Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Verdi: Parents and Children

Last night, Seattle Opera’s Adult Education series continued with a presentation on “Verdi: Parents & Children”, given by me, Jonathan Dean, at Seattle University’s Wyckoff Auditorium. I surveyed a series of Verdi operas, including La traviata, Il trovatore, and Falstaff, and followed Verdi’s use of the images of sinfully arrogant parents, disobedient children, and the curse that smites generation after generation of a family. Verdi never puts romantic love front and center in his operas; his tenor-soprano love duets, lovely as some of them are, are never as compelling, or sexy, as the tenor-soprano duets in Puccini’s operas. Instead, Verdi’s best scenes showcase the love between parents (particularly fathers) and children, and his many baritone-soprano father-daughter duets are really where it’s at.

When you look at Verdi’s biography, it becomes evident why the composer responded so powerfully to stories about parents and children: as son, and as father, he was unusually blessed and cursed. (Look at our Seattle Opera Verdi Spotlight Guide for details!) After the decimation of his first family, Verdi’s career got going with Nabucco, an opera about an insanely arrogant father and his sadistically wicked daughter. He wrote Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La traviata a decade later, at the time of his second family meltdown, and it’s easy to see how these operas all build on each other. Rigoletto closes with the image of the broken parent cradling the dead child, the grotesque Rigoletto with the daughter who was killed when he attempted to play God and be avenged upon his enemy; but in Il trovatore, Verdi’s next opera, that same story played long before the opera began, when Azucena murdered her own son in an attempt to be avenged upon her enemy. It’s fashionable to ridicule the complicated plot of Il trovatore, but the music Verdi wrote for Azucena’s nightmarish flashbacks, mental agony, guilt, panic, and frustration always impresses me with its unflinching, unbearable sincerity: what it must feel like to be responsible for your child’s death.

La mano convulsa stendo... stringo
La vittima... nel foco la traggo, la sospingo...
Cessa il fatal delirio... L'orrida scena fugge...
La fiamma sol divampa, e la sua preda strugge!
Pur volgo intorno il guardo e innanzi a me vegg'io
Dell'empio Conte il figlio...
Ah! Che dici!
Il figlio mio,
Mio figlio avea bruciato!
Quale orror!
Sul capo mio le chiome
Sento rizzarsi ancor!

I reached out my trembling hand…grabbed
the victim…shoved him into the fire…
The deadly delirium stopped…the horrid scene fled [my eyes]…
But the flames grew, and devoured their prey.
I turned away, and saw before me
the son of the wicked Count…
Ah! What are you saying?
My son,
I burned my son!
What horror!
On my head I feel the hairs
rising up again!

Conflict between parents and children drives most of Verdi’s operas. But the important thing is, they aren’t all like Nabucco and Abigaille, arrogant, obnoxious, and cruel. Many of Verdi’s characters, including the grotesque Rigoletto and Azucena, are wonderfully sympathetic. Verdi’s parents and children may have their problems, but we in the audience care about them because they love each other so much. Gilda and Rigoletto have their beautiful, moving scenes, Azucena and Manrico care enormously about each other, even Germont is a loving father to the two young people whose happiness he destroys in La traviata. My favorite Verdi opera, Simon Boccanegra, is almost a wish-fulfillment fantasy, for Giuseppe Verdi, about the best possible father he could be, with the best possible daughter. We listened to much of Boccanegra’s redemptive, healing music last night, and to some of the tender parent-child scenes from Verdi’s other operas: here’s a moment from Luisa Miller (written immediately before Rigoletto) in which father and daughter fantasize about escaping from their problems, together, into a world where every day is Daddy-Daughter Day:

Al nuovo albore noi partirem.
Andrem, raminghi e poveri,
ove il destin ci porta.
Un pan chiedendo agli uomini
andrem di porta in porta.
Forse talor le ciglia
noi bagnerem di pianto,
ma sempre al padre accanto
la figlia sua starà.
Quel padre e quella figlia
Iddio benedirà!

We’ll leave at dawn.
We’ll wander, aimless and poor,
Wherever destiny takes us.
Begging our bread from men,
we’ll go from door to door.
From time to time we’ll bathe
our eyes with tears,
but the daughter will always
be beside her father.
Such a father and such a daughter
God will bless!

Join us on November 17, at Seattle University, for a night of Wagner vs. Verdi and the great nineteenth-century Bohemian – Bourgeois tug-of-war!


  1. Great insight Jon! What you write is "oh so true"; the conflicts and ties in Verdi's operas ARE between parents and children more than between lovers -- exceptions are those (like "Ballo in maschera"), where there are no parents, though in the current production in Lübeck there seems a parent-child relation between Ricardo and Oscar (though in this production Oscar is an Executive Assistant, female, still sung by a female). However, the way Ricardo & Amelia throw themselves at eachother after Amelia finally confesses "io t'amo" in their duet, just before Renato unfortunately arrives on the scene.
    Win H.