A ghost story — with love, revenge and the volume turned up

Opera • "Il Trovatore" makes a timely return to Capitol Theatre.
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Even if you think you know nothing about opera, you know at least one tune from "Il Trovatore."

You might even recognize more than the "Anvil Chorus."

"The first time I saw it, I was astounded by how much of the music I really knew and had heard before," said tenor Scott Piper, who stars as Manrico in the production opening Saturday at Utah Opera. "It was in my consciousness from somewhere, and it had to be from pop culture."

The Marx Brothers used the song in several films, including "Animal Crackers" where Chico plays a segment on the piano while Harpo clangs two horseshoes together. And in one Tiny Toons Adventures episode, anvils fall from the skies in time with the music.

No wonder "Il Trovatore" was a smash success for Verdi back in the day. It was the most popular of the composer's operas during his lifetime and it is still in opera's top 25, according to conductor Robert Tweten. But the opera isn't performed so frequently today.

Perhaps opera companies are intimidated by Enrico Caruso's oft-repeated quip that it's simple to stage "Trovatore"; all you need are "the four greatest singers in the world." In any case, it hasn't been presented at the Capitol Theatre since 1985.

Kevin Newbury, stage director for this production, thinks "Il Trovatore" is just the thing for Halloween.

"It's a ghost story, and the main character is a woman you never see," said director Kevin Newbury. Twenty years before the curtain rises, we learn in a tuneful bit of exposition, an old Gypsy woman, suspected of cursing the infant son of a Spanish count, is burned at the stake. This sets off a horrifying cycle of revenge.

"It's a very exciting piece," Newbury said. "It has a potent, confusing plot, so you need good singing actors — which, luckily, we have. ... I almost want people to feel like they're at a rock concert — excited and energized. The volume is turned up emotionally and aurally."

Notwithstanding the extreme emotions on display, Newbury insists that "Trovatore" is not that outrageous.

"People who think it's far-fetched are out of touch," he said, noting that the themes of revenge, violence and prejudice (directed against Gypsies, in this case) never go out of style.

Piper believes art's value lies in what it teaches the listener or viewer about him- or herself. "Can I, as an audience member — maybe not in the moment, but later — make parallels to what I've seen in my own life?" he asked. "Il Trovatore," he said, succeeds on that count.

If Elizabeth Bishop were to summarize the opera on a bumper sticker, she said, it would say "Real life write large."

"It's a typical story of boy wants girl who wants other boy," said the mezzo, who will portray the vengeful Gypsy, Azucena. "It's a love triangle with Gypsies and fire and swords and tunes."

While guests may not go into the theater humming the tunes, they will go out humming them, she added.

"There's not a lot of extra stuff" in the score, Tweten said. "The scenes usually start up pretty quickly. Verdi tends to zero right in on the story and get to the singing. Every character has incredible arias."

"Il Trovatore" has more plot twists than most operas. The young cast members and directing team, whose enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity are contagious, agreed that some operagoers will gain more from the experience if they're familiar with the plot and don't have to focus on the supertitles.

"I try to stage it so you don't have to be glued to the titles," Newbury said.

But others prefer the element of surprise. So, if you want do not want to know the ending — stop reading now!

The Spanish nobleman di Luna is driven equally by vengeance for his younger brother, believed to have been burned to death by the Gypsy woman Azucena (in revenge for her own mother's execution by the old count), and his passion for the lady-in-waiting Leonora. Of course, Leonora, spurns him in favor of Azucena's son, Manrico, who also happens to be a leading figure in the rebellion against di Luna's family. What no one but Azucena knows is that she mistakenly threw her own child into the fire and has been raising the old count's son as her own. But not even she realizes that di Luna is the old count's other son.

"They don't go to church together," mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop, who will portray Azucena, explains with a shrug. —


Utah Opera opens its season with "Il Trovatore."

Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City

When • Opens Saturday, Oct. 13, at 7:30 p.m.; evening performances continue Oct. 15, 17 and 19, with a 2 p.m. matinee Oct. 21.

Tickets • $13-$78

Learn more • Utah Opera offers an online course at www.utahopera.org/connect/learning-materials. Coach Carol Anderson will give pre-concert lectures one hour before curtain; company boss Christopher McBeth will conduct a Q&A after each performance.

In a nutshell • "Il Trovatore" has one of the wildest plots in operatic history. Suffice to say there are Gypsy curses, a love triangle, swapped babies (before Gilbert & Sullivan made the plot device fashionable), a bit of swordplay and a plethora of memorable tunes, including the "Anvil Chorus."