Amongst the not-ready-for-primetime-closeups performers on the 1998 Maryinsky video of the original version of Forza, one performance, that of Mariana Tarasova as the gypsy fortune teller Preziosilla, is consistently effective. When allowed anything approaching its full importance (usually in festival productions or on recordings), this role has come to be taken by the same singers who perform the other big Verdi mezzo parts—Azucena, Eboli, Amneris. But it is nothing like them. It is more like Oscar in Un Ballo in maschera, mixed with dashes of Ulrica in the same opera and perhaps of Maddalena in Rigoletto. It’s also clearly related to a type familiar in French light opera, that of the vivacious camp follower who bucks up the troops (cf. Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, a clear precedent for Verdi). The writing is full of runs and trills, takes in sustained high B-naturals and a passing C, yet is designated mezzo and has important phrases in the low extension. In the Inn Scene, Preziosilla sings a drumroll song urging everyone present to pack up and head for Italy to fight the Germans; tells some unserious fortunes predicting rank and glory for the muleteers; and promises to keep her mouth shut when she sees through Carlo’s disguise as a student. In the Act 3 camp scene, she has a nice little song while telling some more fortunes, then leads the now generally disrespected “Rataplan,” which usually ends the act.
So Preziosilla has followed her own advice. From her Act 1 hangout at Hornachuelos, in Córdoba to the northeast of Seville, by Act 3 here she is, several years later, at Velletri, a bit southeast of Rome. Also here are (we assume) a number of her cheerleaders from the inn, including Trabuco, the muleteer who kept himself apart, declined the Friday evening meal, and, annoyed by Carlo’s questioning about his passenger of questionable gender, left the convivial gathering to sleep with the mules. He’s now a buyer and seller of trinkets. We need to understand that for these folks war truly is, as Preziosilla sings, beautiful. For the enterprising, following the troops offers a great deal more opportunity than scratching for miserable livings at home, and is probably no less safe. And switching trades is a no-brainer when trickle-down booty beckons.
I guess Trabuco is Jewish! I confess that after many performances seen and heard, the thought had never occurred to me, or to two other Forza-savvy acquaintances, one of them Jewish. Yet Roger Parker, in the New Grove’s Encylopedia of Opera, identifies the character as “the Jewish pedlar” (sic—English publication), and Julian Budden, in his invaluable three-volume study of the Verdi operas, tells us that the Act 3 autograph specifies an “Ebreo,” who was apparently conflated with the Inn Scene muleteer late in the compositional process. So in performance, the behavior of a potentially troublesome two-in-one character must be reconciled. Skipping the meal at the inn is not, I think, definitive. A Catholic might have done that. “Fasting?” asks Carlo. “Exactly,” answers Trabuco, and Carlo, on the evidence not much of a liberal, accepts the reply without suspicion. There is, however, the music and text of Trabuco’s camp scene arietta, “A buon mercato,” a choice delicacy for generations of comprimario tenors. Entering to sell, he instead buys, bargaining down (“We’ll adjust, we’ll adjust”) for the “ugly rubbish” offered, congratulating himself on “such good business,” and exiting to a repetition of his opening cry. The music has a wheedling tone (generally reinforced by the typical Italian “character tenor” timbre) and is repeat with trills uncharacteristic of Verdi’s writing for any male voice. So, granted that the religious census question has been settled, how is the character to be presented? Any 18th-Century Spanish Jew—an alive one, that is—would have to have been a converso, his appearance and behavior carefully conformed to Christian norms. So Trabuco would be careful not to “act” Jewish. It’s the music that’s the giveaway. Maybe the solution is to hire the best old-style cantor we can find, one with a strong yet melismatic voice, and direct him to “act” like an assimilated Spaniard. (Since the scene is brief, this will be a stereotyped cameo. Be ready for the pickets.) That leaves us with only two characters of any significance, Preziosilla and the Padre Guardiano, who do not spend most of their stage time under assumed identities—and the former is a performative survivor, the latter a person whose qualities are encased in his religious persona, also a construct.