Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (1813–1901) has a big birthday coming up. Next year he’ll be 200, and various institutions are planning to program even more Verdi than usual. Perhaps that’s a bit like mounting a Festival of Bread and Wine: people might question the need. Bread and wine and Verdi should be quotidian commodities, staples of our everyday diet. On the other hand, bread and wine and Verdi are special anyway. Why do a festival?
And yet some fine things may result. There’s already at least one silver lining to the coming cloudburst of Traviatas and Trovatores. A collaboration between the Teatro Regio di Parma and C Major Entertainment will see the release of all 26 Verdi operas and the Requiem in Blu-Ray between now and the end of next year. That will enable us to explore Verdi operas that we either didn’t know or didn’t know nearly well enough, including the earliest works in the catalog.
They’re not as early as Mozart’s; Verdi was not that kind of child prodigy. But even as a toddler he must have shown talent, since he was encouraged by his parents and others in the community. Although he later called himself “a peasant from Roncole, born in a poor village” with “no way to teach myself anything,” that claim reflects his dramatic creativity rather than the historical truth. His tavern-keeping father saw that three-year-old Giuseppe got lessons with the village organist. When his teacher died six years later, Verdi took over some of his duties. A year or two after that, he entered the ginnasio in Busseto, where he supplemented his classical education with lessons from Ferdinando Provesi, who directed the local music school and presided as organist at St. Bartolomeo, the city’s principal church.
Here the story of Verdi’s rise gets more complicated. In 1832 he failed his entrance examination for the Milan Conservatory. For one thing, he was already too “old.” His piano skills, along with his counterpoint, were found wanting. So Verdi had to settle for private study with a minor Milanese composer, in hopes that simply improving his skills would substitute for a conservatory credential.
Verdi had acquired a patron in Busseto, the merchant Antonio Barezzi. Now he returned to Busseto, becoming its maestro di musica out of loyalty to his patron. Yet even in Busseto his appointment did not come without considerable political wrangling and delay—this being Italy, street fights took place. Verdi’s youth, not to mention the time he spent in scandalous Milan, counted against him. In 1836, he was finally named director of the philharmonic society and the music school but was denied the St. Bartolomeo post.
Nevertheless Verdi now felt secure enough to marry Barezzi’s daughter Margherita. The union produced two children, in 1837 and 1838. Meanwhile Verdi continued to compose, and to chafe at the restrictions of small-town artistic life. Already he was known for his fiercely independent spirit, his unwillingness to bend to institutional authority.
Having failed to get an opera staged in Parma, Verdi spent his 1838 leave in Milan, campaigning for a slot at La Scala. That effort was more successful, and when he got back to Busseto he resigned his position. In February 1839 the Verdis moved to the big city; in November La Scala produced his first opera, Oberto. It was moderately successful, and director Bartolomeo Merelli commissioned three more operas from him.
From this point on Verdi’s career should have taken flight, but it did not. His next opera, Un giorno di regno, was a comedy that failed miserably. It received exactly one performance.
Verdi was obliged to furnish two more works, but he was heartsick. His wife had died while he was finishing work on Un giorno. His two children had passed away just before and after the move to Milan. He was alone, depressed, and ready to abandon music altogether. Then Merelli showed him a libretto, based on the Nebuchadnezzar story in the Book of Daniel and originally intended for Otto Nicolai. By chance the first words he saw were those of a chorus of Hebrew exiles, “Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate”:
I was much moved, because the verses were almost a paraphrase from the Bible, the reading of which had always delighted me. I read one section; I read another; then . . . I forced myself to close the manuscript and go to bed. . . . I could not sleep: I got up and read the libretto, not once, not twice, but three times. . . . In spite of all that I still did not feel that I wanted to go back on my resolution. . . . The next day I went back to the theatre and gave the manuscript back to Merelli.
Merelli refused to accept it, and—in one of Verdi’s accounts, anyway—he pushed the composer out of his office and locked the door behind him.
I went back home with Nabucco in my pocket. One day, one line; one day, another; now one note, then a phrase . . . little by little the opera was composed.
In autumn 1841 Verdi took the completed opera to Merelli and was told that the season had already been planned. Nabucco would have to wait. An angry Verdi doubled and redoubled his demands that Merelli honor his contract, and La Scala’s director finally acceded. Verdi’s new opera was announced in a later cartellone following a weak series of productions for Carnival season in 1842. It proved to be an enormous success that spring, and when revived the following autumn, it received 57 more performances, “a figure unmatched before or since in the Scala annals,” as Andrew Porter reminds us in his New Grove entry. Within the next few years it was produced in every major city in the Western world.
Reader, beware: I’ve only told you the operatic version of Verdi’s struggle to create and produce Nabucco. The reality is more complicated, but we don’t have space for it here. In her excellent recent biography, Mary Jane Phillips-Matz reconciles a number of conflicting accounts and fully describes the manifold political, financial, personal, and artistic skirmishes that took place as Verdi beat the libretto into shape, composed the opera, and got it staged. For true Verdians out there, I strongly recommend Phillips-Matz’s 900-page tome, which covers Verdi’s entire career. If you tackle it, you will emerge astonished at this composer’s energy, creativity, and humanity.
After Nabucco, Verdi and librettist Temistocle Solera began work immediately on a sequel, I Lombardi alla prima crociata, which they produced at La Scala the following year. It also proved to be an enormous success, as was Ernani, composed for Venice and given there in 1844. At last Verdi was on his way.
All of the earliest operas, from Oberto through Ernani and I due Foscari, are now available from the Teatro Regio/C Major collaboration, so let’s take a closer look at some of them. First, the good news: in virtually every case, the Teatro Regio folks have placed great singing above all other considerations. Proper Verdi needs proper Verdi voices, period.
Also, these are live performances captured over the last few years, so (with the caveats noted below) the audio and video work holds to a uniformly high standard as well. That leaves the acting and stage direction, which—while not as consistently strong—seldom contribute anything so distracting as to spoil the overall effect of the performance.
I was especially impressed by Oberto, Teatro Regio’s 2007 staging of Verdi’s first opera, revealed here as classic or close enough. The first act builds masterfully, opening with a festive chorus that heralds the imminent wedding between Cuniza, sister of Ezzelino da Romano, and Riccardo, count of Salingherras, whose alliance with Ezzelino has enabled them to drive their enemy Oberto of San Bonifacio into exile. Oberto had to leave behind his daughter Leonora. Riccardo, concealing his true identity, seduced and abandoned her. Now, on the eve of Riccardo’s wedding, Leonora is determined to see him again. Her father has also risked returning, in an effort to regain both personal and familial honor. (Plot-wise, this tangled web is just the beginning. Oberto is a two-acter. Imagine the complications that became possible—and customary—once Verdi moved to a four-act format!)
The chorus is followed quickly by two cantabile/cavatina-cabaletta arias à la Rossini. First we meet Riccardo celebrating his impending nuptials, then Leonora vowing revenge. A scena e duetto follows between Leonora and Oberto, harbinger of the great father-daughter duets that would flow from Verdi’s pen in years to come. The duet yields to a trio, in which Oberto and Leonora confront Cuniza with their story of Riccardo’s shameful actions, and then comes the Act I ensemble finale, a spacious, climactic series of numbers that bring the emotional tension to a head. All this is traditional, straight out of the Rossini-Donizetti playbook, but it is quite effective. Verdi, 26 when he composed this, already knew exactly what to do given the right libretto.
In Act II Cuniza gets her scena, then Oberto his. There is a fine quartet in which the four principals attempt a negotiated peace. As the plot moves inexorably toward its bloody, tragic conclusion, all the bel canto conventions are observed. In the final coro di cavalieri, one can detect in the lyrics an implicit plea for national unity—the first of many such messages Verdi would send through his choruses over the years.
The Parma production (actually given in Busseto’s jewelbox theatre) supports Verdi’s early effort with generally fine casting. Tenor Fabio Sartori (Riccardo) possesses a generous lyric voice, supple, musical, and beautifully colored, with just enough steel in the upper register to promise success in meatier Verdi roles as he matures. I liked Francesca Sassu (Leonora) and Giovanni Battista Parodi (Oberto) too. Conductor Antonello Allemandi paces things admirably, never overplaying the elemental effects that Verdi relied upon at this stage in his development (and later too!). Sound and balances are generally excellent, although the contrast between solo voices (spot-lit by the recording engineers) and chorus (recessed-sounding, occasionally overbalanced by the orchestra) annoyed me. I wonder if the engineers sought to mask some ensemble or intonation problems by turning down the chorus. This tendency persists throughout the series.
It is a great pleasure, though, to hear big voices filling a small house with ease, their power readily apparent without the strain that invariably occurs in larger venues. With its stylized action (occasionally too stylized), stiff tableaux, and brown-to-black color schemes, the staging brings to mind the Daguerrotypes of the 1840s—technology roughly contemporary with the era in which Oberto was composed.
Any of several excerpts would do well at demonstrating the attractions of this score. But here is Sartori, offering the first big cavatina-cabaletta of the opera. About the tunes, let me cite Porter, who noted two “contradictory forces” in Verdi’s melodic practice as it evolved. In his early operas, the composer more often favored long, non-repetitive, rhapsodic phrases and periods. Later, he tended to organize the melody in smaller units, which he then effortlessly transformed as they developed. The tunes of Riccardo’s first cavatina are both organized along the small-unit model. Like Rigoletto’s “Questo o quella” or “La donna è mobile,” these melodies are repetitive, easy to remember, charming in their simplicity. Already the die has been cast: in a Verdi opera, the tenor will get a Big Tune, early on, something with which to woo the audience and display his sound:
Un giorno di regno, second of the early operas, makes use of an ancient comic device: the imposter who must impersonate a grand personage just long enough to right a few romantic wrongs, rescue a damsel (or comprimario) in distress, and save his own neck. This modest melodramma giocoso needs more help than did Oberto. Thankfully the delightful 2012 staging by Pier Luigi Pizzi provides it. Most of the evening’s humor and romance are precipitated by Pizzi’s direction and the singers’ agile acting and dancing. Verdi’s music is never less than serviceable, but it leaves the comedy implicit within the libretto rather than aiding the cast in drawing it out. The orchestrations do have their delicate, witty moments, although the accompaniments never enter as fully into the spirit of mischief as do Rossini’s.
A greater problem is that Verdi’s genius for bold dramatic strokes shines through at inapt moments—e.g., the Act I finale, when the imposter-king arrives on the scene of an elaborate comic quarrel between the other principals. Instantly order is restored. But the music here possesses such power and gravity as to immediately knock every giddy feeling out of our systems. This is not really what you want to happen in the middle of a comic-opera finale.
In spite of all that, there are a satisfying number of high spots. Comic duets between the two baritones—one Baron Kelbar (Andrea Porta) and his elderly treasurer La Rocca (Paolo Bordogna), who has been promised the Baron’s daughter—are consistently amusing. The two leading ladies, Anna Caterina Antonacci and Alessandra Marianelli, present sharply focused, effective characterizations. And they get gorgeous music to sing! Antonacci portrays a merry widow, La Marchesa del Poggio, and virtually stops the show with her scena e cavatina “Grave a core innamorato / Se dee cader la vedova.” Seeing her lover posing as a king, the Marchesa decides to test him by proclaiming her love for a new suitor. (The style of these numbers, by the way, comes closer to the long, non-repetitive, rhapsodic phrases that Porter finds so typical of early Verdi.) Check it out:
The young fellow playing the voyeur in that scene is the Marchesa’s estranged fiancé, Il Cavaliere de Belfiore (Guido Loconsolo), masquerading as the King of Poland. Want another helping of Antonacci? Here she is in comic conflict with Loconsolo, as the Marchesa and Cavaliere negotiate a reconciliation. It all ends happily.
I wish I could recommend the Teatro Regio/C Major Nabucco, but it isn’t competitive with other available videos, not to mention a number of fine audio recordings. The problem is largely Daniele Abbado’s staging, a postmodern mess that confuses rather than clarifies the emotional fault lines in the drama. Also, crucial to the success of any Nabucco is the way in which the chorus is handled, and here “Va, pensiero” is fatally sodden—bereft of musical vitality, visually ill-defined as well. The oversized ensemble huddles onstage, their sound underbalanced and lacking in fundamental vocal energy.
Parma’s I Lombardi, from 2009, is more successful. Verdi and Solera took care to fashion the libretto and music as much along the lines of their monster hit Nabucco as they could. The result was another big evening, four acts full of violent conflict, improbable plot twists, and stunningly effective ensemble sequences with chorus. The orchestra has become larger, the range of color and atmosphere it provides correspondingly wider. The scenic design in this production reflects that breadth. It is remarkably creative and effective, possibly the best in this batch.
The opening number is a masterly example of Verdi’s ability to capture the conflicting emotions of the principal characters. Immediately we are plunged into a drama set in play a generation ago, when the brothers Pagano (Michele Pertusi) and Arvino (Roberto De Biasio) both sought the hand of Viclinda (Cristina Giannelli). She chose Arvino; Pagano’s attempt to murder his brother resulted in his exile. But now the Crusades are getting underway, etc. etc. and Pagano pledges (falsely, it turns out) to re-unite with his brother in a common cause. (There’s more, much more, and we don’t have space for it here.)
I really enjoyed hearing tenor Francesco Meli, who plays Oronte, son of Acciano, tyrant of Antioch, who has fallen in love with Giselda, Arvino’s daughter, held hostage in Act II by the villainous Acciano. (I told you there was more.) Daniela Pini, as his mother Sofia, pairs nicely with him as he confesses his love for Giselda. Giselda, incidentally, is sung by the redoubtable Dimitra Theodossiou, a volatile spinto soprano who also graces Teatro Regio’s Nabucco. She is in good voice for her preghiera scene here, a touching “Ave Maria” of the kind that would become a regular feature of Verdi operas. But by the end of Act II and the Rondó – Finale that Giselda must dominate, her voice is spent. It’s a shame, because she projects the kind of dramatic intensity that these operas need. By contrast Pertusi, in the pivotal role of Pagano, sounds warm-voiced and unstrained from beginning to end but lacks the actorly magnetism to persuade us of the warring emotions in his heart. In this Act III trio with Theodossiou and Meli, you can judge the relative levels of charisma each brings to their part. (By this point in the drama, Pagano has become a holy hermit, so perhaps Pertusi’s Zen-like calm is finally appropriate!)
That brings us to Ernani, Verdi’s first encounter with French Romanticism (the source was a play by Victor Hugo) and his first collaboration with librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who would later work with him on Macbeth, Rigoletto, and Traviata. As with Parma’s Nabucco, I found myself unable to warm to this production, and as before, that was due to the staging. Director Pier’ Alli apparently went all-out for the monumental and ritualistically detached. (This tendency was also present in his Oberto staging, but nowhere near as annoying.) At any rate the chorus arrays itself onstage like so many Terra Cotta Warriors, moving as little as possible and resisting all impulses to display emotion. (That bears unintended comic results, because occasionally Alli asks for sudden, sharp motions all’ unisono, which they cannot execute to save their lives. A few laggards always miss the cue.) The principals follow suit, alas.
I also felt that the singing did not always rise to the standards set in the other discs. This was the earliest of the Parma productions in this first batch, so maybe that had something to do with it. But since there are other Ernani’s out there, it may be pointless to dwell on this one.
In spite of my carping, I mostly enjoyed these performances, especially the Oberto, Un giorno and Lombardi. Parma is not New York, Vienna, or London. Productions at the Teatro Regio are unlikely to equal those at the Met, the Staatsoper, or Covent Garden. But a series like this can provide a look into the daily bread and wine—the substance and spirit—of operatic life in a small city just an hour’s drive from Milan. It’s heartening to see how well Verdi can be done outside the half-dozen undisputed centers of operatic excellence on the planet. And it’s doubly refreshing to see rising young talent and hardy B-list stars come together to sing, as if that were still the greatest way you could imagine to spend your evening, if not your life.
Bring on the rest! Viva Verdi!