Art whether visual or performance should always be elite, although never elitist!
Lyndon Terracini, Artistic Director of Opera Australia said in his Peggy Glanville-Hicks address in 2011… “Just because a painting or a performance is popular does not mean it is inferior. On the contrary, the greatest works of art are enormously popular”. It helps to aid their conservation, benefiting contemporary society.
Viva Verdi!– the cry has gone out and the anniversary of composer Giuseppe Verdi’s 200th birthday (October 10) will be a cause for great celebration all over the ‘opera’ world. His birth took place at a time in history when the French occupied that part of Italy. Technically as the clerk wrote in French when recording the happy event ‘Verdi was born a Frenchman’.
This year at Teatro Alla Scala the Italians will be joyously celebrating his Bicentenario 1913-2013 alongside Richard Wagner his formidable contemporary composer. A season like this won’t come again for 100 years.
Verdi’s strength of character and joy of life is evident in the wonderful music that he made accessible to so many people. His “La donna è mobile” from his opera Rigoletto, “Va, pensiero” (The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Nabucco, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (The Drinking Song) from La Traviata and the “Grand March” from Aida have all taken root in contemporary popular culture.
Communicating human feelings to someone else through music is not a concept our remote ancestors would have easily understood, because most of the time it played with mythology. There was rarely a real life situation where that would have happened before the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe, when great composers, whose works we still enjoy today, gave us quite simply some of the best known and most pleasing and harmonious musical works of all time.
Composer Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (1813 – 1901) was one of them.
Verdi’s music exemplified the Romantic age he was born into and reflects its cultural complexity. His work consisted of wonderfully melodious scores, in a musical format where the orchestra served as an accompaniment and dramatic voices and high note climaxes were a feature. Verdi’s Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore and La Traviata (both 1853), and his Aida (1871) will be staged as long as operas are performed.
He said ‘I adore art…when I am alone with my notes, my heart pounds and the tears stream from my eyes, and my emotion and my joys are too much to bear.’
His music is beautiful, inspired by women and men in and out of love with each other and the exciting times of the world in which he lived. It’s entirely captivating, often funny, at times thrilling and very definitely dramatic
His powerful Requiem, first performed in Milan in 1874, was a public expression of private grief. It is indeed profound, an undisputed masterpiece composed in memory of the most revered figure in Italian music of Verdi’s age, Gioachino Rossini. He died in 1868 and the work was no doubt affected by Verdi’s ability to draw on experience; the deep distress and extremes of emotion felt when his wife and two children, all of whom he adored, died before he was yet 27 years of age. An unforseen and terrible tragedy. Also at that time his first opera Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio was offering an insight into what would become his recognised genius.
So at a time when he should have been embracing joy and happiness at his future prospects, he was being plunged headlong into the very depths of despair.
Verdi it seems from childhood was destined to have a career in music. Encouraged and supported by parents, who despite modest circumstances, from four years of age arranged lessons for him on the Spinet, an early harpsichord that only had a single keyboard and one string for each note.
By nine years of age he was standing in for his organ teacher at the church in the village where he lived at Roncole, near Busseto in the Po Valley. The organ is a very complex instrument to learn to play and yet Verdi was already a master and at 10 years of age he became an organist in his own right.
Spain, Austria and France dominated the area where Verdi was born and lived until 1859 when it was finally annexed into the new Kingdom of Italy. This lasted until 1946 when Italy became a republic. The whole system of arts patronage was constantly changing throughout his lifetime.
The royal courts of Europe were in turmoil for years following Napoleon’s rout and then sudden demise in the June of 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. Many different countries in Europe were gradually embracing democratic freedom and it considerably changed the game politically, socially and culturally.
Verdi was born into a society in which strong men of courage spoke their minds. The trust he shared with intimate friends was built on honesty and integrity.
Verdi’s opera Oberto was produced in 1839 at Teatro alla Scala in Milan an intellectual and operatic centre, gaining him respect and three more commissions. It wasn’t all go; his next opera Un giorno di regno (King for a Day) was hissed off stage, which caused him to descend into despair and depression again.
This is understandable when we know he lost his wife in 1840, following on from the early deaths of both his much loved children.
Then followed Nabucco in 1842, Lombardi in 1843 and Ernani in 1844. They were wildly successful and assured that he became a rising star in the firmament of opera.
He astonished everyone with his triumph, attending many literary salons in Milan where he made lasting friendships with other men of substance.
Verdi was very driven following his wife’s death to the detriment of his health. He wanted to earn enough money to retire to becoming a gentleman farmer and purchased land as early as 1844 hoping to fulfil that dream.
He broke with the traditions of the society of his day by living openly with soprano Giuseppina Strepponi for years before they married, causing a scandal in some circles.
Giuseppina Strepponi came back into his life in 1847 at Paris. They had first met when he was producing Oberto, on a business basis. However it was different now and they fell in love while he was producing a new work Jérusalem.
She already had children born when she was a common-law wife; two give away for adoption plus a son she kept with her. She and Verdi had a tempestuous relationship for years. It wasn’t that he did not want to marry her. She needed to resolve her issues and it seems he respected her right to do so. They did not marry until 1859, after her son came of age.
The nineteenth century was an important era for both endeavour and enterprise. This is when public ‘entertainment’ became one of the new growth industries. There were many advances in science, technology and the legal system. Some had a great deal to do with the voice and singing.
London beckoned and he visited in 1855, 1862 and for the last time in 1875 when at the peak of his powers.
He was offered a post at Covent Garden but preferred to stay at Milan, battling it out playing the game of opera politics on more familiar ground. He set a blistering pace
To “produce” an opera at that time required skilled negotiation with an impresario, an ability to both secure and edit (often heavily) a libretto, to then find or approve the singers, to compose the music, supervise the many rehearsals and conduct the first three performances.
This also meant dealing with publishers and traversing from one end of Italy to the other in the days before railroads so it was no easy task.
It was Verdi’s Rigoletto produced at Venice in 1851 that would declare his genius to the world. It has, in its performance evolution been shifted to be set in New York’s Little Italy, Federico Fellini’s Rome and modern day Hollywood. The Metropolitan Opera in New York is setting it in Las Vegas for their performances in 2013.
It completely overwhelmed the musical society for whom he now became a ‘master’. Il Trovatore in 1853 and La Traviata in1853 followed it, sealing his reputation once and for all as a great artist and composer.
Verdi’s operas were not produced without a great deal of drama on the side.
He was by all accounts personally an exceedingly difficult man to get on with and please. He had many obstacles to surmount that were not all to do with his music and an uncompromising attitude, insisting everything be produced exactly as he dictated, down to the minutest detail.
He also ran up against the censors who wanted modifications – the removal of a curse deemed blasphemous from Rigoletto, and they questioned the risqué nature of La Traviata, although they proceeded with him only making minor modifications.
It was in 1860 that ‘vocal science’ came into being. Manuel Garcia II a professor at the Paris Conservatoire (1847 – 1850), the Royal Academy of Music in London (1845 – 1895) and the Royal College of Music (1883 – 1895) documented his observations about vocal chords when he studied the physiological aspects of the voice.
One of the most famous baritones of his day, his school of singing also produced some of the most famous singers of the 19th century as they extended both their range and repertoire.
Verdi was by now an international celebrity, providing works for the Opera at Paris and other theatres conforming to a high standard. Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) was the only European composer, who was more renowned and much wealthier than he was. A showman of the first order, Meyerbeer was a formidable opponent, one of the most successful composers of French grand opera. His Les Huguenots was performed 1000 times at the Paris Opera in 65 years, quite unheard of at the time.
Also Meyerbeer’s Coronation March from Le Prophete, which made its debut in London in 1849 caused Arthur Pendragon (a pseudonym for James W. Davison music critic of The Times 1846 – 1878) to record that ‘The march (by Meyerbeer) in the coronation scene was so splendidly performed as to obtain a distinct round of applause, which for a moment suspended the business of the scene…The coronation is entirely developed in the finale, which we are disposed to consider the most admirable piece of concerted music ever written by Meyerbeer.
Another contemporary genius and colleague German composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) also seeing Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète for the first time, was tempted to abandon his own operatic production: ‘By this time I saw for the first time Le Prophète – the prophet of a new world: I was feeling happy and elevated, gave up all those revolted projects which seemed to me godless’.
Verdi however would never have let such emotion override common sense and he concentrated on producing his best efforts. He was finally considered to have surpassed Meyerbeer at the Paris Opera when he produced his grand Opera piece Don Carlos (1867), regarded by some scholars as his masterpiece, or at least ahead of his Shakespeare operas composed during his final years.
Then came one of his most well known and popular extravaganza’s Aida, commissioned by the Khedive of Egypt to celebrate the opening of Cairo’s new opera house in 1869.
Premiering there in 1871 it went on to worldwide acclaim and still enjoys fame wherever it is played today. Verdi had achieved both grandeur and gravitas in a work filled with the sort of emotional intensity that only he could supply. While waiting at his hotel in Naples for it to start he wrote a string quartet, the only instrumental composition of his maturity.
In 1873 Verdi retired from the world of opera with which he had a love-hate relationship with its endless battles, skirmishes and victories. He settled into improving his estates and funding charities. The best known of these was his support for aged musician colleagues, establishing the Casa di Riposo per Musicistiat Milan, where they would be cared for in old age.
The movie Quartet (2012) directed by Dustin Hoffman was inspired by that story.
On December 6, 1877 Thomas Edison’s new invention the phonograph caused him to be startled when it played back as he had hoped, but never really dreamed would happen, the words he had just spoken into it. After that it took some time for people to stop regarding this amazing invention as only a toy and to see its possibilities, especially for the music medium.
It would prove to be invaluable in spreading the love of opera on a scale never even thought of before. It was the iTunes of its day.
1886 was when copyrighting of literary and artistic works also began and a royalty to the composer was paid. The size of orchestras was also swelling from 46 pieces in 1768 to 121 Pieces by 1909 for the Dresden Opera Orchestra and so the future of this performance art form seemed assured.
Verdi’s publisher Giulio Ricordi did not want his most famous composer to retire from musical life, especially during such promising times for making increased profits, and he coaxed him to being involved in a project to bring Shakespeare’s Otello to the stage in his 74th year (1887).
Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello is considered by many scholars as his penultimate composition, a grand work that has since its debut in 1887 at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, been a constant success. The music is simply sensational.
At The Met in New York one production featuring Plácido Domingo as Otello and Renée Fleming as Desdemona has already entered legendary status.
Far superior to any other story that Verdi had previously set to music, this would be his tragic masterpiece, a drama absorbed into a continuously flexible musical score that was vastly advanced in style. It reflected every aspect of the characters, and every nuance of the action as envisioned by England’s literary genius William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
He received rapturous praise.
Then followed a comic libretto for Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor - Falstaff, which Verdi set to miraculously fresh music, revealing that age had not wearied him.
Verdi had dominated Italian opera during his lifetime while he indulged in constant experimentation and a continuing refinement of style.
The characters in all his operas were recognizably frail human beings like the rest of us and before him no opera composer had yet assembled such a great portrait gallery of complex celebrities.
Verdi provided his audiences with atmospheric conditions that ranged from subtle and gentle to dramatic and powerfully raw. By allowing his characters all to have warmth and purpose in life was something that his audiences easily related to in his lifetime, and still do. They are all about human frailty.
He achieved a union of poetical and musical creative ability that is not often accomplished. When it is, as during the great aria style of work that he championed it approaches perfection. This sublime point of expression lingers long in the deepest part of your soul and for some, for evermore
At the premiere performance of Otello at La Scala the second cello in the orchestra Arturo Toscanini is accredited with saying
“Otello is a masterpiece. Go on your knees, Mother, and say ‘Viva Verdi!”
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013
Metropolitan Opera in New York offers its new production of Rigoletto and Il Trovatore
Oberto, 17 November 1839
Un giorno di regno, 5 September 1840
Nabucco, 9 March 1842
I Lombardi alla prima crociata, 11 February 1843
Ernani, 9 March 1844
I due Foscari, 3 November 1844
Giovanna d’Arco, 15 February 1845
Alzira, 12 August 1845
Attila, 17 March 1846
Macbeth, 14 March 1847
I masnadieri, 22 July 1847
Jérusalem (a revision and translation of I Lombardi alla prima crociata) 26 November 1847
Il corsaro, 25 October 1848
La battaglia di Legnano, 27 January 1849
Luisa Miller, 8 December 1849
Stiffelio, 16 November 1850
Rigoletto, 11 March 1851
Il trovatore, 19 January 1853
La traviata, 6 March 1853
Les vêpres siciliennes, 13 June 1855
Simon Boccanegra, (Original Version), 12 March 1857
Aroldo (A major revision of Stiffelio), 16 August 1857
Un ballo in maschera, 17 February 1859
La forza del destino, 10 November 1862
Don Carlos, 11 March 1867
Aida, 24 December 1871
Simon Boccanegra, (Revised Version), 24 March 1881
Otello, 5 February 1887
Falstaff, 9 February 1893