Giuseppe Verdi is to opera what Shakespeare is to drama. It’s hard to imagine the art form of opera without the work of this fantastic composer. In this playlist, we’ll give you a quick overview of Verdi’s career, which began in 1842 when he took Italy by storm with Nabucco, and concluded, fifty years later, with his phenomenal Falstaff. During those years, Verdi was the undisputed king of Italian opera, and it was his relentless theatrical genius which transformed the genre from the singer-focused bel canto shows of the early nineteenth century into the almost cinematic kind of opera popular at the turn of the century.
The third opera Verdi wrote that year, La traviata, has become one of his most popular. The grotesque character here is Violetta, an alluring ‘fallen woman,’ who is dying of tuberculosis—nineteenth century Europe’s answer to AIDS—and thus coughing up blood while singing beautifully. With La traviata, the era of old-fashioned bel canto melodrama gave way to a new world of realistic musical drama, with immediately recognizable characters, plausible psychology, contemporary social issues, and music that responds line by line to the text instead of following conventional musical forms. And the opera’s text outlines a morally ambiguous dilemma worthy of Greek tragedy—one all too familiar to Verdi.
Verdi slowed down after writing those three operas, and most of his remaining operas are incredible masterpieces. Un ballo in maschera, which premiered in 1859 (the year he finally married Strepponi) is almost Mozartean in its glittering blend of comedy and tragedy. It concerns the assassination of the historical king Gustavus III of Sweden, characterized as a fun-loving young playboy in the opera. The opera’s first scene concludes with king telling everyone in his court, “Let’s all put on disguises and go get our fortunes told by the wise old gypsy woman down at the docks!” Verdi provides music so light and frothy it could have come from an operetta.
As Europe’s leading opera composer in the second half of the century, Verdi wrote several operas for foreign theaters, including La forza del destino for St. Petersburg. It’s sort of the opera version of an old-fashioned sprawling TV mini-series, with a plot spanning decades, involving dozens of colorful characters and scenic locations, loads of improbable coincidences, and an unhappy ending so bleak even the Russians asked Verdi to lighten it up a bit. Russian opera was just getting going at the time, and this work became a model for their great composers. In the aria “Pace, pace, mio Dio” the heroine Leonora, about to join a convent, implores God for forgiveness. She’s a spinto soprano, a voice type developed by Giuseppe Verdi, demanding great beauty and power, but also finesse; a Verdi soprano is always required to project her pianissmi (very soft singing) all the way to the back of a 4000-seat theater, to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
PRIEST: That is the law imposed by our faith.
PRIEST: Everything falls silent when faith speaks.
You can listen to the music on this playlist at the KING FM Seattle Opera Channel.