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Giuseppe Verdi's 'Il Trovatore'

For better or worse, Verdi's Il Trovatore has everything a prototypical, or even a stereotypical opera is often assumed to have: Brilliant vocal lines – and a weirdly implausible plot. Compelling dramatic action – and a basically incomprehensible plot. Shatteringly beautiful music – and a totally ridiculous plot. You get the idea. Or, more to the point, you might listen to the opera and not get the idea. For all its beauties, Trovatore can be that confusing.

But when it comes to that muddled plot, maybe the opera has gotten a bad rap. Maybe it's not the story of the opera itself that's so confusing. Instead, perhaps the confusion lies with the complicated "back story" – the stuff that happens before the opera even starts, to set up the action. At the very beginning of the opera, a minor character gives us that information in a long monologue — and it's so complicated and implausible that listeners may wind up confused before the real plot ever gets going.

So, we'll try to make that back story easier to swallow by updating it a little – by translating it into events that might happen today. Here goes:

An aging woman runs a day care center. One of the children she cares for is the son of a well-known and popular politician — a big shot. Unfortunately, the young boy dies, accidentally, while in her facility. The woman was not at fault, but the politician needs a scapegoat. He hires expensive lawyers and brings charges. In court, the woman doesn't have a prayer. She's convicted, sentenced to death, and sent to the electric chair.

Her daughter witnesses the execution. She's a wild-eyed young woman with an infant son of her own, and she vows revenge. Soon after, the politician's other son, a baby, disappears from his crib. Small, charred bones are discovered in a junkyard incinerator. Authorities believe the daughter kidnapped and killed the child, but she's long gone.

What really happened is this: The vengeful daughter did kidnap the baby, intending to burn him alive to avenge her mother. She drove to the incinerator, bringing her own child along. But in her blind rage, she grabbed the wrong baby from the car, and tossed her own son into the flames. The shock of the dreadful mistake tempered her anger, and to make up for her loss she decided to raise the kidnapped boy as her own. So now, unknown to the big shot, his supposedly murdered son is being raised by the suspected murderer.

OK, so the updated story is hardly more plausible than Verdi's version. It sounds like a bad TV movie. But, consider this: A woman is mad with fury and kills her own son by mistake when she meant to murder the son of her enemy. Why on Earth would she show mercy toward the surviving baby, and raise him herself? Wouldn't he go straight into the flames as well? Mull that over while you're listening to Il Trovatore. Concentrate on the actions of Azucena, the vividly drawn Gypsy character. Observe the grisly, ultimate fate of her "adopted son." Then decide whether maybe — just maybe — Azucena was anything but a devoted mother, and intended him for the chopping block all along.

This week on World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Il Trovatore — an outlandish story set to some of Verdi's most glorious music — in a Houston Grand Opera production starring Irina Mishura as the wily Azucena and Marcello Giordani as the ill-fated adoptee.

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