Much of the July 2008 issue of Opera News is devoted to Giacomo Puccini who was born in 1858. Anybody who loves the composer’s operas, which is anyone who has ever heard them and who is not a terminal snob, will enjoy reading the articles analyzing various components of Puccini’s amazing ability with melody and stagecraft. The cover story by Fred Plotkin, American Idol, analyzes why Americans adore Puccini whereas Italians rank him, along with everyone else, below Verdi.
The article is interesting even if you reject his initial premise – which I do, at least to the extent that popularity and merit are subsumed. I see no evidence that Verdi’s worth is held in lesser regard in the US than in Italy. Nor do I see any reason to rank the relative artistic worths of the two composers. Puccini needs no defenders, He is one of a very small list of composers who stand at the summit of operatic achievement. There are, however, important differences between the two Italian composers.
Most importantly, the two geniuses had different goals. Puccini was, with the important exception of Gianni Schicchi, almost exclusively interested in his heroines. He seemed to identify himself with his leading man – always the tenor. Thus he only wrote a few good roles for the baritone – Scarpia, Michele, Schicchi – and none for mezzo soprano or bass. Once you accept the limitations he imposed on himself you’re left with a composer for the stage who could do anything he wanted.
His sense of theater was unsurpassed; everything that happens in his operas is there for a reason. A director who interferes always makes things worse. Consider two examples. In the second act of La Boheme Musetta and Marcello get back together with a dramatic sweep that always moves the audience to cheers and applause unless you have a director who thinks he knows more about theater than Puccini. Let the action unfold and you can’t go wrong. The next time you listen to a live performance of Boheme see what happens at this moment.
Another place where it takes a great director to muck things up is in the second act of Madama Butterfly. Cio Cio San’s moment of false triumph when she thinks Pinkerton has returned to her should always be interrupted by applause, but I’ve been to performances that miraculously kill this surefire moment including the Met’s current production.
Puccini could take the techniques of all the great contemporary composers and make them sound like they had been created for him. Wagner, Debussy, Strauss (all of them), Schoenberg, even Franz Lehar all sounded better when Puccini morphed them into his operas. He was also a master of the chorus. Just listen to the finale of the first act of Tosca and much of Turandot to realize how gifted he was with large forces while making the effect seem effortless. But his most prominent gift was that of melody. A gift that can only be bestowed by a higher power and never acquired. He could set conversation to music that was of as much melodic interest as found in the great arias. Only a handful of composers for the stage have been able to manage this.
In short, he was a master of everything he did. He just decided for whatever reason to concentrate on a slice of human experience. It is this relatively narrow focus that distinguishes him from Verdi.
Verdi was a universal genius. In the theater, the only comparison is with Shakespeare. Verdi’s terrain was the clay of humanity. If you need more evidence to prove that education and erudition do not necessarily coincide with judgment and wisdom consider Verdi’s place among the intellectual elites of his time. Born in 1813, the same year as Wagner, Verdi was held to be a mere popularizer who was not to be taken seriously by the intelligentsia. That he was wildly popular was thought to be further evidence beyond his work per se that he was not a serious artist. It was like what global warming is today. If it gets hotter or colder the prevailing climate is cited as evidence of continuing global warming. No matter what Verdi did he was not serious or if something appeared that was so good it could not be denied the only explanation must be that he was copying Wagner. This unease with Verdi’s popularity and greatness still lingers. Pierre Boulez declared not too long ago that he could imagine no scenario under which he would conduct the overture to “La Forza del Destino.” If you want a two word explanation of what’s wrong with modern classical music “Pierre Boulez” will do. Not that long ago Stanley Kaufman (born 1916) the movie critic for the New Republic wrote, “It is becoming increasingly clear that Verdi was a giant of art.” Kaufman’s belated discovery of Verdi’s position in art is typical of those who came to maturity in the 1930s. Verdi was too popular to be great. Fortunately for Kaufman, he lived long enough for the scales to fall from his eyes. Boulez, I suspect, will never see the light.
Verdi himself paid little attention to the impact of Wagner or the opinion of elites. His only declaration of aesthetics was, “Gross ignoramus that I am, there are only two kinds of music – good and bad.” He further advised a young composer to ignore the critics but look instead to the box office. “The theater was meant to be full.” Regarding Wagner, Francis Toye, Verdi’s first biographer in English and still indispensable, gets the story straight: “Perhaps Wagner’s most remarkable achievement was that he invented an idiom that became for more than 50 years the musical language of the world. One of Verdi’s greatest feats was that, almost alone among Wagner’s contemporaries and immediate successors in western Europe, he successfully avoided speaking that language.” Toye’s only problem was that he was too close to Verdi’s time to fully appreciate his worth. He would be a little surprised to find that eight decades after he wrote his fine biography many critics would place Verdi above all composers for the stage.
I’m sure Verdi knew how good he was, but he approached writing operas as a craft. It was his business and he intended to do it as well as he could. He was the last great artist to lack self consciousness and to be unconcerned about his, or anyone else’s, place in the cosmos. What he did was portray all the key human emotions with the keenest of dramatic awareness combined with melodic beauty and expressiveness that were both unsurpassed and in combination unmatched.
At least 15 of his 28 operas are masterpieces – 16 if you count the Requiem which is a sacred opera. If opera is the hardest art to master, Verdi seems (in Benjamin Britten’s words) to have discovered the secret of perfection. Verdi’s career lasted more than half a century. During that period he gradually increased his artistic span and developed the matchless skill that characterizes his later works. Yet even at the beginning in Nabucco you hear the same voice that sent Falstaff into the world more than half a century later; his last opera races so quickly that more than 100 years after its birth it’s hard to keep up with its octogenarian author.
Verdi was that rare creator who kept getting better as he aged. But the vigor and almost ferocious energy that bursts from Nabucco are still there at the end of Falstaff. When a great conductor conducts its final number – of all things a fugue – the audience is swept away by its cyclonic force. Rossini called the young Verdi a composer in a helmet, but that same man helmet and all could also write “Va, pensiero”. Listen to the finale of the first act of Nabucco. If it doesn’t make you want to rush out and join the Marines you’re dead. The energy of the finale and the extraordinary beauty of the chorus of the Hebrew slaves yearning for freedom are the foundations on which Verdi’s unique career was built. He started out great and progressively got even better. Now hear the last operatic number written by the 80 year old composer. The early energy and vigor are still there. So is the helmet, though now encrusted with jewels. The orchestration is developed to the greatest sophistication as is the part writing, but it’s the same guy. And the words – All the World’s a Joke What a way to go.
He favors no one vocal type or range. There are great roles for all voices because Verdi is writing about every key human emotion. Much has been made over Verdi’s predilection for father/daughter relationships and it’s there, but so are other intimate conflicts as well as the clash of titanic forces. Who other than Verdi could make one of opera’s most riveting scenes out of a 15 minute confrontation between two basses – a king and a grand inquisitor? And incredibly this scene is just part of a larger one in Don Carlo that contains everything one could ask of an opera except the tenor, its eponymous character. This scene in the king’s apartment is so grand a creation that it alone would rank Verdi at the top of opera’s pantheon, yet scenes like this occur repeatedly in the master’s succession of masterworks. All those states of consciousness common to all men are illuminated with the light of truth by opera’s greatest humanist.
Let’s examine a Verdi masterpiece that is not among his most popular operas. Un Ballo in Maschera has been in the standard repertory of all the world’s great opera houses since its premiere in 1859. Nevertheless, it is not as well recognized as Rigoletto, Traviata, Trovatore, or Aida. Yet it is as good as virtually anything Verdi wrote. The center of the work is its love duet which is deliriously passionate and agitated almost beyond the bounds of love and passion perhaps because it expresses an unconsummated love. Ironically, Verdi who wrote some of the greatest love music left behind not a single love letter. This is in keeping with his austere personality more like that of an ancient Roman of the republic than that of a modern Italian. The great love duet dominates this opera in a way unlike any other of the great Verdi love duets.
While almost all of the opera deserves attention especially noteworthy are the almost Parisian gaiety that ends the first scene (laughing while you’re really afraid) that comes near the end of the first act, and the mocking and mordant laughter of the conspirators (2nd act finale) who find Renato (a baritone naturally) unknowingly escorting his wife back from an assignation with his best friend. This last effect is unparalleled in opera. It would be impossible in a play – the husband and wife expressing fury and terror respectively while simultaneously enduring sarcastic laughter – a tour de force.
No composer wrote as much great music for the baritone as Verdi. Ballo’s great aria for this range is Eri tu which when separated from its dramatic milieu loses half its impact. The horror and anguish of a man who believes he’s been betrayed by both his wife and his best friend brings an overpowering impact when sung on stage by a great baritone.
If Ballo were the work of almost any other composer it would be classed as his greatest masterpiece, but in Verdi’s canon it’s just one of a long list of wonderful operas such is the uncanny ability of this composer to produce a seemingly unlimited stream of remarkable works. To be as supremely gifted as Verdi and to be granted so much time to perfect his gifts places Verdi virtually alone in art. He stands so tall that no one can add or subtract from his stature. His wife called him the ‘Bear of Bussetto’. In reality, he was a lion.