Friday, August 7, 2015

Verdi’s Career: A Musical Tour

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.

Shortly after horrendous personal tragedy first struck the young Verdi, when he was about 27, he wrote his first definitive opera, Nabucco. A new voice had arrived. The best-known music in Nabucco has become an unofficial Italian national anthem and one of opera’s greatest hits: the lamentation of the enslaved Israelites by the waters of Babylon. Verdi gave this displaced people a tune suitable for their nostalgic mood, and the melody is so simple, singable, and catchy it immediately became the theme song of the political movement for Italian unification. The audience understood these slaves yearning for their homeland as a metaphor for the Italian people, longing to be free of foreign domination (by the Austrian Hapsburgs, the French, the Spanish, even the Papacy). In the subsequent wars of Italian unification, Verdi’s name became a political slogan: “Viva Verdi!” was an acronym standing meaning “Long Live Vittorio Emanuel, King/Re of/d’ Italia!” Verdi himself was the son of a humble country innkeeper—his name, Giuseppe Verdi, is Italian for “Joe Green”—who became a popular hero, then later a senator in the first Italian parliament, and is still considered one of the founding fathers of the nation.

Following the success of Nabucco, Verdi became a very busy man. During his ‘years in the galleys,’ as he later called them, he churned out more than a dozen operas following the strict, standardized forms of bel canto opera. There’s lots of wonderful music in these early operas, but they aren’t as familiar or popular as the works he wrote later on, after he slowed down and started to take much more care with each work. (The only one of Verdi’s early operas we’ve presented at Seattle Opera is Attila.) With his tenth opera, Macbeth, Verdi turned a corner.

Verdi was a lifelong devotee of Shakespeare, and one of the things he so admired about the English playwright was his ability to give each of his dramatic works its own unique feel or color (“tinta” in Italian). The world of Hamlet, for instance, is a very different place than the world of King Lear. Inspired by Shakespeare, Verdi started doing the same thing in his operas. In 1847 he wrote his first opera based directly on Shakespeare: Macbeth. Although some of this work is a straightforward Italian bel canto opera, Shakespeare’s blood-soaked drama about a vicious tyrant and his psychopathic wife pushed Verdi beyond what was normal and acceptable for music in those days. In particular, Verdi, who loved putting witches onstage, wanted to capture the frighteningly grotesque character of Lady Macbeth and her grisly fate. For her mad scene—the famous ‘Sleepwalking Scene,’ in which Lady Macbeth is desperately trying to wash imaginary bloodstains off her hands—Verdi wrote music that makes your skin crawl.

Ten lonely years after the destruction of his first family, Verdi got hit hard once again by family tragedy. He had fallen in love with Giuseppina Strepponi, a retired soprano, who was considered a ‘fallen woman’ by the residents of the small town where Verdi grew up—including the composer’s parents. Verdi, now a wealthy and successful man, threw his parents out of his house and disinherited them; and at the same time, evidence implies, he and Strepponi left an illegitimate child outside an orphanage. As this was happening, Verdi wrote three operas that radically transformed opera, three horrifying tragedies concerning parents and children, eerie parallels for what was going on in Verdi’s life.

Rigoletto, widely considered a ‘perfect’ opera (with not a note or word out of place) concerns another fascinatingly twisted, grotesque character: a hunchbacked court jester who’s as evil and nasty in public as he is tender and overprotective at home; his innocent, sheltered daughter; the handsome rogue who seduces her and breaks her heart; and a whore with a heart of gold. Their voices come together in the famous Rigoletto quartet, a miracle of ensemble writing which musically describes four very different characters. The tenor (the Duke of Mantua, the handsome rogue), comes on to the whore with a seductive, beautiful, charming melody. She (the mezzo, Maddalena, the whore) giggles at him musically. The soprano (Gilda, the innocent girl he seduced and abandoned, who still loves him) wails musically; and the bartione (Rigoletto, her father) grumbles about avenging his daughter’s lost honor. His attempted revenge will of course backfire and destroy his daughter instead.

Like many Romantic artists, Verdi loved grotesque characters and situations. Following Rigoletto Verdi took the grotesque one step further with Il trovatore, the last bel canto opera, the tragedy of Azucena, a demented old gypsy hag full of this creepy smother/love for her son who turns out not to be her son. Verdi found a way to express this character’s post-traumatic stress syndrome musically: the music that played when her own mother was burned at the stake keeps haunting her, each time she has a flashback. In her harrowing monologue, “Condotta ell’era in ceppi,” she describes how her mother was killed, and how her efforts to be avenged led her to burn her own child alive.

Il trovatore has come in for more than its fair share of ridicule over the years. Given that it’s about a very disturbing subject, many people find it easier to make fun of this work than to take it seriously. But a great performance of this masterpiece is both thrillingly beautiful and dark.

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.

The fashionable ‘kept woman’ Violetta finds what seems to be true love with a country lad. But Papa Germont, her boyfriend’s father, demands that Violetta leave his son, since her status as “fallen woman” is bringing shame on the family and destroying Alfredo’s sister’s chance at an advantageous marriage. Violetta believes him when he says his son is likely to grow tired of Violetta and abandon her anyway. In their famous duet at the heart of this opera, baritone and soprano come together in respect and compassion as Violetta agrees to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of Germont’s family.

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.

Don Carlos is Verdi’s Hamlet. Originally written for Paris, to a French libretto, it’s very French in grandeur, spectacle, dazzling orchestral color, and whiny hero but still Verdian in its politics, emotional profundity, rhythmic drive, and vocal challenge. Verdi’s most ambitious and expensive opera, Don Carlos is sometimes given in a shorter version in Italian.

The protagonists are the tenor and baritone, a pair of idealistic young men committed to progressive causes. Don Carlos (the tenor) is the prince of Spain; Rodrigue, Marquis of Posa (the baritone) is his childhood friend. Early on in the opera Rodrigue learns that Carlos is heartbroken because his beloved fiancée Elisabeth ended up marrying his father instead of him, for political reasons. Rodrigue begs Carlos to come with him to bring peace to the war-ravaged Netherlands, where the people are trying to break free from Spanish domination. Together the two young men sing a magnificent duet of love and brotherhood, pledging to be true to one another until death.

The antagonist of Don Carlos appears to be King Philip II of Spain, Carlos’s father, who snatches the girl away from his lovesick son and oppresses the Dutch freedom fighters. But Verdi gives us a wonderfully complex portrait of this historical figure, who turns out (in the opera) to be much more sympathetic than we originally thought. The really nasty character is the Grand Inquisitor, another Verdi grotesque, a withered old priest who uses religion to control and terrorize all Europe. For Philip and the Grand Inquisitor, Verdi wrote a phenomenally chilling duet for two basses. Typical of their dialogue:

KING: If I send my son to his death, will you absolve me?
PRIEST: Peace in the empire is worth a rebels life.
KING: But can a Christian king destroy his son for his kingdoms sake?
PRIEST: To redeem us, God sacrificed his.
KING: But how can you impose so cruel a law?
PRIEST: That is the law imposed by our faith.
KING: Will I be able to silence the cry of nature in me?
PRIEST: Everything falls silent when faith speaks.

Bring on the camels and the elephants! There’s lots of great vocal music in Aida, the opera about ancient Egypt which Verdi wrote for Cairo to celebrate the opening of a new opera house. But even more familiar is the great orchestral music of the Triumphal Scene. Two choirs of trumpets on either side of the stage play this famous melody, in B flat and E flat—the very keys of the valveless trumpets found by archeologists, several years later, in King Tut’s tomb. Following the Triumphal March you’ll hear some lively ballet music. Grand operas always feature ballet, and Aida has some spectacular dance music.

Aida is one of the world’s most beloved operas, both for its fantastic music and the pomp and pageantry that make a production of it such an occasion. Its plot, a Romeo and Juliet-esque tale of star-crossed lovers, is also very satisfying. One of Verdi’s greatest characters is Amneris, the Egyptian princess whose heart is broken when the handsome warrior she loves runs off with her Ethiopian slave girl. In revenge, she betrays him to the priests who rule Egypt, then regrets it when it is decided that he will be buried alive. She pronounces a terrible curse on the priests, and in the intensity of this music you can hear Giuseppe Verdi cursing the conservative religious forces which, he felt, had all his life been obstructing the growth of peace and freedom in Italy.

By the end of his life Verdi was transforming Italian opera yet again; his last two operas, both based on Shakespeare, sum up everything possible in the art form and unveil new horizons to be explored by future composers. Otello is perhaps an easy Shakespeare play to turn into an opera, since it’s all passion, madness, revenge, and excess—but that said, it’s still tough to make an opera as good as Shakespeare’s original play, which Verdi did.

The story is about the struggle between good and evil and the nature of faith. Otello, a black army general, believes the lies of his henchman Iago, who claims that Otello’s beautiful young white wife is cheating on him. What, you ask, causes Iago’s evil? Verdi’s answer is that Iago has his own sort of diabolic anti-faith; he gives Iago a chilling aria, not based on Shakespeare, in which he asserts very strongly his belief in ultimate evil.

Later in the opera Otello hits his wife Desdemona in full view of everyone in the show, knocking her to the ground. Everyone is shocked, and Desdemona, on her knees, begins singing the huge ensemble known as a concertante. Verdi loved these pieces, with a beautiful soprano voice soaring above lots of hubbub. You can hear the shocked chorus; various characters feeling bad for Desdemona; Iago, plotting more villainy with his stooge Rodrigo; and Desdemona’s purity floating above it all. In the end, Otello screams at everybody to get out, curses Desdemona, and has an epileptic fit.

Rather than end his career with the nasty tragedy of faith destroyed in Otello, or the nihilistic devastation of King Lear (a lifelong obsession), Verdi made his final opera out of one of Shakespeare’s greatest comic characters, Falstaff. Verdi, who had a pretty bleak outlook on life, wrote lots of great tragedies. But he managed to write an incredibly funny opera comedy at age 80, one packed to bursting with brilliant, hilarious, beautiful moments. Listen, for instance, to Falstaff’s strutting ‘happy dance.’ Mistress Quickly has just invited the fat old rogue to an assignation with Alice Ford, one of the wealthy Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff courteously escorts Quickly to the door, then cries “Alice è mia!” (Alice is mine), and in the music that follows you can hear his vast belly chortling with delight.

To conclude our tour of Verdi’s career, here’s the conclusion of Falstaff: an enormous fugue for the full cast of 10 soloists and a big chorus on the words “All the world’s a joke, man’s a born jester, and he who laughs last, laughs best. Joe Green certainly did.

You can listen to the music on this playlist at the KING FM Seattle Opera Channel.


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