A GYPSY burned as a witch, infants switched at birth, mortal enemies who have no idea they are brothers: it sometimes seems that Verdi's romantic melodrama "Il Trovatore" exists just to be made fun of. The tradition goes back a long way.
Julian Budden's three-volume study of Verdi's operas notes that within months of the "Trovatore" premiere in 1853, parodies were springing up not only in Italy but also abroad. That vogue for satire was "a sure sign of overwhelming popularity," Mr. Budden wrote, adding that "of all his output, 'Il Trovatore' was the most loved in Verdi's own day." In the English-speaking world sendups like "The Pirates of Penzance" (1879) and "A Night at the Opera" (1935) are classics in their own right.
The Scottish director David McVicar, a huge star at the Royal Opera in London and elsewhere, is not among the work's defenders. His new production, his Metropolitan Opera debut, opens on Monday.
"On a bad day I think 'Il Trovatore' is one of the stupidest operas ever written," Mr. McVicar said shortly after arriving in New York. "Before I took it on, I thought that. But that's why I took it on. Obviously it doesn't work on an intellectual level the way Mozart's great operas do. But at an emotive level the grand passions have huge power."
Opera stages, notably in Germany, are overrun with university-trained director-theorists who fancy themselves whistle blowers, impelled to expose the rottenness at the core of the societies that produced them. Too often their imposed concepts and radical critiques make better polemics than theater. At first glance Mr. McVicar, 42, may seem to be one of them.
But no. His reservations about "Il Trovatore" notwithstanding, he acts as Verdi's advocate almost in spite of himself. Maintaining the Spanish locale, he moves the action from 1409 (an unremarkable year in an era of obscure power struggles) to the still-remembered Spanish War of Independence, fought against Napoleon and memorialized for the ages in the nightmare imagery of Goya's "Desastres de la Guerra."
"What guides me," Mr. McVicar said, "is that that period must work musically. The early 19th century fits with Verdi's tinta, the dark palette he creates for Spain."
In Mr. McVicar's hands, "Il Trovatore" thus has a chance to emerge as the drama Verdi intended rather than as the succession of magnificent melodies less exacting interpreters settle for.
"Verdi believed in 'Il Trovatore,' " Mr. McVicar said. "I don't want to mock it. I wanted to see if I could make it work on its own terms, as I imagine he wanted it to be. All I have to work with is my imagination and my research. And the cast. I'm not a prescriptive director. I have to make the singers look closely at motivation, to find a reality that works for them. Without that the opera won't yield up much."
Manrico, the troubadour of the title, is both a poet and a man of war, given to fits of violence. The tenor Marcelo Álvarez has a volatile quality Mr. McVicar considers perfect for the part.
The baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky is Count di Luna, the elder brother Manrico does not know he has. In one of the trickiest moments for the stage director, the two men prowl a palace garden, and Leonora, the woman they both desire, mistakes the hated di Luna for her beloved Manrico.
"It's dark," Mr. McVicar said. "She's working on smell, on the way her skin feels as the man gets close. It's a moment we might find in Shakespeare, only he would have written it better. All Leonora's senses tell her this is her man. And here's Hvorostovsky with his beautiful mane of silver hair, looking nothing like Álvarez. There has to be some way to make that hair work theatrically."
Leonora is portrayed by the soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. Too often, Mr. McVicar finds, the character comes onstage as a "poncy lady in a big frock." To him she is closer to a Brontë heroine on the moors, or to Beethoven's Leonore in "Fidelio," who, like this Leonora, will stop at nothing to free her man from prison.
Neither brother, in Mr. McVicar's view, loves Leonora for the "brave, complex, human being she is."
"For them," he said, "she's more like a football. It's almost as if they sensed their lost bond, and that's the source of their hatred." Despite that hatred, Mr. McVicar pointed out, neither brother proves capable of killing the other by his own hand.
At the opera's climax Leonora offers di Luna sex for Manrico's freedom and instantly swallows slow poison. Even so, Mr. McVicar is convinced that she fulfills her part of the bargain.
"There's no doubt in my mind," he said. "And for the artist it's a far more dramatic choice. But that's Sondra too. We've butched her up, made her proactive. This isn't a lady who needs much rescuing."
By consensus, originating with Verdi himself, the most fascinating character in the opera is Azucena, daughter of the Gypsy burned as a witch. At the same time her back story is the crux of the "Trovatore" problem. Azucena is the one who kidnapped di Luna's brother, intending to throw him into the fire. In her confusion she incinerated her own son instead, then raised Manrico as the instrument of her revenge.
The mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, returning to the Met 20 years after her house debut in the part, has given Azucena's role as the opera's prime mover a lot of thought.
"The opera is hard to stage because the plot is extremely complicated," Ms. Zajick said recently between rehearsals. "It makes perfect sense once you figure it out. For the first two acts Azucena is trying to get Manrico to kill di Luna. In Acts III and IV she's trying to get di Luna to kill Manrico."
For Ms. Zajick, Azucena is a textbook case of post-traumatic stress disorder: no anachronism, she insists, since the condition predated the clinical terminology.
"At another time in history it was called shell shock," she said. "The trap is to play Azucena as insane. She isn't schizophrenic. She has flashbacks."
Other difficulties in putting "Il Trovatore" across, Ms. Zajick said, stem from a contemporary audience's ignorance of the historical background.
"Gypsies believe their ancestors spoke to them in the crackling of the fire," she said. "They would sit up at night and look into the fire and commune with the dead." This is precisely how Azucena is introduced into the action of "Il Trovatore," singing of her mother's execution in the present tense.
Ms. Zajick had a previous go at the McVicar "Trovatore" at the Lyric Opera of Chicago two seasons ago. (A three-way co-production, it is scheduled for another reprise next season at the San Francisco Opera, with the formidable Stephanie Blythe as Azucena.)
"Azucena is always speaking in double meanings," Ms. Zajick said. "What's important is the mind-set of the period, the belief in superstition. What I like about this production is that McVicar has taken the time to look at the libretto. You can't fake your way through it. Everything is spelled out. You can't give 'Il Trovatore' a conceptual twist. If you do, nothing makes sense."
Even now that he knows "Il Trovatore" inside out, Mr. McVicar remains a skeptic.
"It's not an opera I'd choose to go and see," he said. "Mind you, there are many Wagner operas I wouldn't buy a ticket for. But I'm doing 'Parsifal' and 'Meistersinger' because I have to wrestle with their unsavory, unhealthy aspects. I can't stay with Mozart in my comfort zone all the time."