Whenever you hear a good performance of any one of at least half a dozen operas by Giuseppe Verdi, it’s tempting to think: this surely he can never have surpassed. Il Trovatore, from his fecund middle phase, is one such opera. But then one recalls La Traviata and Don Carlo and Otello – on the list goes – and simply marvels at the variety and richness of his oeuvre.
Trovatore followed Rigoletto, which was given its première in Venice in March 1851. Verdi had returned to Busseto to face various personal problems arising from his notorious relationship with Giuseppina Strepponi, whom he would not marry until 1859. Agnostic and stubborn by nature, Verdi quarrelled with his parents, eventually relocating them to a house outside Busseto (his mother died in June 1851).
Domestic burdens apart, Verdi was rarely idle for long, certainly not in those years. Often drawn to Spanish subjects, he was attracted to El Trovador, a play by Antonio García Gutiérrez, first performed in Madrid in 1836. Gutiérrez, like Verdi, was a devotee of Victor Hugo. The play is a romantic melodrama set against the backdrop of a fifteenth-century Spanish civil war. Salvatore Cammarano – most acclaimed for his libretto for Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) – was the chosen librettist. He and Verdi had already collaborated on three operas: Alzira (1845), La battaglia di Legnano (1849), and Luisa Miller (1849).