At noon on Saturday, January 12, we'll be broadcasting the Met Opera's performance Verdi's classic opera Il Trovatore.
First things first: When it comes to Verdi's Il Trovatore, let's take on the hulking beast (elephant, gorilla, what have you) in the room: that is, its extravagant plot.
The story of this opera is not what you'd call realistic. It revolves around baby-switching, as well as a mother being temporarily unable to recognize her own child.
That's caused a lot of teasing over the years, most notably from Gilbert and Sullivan, who wrote not one but two operettas in which they kidded this plot device unmercifully.
On top of that, there's a lot of Trovatore that takes place offstage. When people write plot summaries of the opera, they need to explain these unseen events somehow, and it can lead to language along the lines of "Leonora, who has decided to enter a convent," or "Manrico, having met the Count on the field of battle," and so on. Even if readers don't object to this too strenuously, people in the opera house itself may be left wondering how we got from Scene 1 to Scene 2. And where did those nuns come from?
Between improbable events, and a somewhat jerky plot line, Il Trovatore might seem like a candidate for the long list of operas that have been composed, premiered and forgotten.
But that didn't happen. Trovatore, mixed-up children and all, has been a hit from the start. The opening-night audience had the entire final scene encored, and after that, the opera triumphed throughout the world. Verdi could say, during his own lifetime, "If you go to India or the interior of Africa, you'll hear Trovatore."
One reason for its success is of course the music. Some of its melodies - the "Miserere," the Anvil Chorus--are among the most recognizable in opera. The tenor's solo, "Di quella pira," has the most blazing high C a singer could ask for. Each of the soloists, from soprano down to bass, has at least one moment when she or he can command the stage through vocal power. (Maybe this is what Enrico Caruso had in mind when he made his quip that Trovatore is an easy opera to stage — all you need is the four best singers in the world.)
Audiences also respond to the opera's mood of excitement. No one has ever accused Trovatore of dragging, as it propels us from one highly charged scene to the next. Maybe the Anvil Chorus is a kind of metaphor for the whole opera, with its driving, white-hot energy.
And It's even possible that the much-maligned plot has greater power than we realize. Behind the melodrama, Il Trovatore tells a story of vengeance and obsession. It's not a closely observed picture of daily life — but that's not the only reason we go to the theater.
The Oscar nominations for best movie have just come out. One of them is the story of a boy on a long boat trip with a tiger. Another one is about a Louisiana girl and extinct animals released from the Arctic ice. Another one is a sprawling story of injustice, love and revolution--with characters who sing.
Perhaps we are not so immune to this sort of thing as we thought. No one would call these realistic. But they may help explain why Trovatore continues its triumphal march.