Every fan of Mozart's Don Giovanni has to find a way to deal with the scene where the peasant girl Zerlina shows her meek devotion to her fiancé by urging him to beat her. Those were the mores of the time, say most of us, feeling lucky to live in a more enlightened age.
That moral calculus doesn't work so well with Il Trovatore, which recycles the ugliest of "Gypsy" stereotypes. The Canadian Opera Company is reviving Verdi's blazing melodrama at a time when tolerance for Roma people is taking a beating here and abroad.
The plot turns on an opening narration about a Gypsy fortune teller, found near a noble infant's cradle and presumed to have put a wasting hex on him. The witch is tracked down and burnt to death. Her "accursed daughter" Azucena steals the boy, intending to torch him on the same pyre, but brings him up instead as her own son. The dead woman's witchiness is proved by her return as various spooky animals, one of which scares a man to death.
Every period in modern history, including our own, has given Roma people a starring role in fantasies of paranoid xenophobia. Verdi hit all the high points: sorcery, child-theft, deceit, hag-like appearance and an inherently damned condition.
Why does this matter now? Because violent anti-Roma incidents in Eastern Europe have escalated with the rise of far-right groups. Because Roma settlements in France and Italy are being bulldozed, with no provision for alternative shelter. Because in June our federal government moved to limit Roma refugee claims with legislation that could deem all 27 EU countries to be "safe." That would be news to Roma living in western Hungary, where Amnesty International reported that in August, 1,000 supporters of the far-right party Jobbik paraded through one town, smashed windows of Roma homes and heard speeches urging action against "parasite gypsies." Jobbik won 17 per cent of the vote and 12 seats in Hungarian parliamentary elections in 2010.
Earlier this month, Sun News columnist Ezra Levant aired a screed in which he said that Canada's growing Roma population would "rob us blind as they have done in Europe for centuries." He was probably thinking of social benefits, not babies, but his rhetoric suggested that some Canadians still nurse the old gypsy stereotypes.
Fans of Il Trovatore tend to focus on its abundant melody, dramatic energy and famously difficult singing roles. The politics of the piece are presumed dead, or nullified by Azucena's maternal feeling for her stolen son. But current events have caught up with the opera in a way that Verdi, who knew the political power of the stage, would have understood.
So how should we handle his story of the Gypsy witch? If you set aside the spooky animals part, and listen against the grain, you hear the tale of an outsider killed simply because she was on the scene when a little boy fell ill. In 1905, when Il Trovatore was on the operatic hit parade from Paris to New York, six Roma men were arrested in a town outside Philadelphia, because they happened to be staying near the place where a missing boy was found murdered. According to the New York Times, "hundreds of men and women gathered along the streets. As the prisoners were brought in, there were cries of 'Lynch them!' 'Hang them!'" Verdi never set that chorus to music, but for me, the scene is a vivid and valid part of the backstory of Il Trovatore.