Giuseppe Verdi was born October 9th (or 10th) 1813. Starting with the appearance of his third opera Nabucco in 1842 he has been the most popular of operatic composers. At first musical scholars were divided as to his artistic worth. Some thought him a popularizer who was not close to the artistic merit of Richard Wagner born the same year. The German composer’s declaration that he was creating the music of the future was taken seriously by otherwise sober observers. He stimulated a movement in art that went beyond music. Verdi on the other hand started no school and embarked on an operatic path that only he walked. He firmly believed that the only critic that counted was the audience and this critic has validated his work for nearly two centuries. Inevitably, the intellectuals were swept along by the popular tide and no serious commentator doubts Verdi’s position in art. He is to opera what Shakespeare is to the play.
His career is usually divided into thirds – the first one consisting of his initial 16 operas. While there is much interesting material in all these works only four are masterpieces. These are Nabucco, Ernani, Macbeth, and Luisa Miller.
Nabucco, his third opera and first success, shows all the characteristics from which all the subsequent great operas would be constructed. Consider the finale to Act 1 – Nabucco Act 1 finale. It demonstrates the extraordinary dramatic tension that Verdi was able to achieve to an intensity unmatched by any other composer for the lyric theater. That the same composer also possessed a melodic genius unsurpassed by any composer is a unique combination. Va Pensiero, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves in Act 3 has achieved an almost mythic status so beautiful and poignant is its expression of loss.
Verdi’s next opera I Lombardi is not on a par with its predecessor or successor Ernani. But it is worthy of an occasional revival. It does have a superb trio Qual volutta trascorrere that is often done as a concert piece. This 1912 recording features Enrico Caruso. The two interpolated high notes inserted by the tenor add to the excitement that the piece engenders in addition to its beauty.
Ernani is a glorious warmup for Il Trovatore that would appear almost a decade later. Verdi’s invention of and penchant for a new type of high baritone is demonstrated in both operas. Oh, de’ verd’anni miei is sung by Emperor Charles V just before his election is announced.
Verdi’s next masterpiece was Macbeth. Composed in 1847 it was revised in 1865. The opera is full of inspired writing. The finale of Act 1 depicts the discovery of King Duncan’s body and the horrified reaction of the Scottish court to Duncan’s murder. The duplicitous Macbeths join in the general lamentation. Macbeth Act 1 finale Verdi’s great facility with the chorus as a dramatic instrument is fully expressed here. His version of The Sleepwalking Scene is at least equal to Shakespeare’s.
The fourth great opera of Verdi’s early period is Luisa Miller. In the Act 1 finale, the tenor Rodolfo threatens to reveal his father’s secret of how he became a count in order to save his lover Luisa and her father. The piece marks a new high in ensemble writing in which the drama is expressed without sacrificing beauty of expression.
The brilliant third act marks the transition to his middle period. The end of the final act starts with Piangi, piangi. Il tuo dolore. The emotional pallet moves from anger to remorse to resignation and finally vengeance. Note the explosion of 16 furious chords which punctuate Rodolfo’s realization of the enormity of what he’s done and what has been done to him. This is a device that Verdi uses with unequaled effectiveness when the emotional content becomes unbearable.
Verdi’s next three operas are miracles of beauty and expression. They made their composer world famous and continue to be the core of the standard operatic repertory. Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Il Trovatore contain music that is known to everyone including those who have never been or never will be in an opera house. The Quartet from Act 3 of Rigoletto is known to just about everyone and is a masterpiece of dramatic construction.
Similarly, the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore enjoys universal recognition. I published this aria here several times before, but Zinka Milanov’s 72 year old recording of D’amor sull’ali rosee can’t be featured too often, so miraculous is it.
Here are the two preludes from La Traviata – Act 1 and then Act 3. They wonderfully encapsulate the fragile story. They’re part of the reason why this opera is the most often performed throughout the world. Before he had written his late masterpieces Verdi was asked what his best opera was. He said that as a musician he would say Rigoletto, but from the perspective of the audience La Traviata.
After the big three just mentioned, masterpiece followed masterpiece. I’ll just pick a few excerpts as representative of the totality of the inspired material that flowed like a monsoon from the master’s pen.
Quando al mio is a duet from I Vespri Siciliani. Monforte [baritone] reveals to Arrigo [tenor] that he is his son. Arrigo is torn three ways. First, he fears he will lose Elena [his fiance] because he promised her he would kill Monforte who now turns out to be his father. Then he doesn’t know how to treat his newfound father. And finally, he recalls how badly his mother was treated by his father. At the end of this duet, he’s an emotional chimera. The skill with which Verdi handles this situation is Olympian. The main theme first sung by the baritone and later by the tenor is part of the overture, which incidentally is probably the finest Verdi ever wrote. Equally impressive is the dramatic tension that builds throughout the duet. Verdi was the master of the tenor-baritone duet and even by his lofty standard, this number stands alone. A work of genius.
Un Ballo in Mashera is virtually a perfect opera. One of its most inspired moments comes at the end of Act 2. Riccardo has had a chaste rendezvous with Renato’s wife Amelia. They are in the midst of a passionate but unconsummated love affair. Renato shows up to warn Riccardo that conspirators, headed by the blandly named Samuel and Tom, are out to get him. His wife is veiled and Renato doesn’t recognize her. Riccardo asks him to take her back to town without obtaining her identity. He does so. They are confronted by the conspirators and Amelia removes her veil revealing that her husband has been escorting his own wife back from an assignation with another man – his best friend. Renato is horrified while the conspirators can’t contain their mirth and laugh their way through the rest of the scene while Renato seethes and vows revenge. This scene is of astonishing brilliance. There’s nothing like it in opera. Un Ballo in Maschera Act 2 finale
La Forza Del Destino was written for Russia and revised for its Italian premiere. It’s the revised version that is routinely performed. The tenor aria in Act 2 is one of the finest Verdi wrote. ‘La vita è inferno all’infelice…O tu che seno agli angeli’ requires dramatic thrust and nuanced singing. This version by Giuseppe Di Stefano meets all the aria’s demands though it’s a role the late tenor shouldn’t have sung. Taken from a live performance in Vienna the tenor is in great form even though he was well into his premature vocal decline. Di Stefano Forza
Don Carlo is one of Verdi’s grandest achievements. It explores both a dysfunctional royal family and the complex interaction between church and state. Ella gemmai m’amo is unquestionably the greatest bass opera in Italian opera. Boris Christoff’s interpretation plumbs the depth of the loneliness of the world’s most powerful ruler who can’t manage his own family. His wife doesn’t love him.
Aida is as grand as its predecessor. It’s also more popular. Its triumphal scene contains a march that is as well known as cornflakes. Verdi concludes the scene with a complex ensemble that concludes with a return to the march theme. It’s a theatric coup of genius. The Aida Act 2 finale starts with the entry of the Ethiopian prisoners.
After Aida Verdi announced his retirement. He was determined to live the life of a wealthy agrarian landowner. He interrupted his retirement to write the requiem mass to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of the novelist Alessandro Manzoni who was his literary hero. The Manzoni Mass is one of the greatest large scale of choral works. It is also the most performed. The Dies Irae section depicts the end of the world. To fully appreciate the power of this music you should hear it live before it’s too late.
Verdi at this stage (his third) was in complete control of every phase of composition. He had in the words of Benjamin Britten discovered the secret of perfection. Yet he remained silent. Finally, he was convinced by Arrigo Boito and his wife to write another opera to Boito’s libretto. Otello, given his passion for Shakespeare, proved irresistible. The opera is one of Western music’s greatest achievements. The conclusion of Act 3 is the scene in which Iago has driven Otello mad with jealousy to the point where he calls his wife a whore and then collapses insensate as Iago gloats over his success at manipulating the Moor. Otello Act 3 finale
Verdi’s final opera was written when he was almost 80, also to a Shakespeare derived libretto by Boito. Falstaff is based on The Merry Wives of Windsor with excerpts from Henry IV. It’s a comedy. He said he had created enough operatic mayhem over the long decades of his operatic life. Verdi who had always made fun of learned composers, he said he was experienced but not learned, concluded the opera and his career with the most learned of musical forms – a fugue to the word “All the world’s a joke.” Toscanini’s rendition of Tutto nel mondo e burla is appropriately muscular. It is to the conductor that we owe Falstaff’s survival. So quick and intricate are its melodies and construction that audiences were initially baffled by it. Toscanini kept programming it and eventually audiences caught up to the octagenarian composer. Today Falstaff is a regular part of the standard repertory.
In my opinion, Verdi stands at the summit of Italian art. A vantage point shared only with Dante and Michelangelo.