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Improbable Beauty: Verdi's 'Il Trovatore'

There's a memorable scene in the 1935 comedy classic A Night at the Opera, in which Groucho Marx interrupts a deadly serious operatic aria with the astute commentary, "Boogie-Boogie-Boogie!"

The opera on stage in that scene is among the most popular of all time, Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore. The aria is sung by Azucena, one of the most complex and compelling characters in any opera. Naturally, in the film, the highbrow audience is aghast at Groucho's rude behavior.

But in truth, Il Trovatore is an easy mark. It's an opera so ripe for parody that poking fun at it almost seems unfair — especially when it's done by comedy virtuosos such as the Marx Brothers.

The opera has a complicated, basically unsavory and highly implausible story. Plus, to have any chance at all of understanding it, you first have to learn a background story that's even more complex and unlikely. Then, when it all shakes out in the end, it's hard to know who betrayed whom, who threw which baby into the fire — and whether we've just seen a bitter old man unwittingly execute his own brother or a vengeful old woman plotting to get her beloved son beheaded. Or both.

The whole thing can leave an audience wondering, "Just who are these characters, why should anyone care about them, and how did they all wind up in the same opera in the first place?"

It also raises the question of why Il Trovatore is so extraordinarily popular. Answering that is far simpler than explaining the opera's plotline: For whatever reason, Verdi blessed this convoluted story with two-plus hours of his very finest music — a seemingly endless string of memorable numbers that give clarity to a murky plotline, and bring shady characters vividly to life.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Il Trovatore in a production from the Grand Theatre of Geneva. The stars are soprano Tatiana Serjan as Leonora, tenor Zoran Todorovich as Manrico and mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura as Azucena, the woman whose grisly act of vengeance gets this perplexingly beautiful drama underway.

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