When Verdi died in 1901, the nation that he had helped to shape, Italy, was convulsed with grief. It was not just that the Italians could be heard whistling tunes like Donna e mobile or De quella pirra the day after they had seen the relevant show. Verdi had become associated with the movement for the unification of Italy, known as the Risorgimento. The chorus from Nabucco known as the Slaves’ Chorus (Va pensiero) had become a kind of anthem. It is thought that more than 300,000 attended the memorial service. Arturo Toscanini led a choir of more than 800 in performing that chorus. (When Caruso died in 1921, at the cruel age of 48, the King of Italy opened the Royal Basilica for the funeral.)
Verdi was born to parents who owned a tavern in the Parma region of Italy. Shortly after he was born, Russian troops committed an atrocity in the local church. Verdi’s mother hid with him in the bell tower and they survived, but the incident left its mark. The family was poor, but the young boy showed talent with music – but not enough to get a pass at the conservatory at Milan. (Well, Harvard would later knock back Warren Buffett.) Verdi took some private lessons and got a job with the local orchestra. He married and then he moved north and submitted the first of his operas which has survived to La Scala. He became known for being single-minded and coming straight to the point. With help from a young soprano called Giuseppina Strepponi, La Scala accepted one opera, and gave a contract for three more.
In 1840, Verdi lost his wife and children, and he went into depression. He wrote a bad comic opera, but in 1842, he produced Nabucco. This biblical tale spoke to the needs of the Italian people at the time. In the next eight years, he produced thirteen operas mostly tragic and historical. He married Strepponi in 1859. The relationship would last half a century. She was the ideal companion for a man who could be blunt.
In 1851, Verdi produced Rigoletto. It was based on a story by Victor Hugo. This was followed by Il Trovatore and La Traviata. Verdi was now both famous and rich. He was obsessed with Shakespeare (whom he read in translation). Macbeth came early, but Otello and Falstaff are among his mature masterpieces. He had fully mapped out his King Lear, but he never wrote it.
The most famous and wealthy composer in the world set up a retirement home for musicians in Milan. He died of a stroke in 1901. He was not overtly religious and he had prescribed for his funeral ‘One priest, one candle, one cross’, but, as we saw, the occasion became one of national mourning.
Verdi managed to blend drama and melody, and in his later works, he gave opera new direction. About a dozen of those are still in demand. He had a natural ear for melody, and a feel for drama, and some of his greatest music sounds like a tuneful village band. From Rigoletto on, he was able to devise melodies that were striking and that expressed the deepest emotions without sacrificing what sounds like simple tunefulness. That is a very high form of art.
One biographer of Verdi said this:
What, then, remains in his work if the ephemera of time and place are drained away?
First, the potential nobility of man. In his early and middle years, Verdi saw men and women risking life and personal happiness to further an ideal, and in his operas he celebrated them, holding them up as models to be copied. In La Traviata, Verdi wept for Violetta, but he presents her decision in her circumstances as right. His operas, though with artistic restraint, are didactic: they urge men and women to be noble.
As a corollary, however, his work throughout sounds a constant note of melancholy. Life, he suggests, is hard, happiness fleeting, and to death the only certainty. He never pretends in his call for generous, noble actions that these do not often end in suffering, but offers them as the best response to death.
Though these themes, the potential nobility of man and the tragedy it often entails, was stimulated by the events of the Risorgimento, they are universal, sensed by adult men and women everywhere. Though in different eras they may be more or less to the fore, they are never wholly absent from the feelings of men. They are an important reason why Verdi’s operas, generations after his death, still find an audience.
Let us start with Rigoletto which, with La Traviata and The Marriage of Figaro, would be the ideal opera for the first timer. The hero is a misfit, a hunchback who hates his court, and is hated and baited by them in return. His only solace is his daughter, but she is cruelly seduced by the evil duke. They plot revenge with a professional killer. Verdi said of the Victor Hugo plot that it was ‘the best plot and perhaps the best play of modern times…it cannot fail.’ He said Rigoletto was ‘grossly deformed and absurd but inwardly passionate and full of love.’ The opera overturned many conventions, but it was a quick success and it remains hugely popular.
As you could imagine, there is a smorgasbord of great performances on offer, and you will not be surprised to hear that my fancy is for the EMI with Callas, di Stefano, and Gobbi. This was a golden time for the three of them, and together, they were in my view unsurpassed. In his prime di Stefano was a thrilling and assured lyrical tenor. There are many complete versions of the opera, and even more of the big hits like ‘Donna e mobile’ and ‘Caro Nome’ (neither of which enthrals me) and the famous quartet in the last act ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’. In that quartet, you might compare the version above with the raw horse power of that of Sutherland and Pavarotti. But this is an opera where the acting of the lead is vital, and Gobbi had no peer. And if you want to see and hear the beating heart of Italian opera get the ‘Si, vendetta, tremenda vendetta’ (you won’t need translation) and watch Tito Gobbi and Renata Scotto set the stage ablaze – the clip begins with a repeat of the curse. You just can’t get more Italian or dramatic than this, and it’s a reminder of the sustaining influence on opera of commedia dell’arte. As nights go at the theatre, this is very hard to beat.
You can just about repeat all of that for La Traviata, including the preferred casting. There was a famous photo of Callas on a record cover showing her wringing her hands, and someone said that ‘even her hands wept.’ (I think this was from the famous 1955 Visconti version.) This is one of the great tear-jerkers of the stage; when it comes to Kleenex, this is a full box job. It is also the most frequently performed and recorded of these operas. The story comes from Alexander Dumas’ La dame aux caméllias. Violetta is a courtesan who is unwell. Alfredo, a member of the gentry, falls for her. His father, Germont, persuades him to drop her. She reluctantly agrees – for his sake. He then throws money at her. He later repents, but too late. La Traviata has about it the horrible inevitability of King Lear. In the famous letter scene, you can hear Callas, you can feel Callas, spitting her anguish at God.
We are really spoiled. Why not start with the whole of the Salzburg 2005 version with Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazon and Thomas Hampson with the Vienna Philharmonic under Carlo Rizzi. Years ago, I bought the DVD (for $34). The DG sleeve notes said that this was the opera event of 2005 and that ‘this thrilling production prompted riotous ovations not see since Karajan’s heyday.’ After that you can take your pick. There is a famous duet for Violetta and Germont in Act II which you can take, among others, with Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Moscow, in 2006. The sound is gorgeous – but the gorgeous soprano looks like anything but a sick prostitute – not least because she is dressed in white in something like a bridal gown. This duet is a shining moment in our theatre.
A Masked Ball got savaged by the censors. It resembles Traviata in that it’s about love and death among the better people, but it has the kind of hot drama we get in Trovatore. Some see it as flawed. I’m not one of them. It might sound silly, but for me it is intensely musical. One critic called it ‘the most operatic’ of operas’. A ruler – the censors forced some changes: political assassination was sensitive – meets the wife of his mate who warns him of plot to kill him. A fortune teller tells the ruler he will be killed by the next person to shake his hand. That is the wife of the mate. A lot of the music has a kind of dancing, mocking lilt, but, if you key in the Italian name, you can get the whole opera featuring either Pavarotti or Domingo. The Domingo version comes with Claudio Abbado from Covent Garden, if you are not familiar with it, and it features Katia Ricciarelli and Piero Cappuccilli – each of them is assured with Verdi. It would be hard to top this version.
Don Carlos is long, and the plot is not simple, but it has great music and drama. As to length, Bizet wrote that ‘Verdi is no longer Italian, he is following Wagner.’ We listened to the great duet in the first chapter, and there is a magnificent confrontation between the Grand Inquisitor and the King. The show is charged with tension, and lyrical moments are rudely interrupted. This show is not one for the first timer. The Solti version has Tebaldi, Bergonzi, and Fischer-Dieskau. Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi may not have the cachet of others of their time, but they are Italian, and they are normally flawless, as is their German colleague on this recording. There is also Von Karajan at Strasburg in 1975 with Domingo, Freni, Cappuccilli and Ghiaurov. Both these performances represent opera royalty. If you want to know how things are now, you could try the fearfully good looking and assured Kaufman and Hvorostovsky with another version of the show-stopping duet. This is men into bodice-ripping on each other! These guys may have tickets on themselves, but they are entitled to at least some. Assurance at this level counts for so much, and I could imagine footy coaches using this before a grand final. This is spell-binding stuff from a man who had ascended his own Everest. If you ever hear more powerful music than this, could you please let me know?
That leaves us with Falstaff. Some romantics get seduced by the lying coward Falstaff, who is probably Shakespeare’s most popular character, but opera goers only get the soft version that comes from the comedy farce The Merry Wives of Windsor, the only plot, I think, that Shakespeare ever invented for himself. The silly old drunk thinks he can seduce the wives, but he is easily foiled, and a sub-plot for young lovers allows some very pretty tunes. So here we have a combination of humour and sadness, redolent of Mozart. The farce is brilliantly orchestrated by Verdi, and it requires a strong orchestra and baritone. This is an ensemble piece in which the company is the star.
Rossini had said that ‘Verdi was incapable of writing a comic opera.’ Verdi decided on the project at the age of seventy-five. He laboured on it for four years with the librettist in secret. He conducted it at the opening at La Scala. It was received as the masterpiece that it is.
My preferred version is that of Gobbi with Karajan – you can choose your own. But you should watch the clip of James Levine in rehearsal at the Met – it is from one of those HD films (one that I saw) and the clip is presented by Renée Fleming. You should also see the clip of Ricardo Muti assisting an awe-struck student at rehearsal. The young man could not get over being taught by the maestro – who has a sense of humour – in person. There are some full versions including the 1982 Covent Garden production under Giulini with Bruson, Nucci, Ricciarelli, and Hendricks.
Well, there are just some of the reasons that we owe so much to this Italian composer. The English philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin, wrote a paper called The Naiveté of Verdi. In it, he said:
Noble, simple, with a degree of unbroken vitality and vast natural power of creation and organisation, Verdi is the voice of a world which is no more. His enormous popularity among the most sophisticated as well as the most ordinary listeners today is due to the fact that he expressed permanent states of consciousness in the most direct terms, as Homer, Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Tolstoy have done. This is what Schiller called ‘naiv’. After Verdi this is not heard in music again. Verdi’s assured place, in the high canon of the musical art, which nobody now disputes, is a symptom of sanity in our time.
It is significant that in this essay Berlin distinguished Verdi as a composer from the kind that is up next.