One of the most distinctive characteristics of Giuseppe Verdi’s operas is his use of chords to resolve or punctuate the moments of greatest emotional and dramatic tension as his story reaches a crisis point. This simple device would seem within the grasp of almost any composer, but Verdi’s use of it is unique. Below are five examples of this technique taken from four of his operas. Doubtless devotees of Verdi could find many others. I’ll present them in the order they were composed. I’ve tried to find performances in which the conductor comes close to realizing the power that this music requires.
Probably the most florid use hammer-like chords occurs in Act 3 of Luisa Miller. An ocean of them floods the senses when Rodolfo realizes that Luisa has not betrayed him in favor of the aptly named Wurm. But enlightenment comes too late as both have drunk poison. Luisa Miller Act 3 . Marcelo Álvarez is Rodolfo and Fiorenza Cedolins is Luisa. The conductor is Donato Renzetti. This maestro understands Verdi and accelerates almost to the limits of orchestral control. There’s a succession of 16 chords in the middle of the excerpt and 8 at its end. The dramatic power that Verdi hurls at his audience is unmatched in the lyric theater. The entire act is one of Verdi’s greatest creations; these chords mark the zenith of the act’s arc and lead to its final resolution.
In the second act of Il Trovatore the Count Di Luna appears just as the woman he desperately loves, but who can’t stand him, is about to take the veil because she thinks the man she does love, Manrico, is dead. Di Luna, who is undoubtedly the most frustrated baritone in all opera arrives in time to prevent Leonora from taking her vows only to have her snatched from him by Manrico who spends the whole opera running from one woman to another. The chords signal the rescue of Leonora and the overpowering of the Count. Act 2 finale. This excerpt is from a performance in Salzburg led by Herbert Von Karajan. The cast includes Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, and Ettore Bastianini. Incredibly, this is a point in the opera where a lot of conductors go to sleep. Alas, there are a lot of narcoleptic conductors who find their way to Verdi.
The last scene of La Forza Del Destino displays one of Verdi’s most original use of chords. The soprano is another Leonora. Both the tenor (her lover) and the baritone (her brother) have been chasing her for the whole opera. They finally catch up with her in the last scene, but not until Alvaro (tenor) has mortality wounded the brother. The latter with his dying gasp in turn mortally wounds Leonora. As you can easily understand the tenor is very upset. In the opera’s original version he throws himself off a cliff. In the version now performed he bemoans his awful fate and joins the dying Leonora and a witless priest in a glorious trio that ends the opera. The chords are four loud ones alternating with four soft ones denoting a horrible fate and a malignant sadness. The version here is taken from a 1968 performance at the Met. Corelli and Price were again together. Robert Merrill was Don Carlo – the brother. Francesco Molinari-Pradelli conducted. Forza Act 4.
Finally, here are two excerpts from the same scene – The Judgement Scene from Aida. They are both taken from what I think the finest commercial recording of these opera yet made. Look at the cast: Zinka Milanov, Fedora Barbieri, Jussi Björling, Leonard Warren, and Boris Christoff. The conductor was the great Hungarian maestro Jonel Perlea. Though he had a major career, Perlea never reached the rarified level that his talent warranted. This shortfall was at least in part due to his allegedly difficult personality and to illness. The scene has two climactic moments. The first is when Radames rejects Amneris offer of assistance if he will only defend himself against the charge of treason. Aida act 4 scene 1a. Verdi lets loose the first of two orchestral thunderbolts after Radames leaves. The second is at the end of the scene when Amneris curses the priests who have sentenced Radames to be buried alive. Aida act 4 scene 1b
Verdi’s combination of melodic beauty and dramatic intensity is what sets him apart from the other great composers for the theater. Wilhelm Furtwängler the finest of 20th century German conductors thought that the two greatest melodists of classical music were JS Bach and Verdi. That the peerless melodist should also possess the highest sense of theater is a wonder of art.