's block. Then, just as the ax falls, she turns to Count di Luna and cries out that her mother has finally been avenged. "You," she tells the Count, "have just killed your own brother."