Talk & Article

 

Viva VERDI!

George Fleeton

 

[1] This pre-performance Talk was given in the National Concert Hall Dublin at Lyric Opera’s production of a Verdi Gala Concert on 16th May 2017.

[2] It is followed hereinafter by the redacted text of the article which I had written for the Concert Programme.

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[1] The idea behind the short, informal introduction to Verdi’s music was to help us  prepare for the Concert and to get lots of added value from our shared experience of the performances so that we left renewed and invigorated by our encounter with the operatic imagination of maestro Verdi.

The illustrations I had chosen for the pre-performance Talk were all taken from archive film of Maria Callas singing Verdi, three or four arias which were not included in our programme of music on stage that evening.

The first of these was from her initial appearance (in concert, age 35) at the Opéra de Paris in December 1958.

The scene was from act IV of Il Trovatore (Verdi’s eighteenth opera, first seen and heard in Rome in 1853).

Callas’ character is Leonora, a noble lady of Aragon, whose lover Manrico, a rebel commander, is in prison, sentenced to death; outside the walls she sings of her love – D’amor sull’ali rosee - and is joined by an off-stage chorus who intone a requiem, a Miserere, for the condemned man.

We noticed those long, arching melodies, so typical of Verdi, the soprano’s smooth transitions up and down her register and her grace and elegance in performance, her noble bearing and her respect for her art; Callas had sung this role on stage in twenty performances between 1950 and 1955.

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Verdi was born the same year as Wagner but outlived him by eighteen years; he actively worked his home farm at Busseto near Parma for most of his adult life; and yet he also spent a great deal of time travelling between opera houses all over Europe supervising, directing or conducting performances of his operas – in all he wrote twenty-eight (Wagner had written just half that number).

Verdi’s first opera was commissioned by La Scala when he was twenty-six and on the strength of its success he accepted a contract for three more; very few opera composers had ever had that ease of access, supported by a major opera house, to a career which would last for well over fifty years.

The greatest of Verdi’s operas were Ernani and Macbeth from his early period; Rigoletto, Trovatore, Traviata from his middle period; and Don Carlo, Aida, Otello and Falstaff from his mature period; indeed he was 80 at the opening night of Falstaff, which was his only comedy.

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Among those operas just mentioned was Don Carlo which started life in Paris in 1867.

In the second, archival Callas performance we heard the much later Italian version: Elisabetta di Valois, daughter of the king of France, has had to marry her fiancé’s father, the king of Spain.

Here Callas was singing in concert in Hamburg in May 1959, five months after that earlier Paris Concert; she had a heavy cold, yet she attacked this huge lyrical solo and its melting legatos with amazing courage: in the scene from act V Elisabetta is praying at the graveside of Charles V, and she recalls happier times in her native France: ‘You who knew the vanities of this world - Tu che le vanità’ - she begins, ‘carry my tears to the throne of the Lord.’

Callas had sung this role on stage just five times, all at La Scala in April 1954.

And there was a second piece from Don Carlo, recorded in concert three years later also in Hamburg (March 1962).

That aria, O don fatale, was written for Elisabetta’s companion Principessa Eboli, a mezzo-soprano role which, at this late stage in her career (she was 38), Callas could sing because her soprano voice had deepened and broadened.

Having confessed to her sins against Elisabetta her Queen, Princess Eboli sings a bitter aria of regret but resolves to make amends by saving Carlo from a death worse than fate…

Callas however never took her mezzo potential any further than that because three years after this concert she retired from the stage in July 1965.

Twelve years later, aged fifty-three, Callas died at her home in Paris on 16th September 1977.

Later this year and into 2018, to mark that fortieth anniversary, I will be producing a short series of concerts in her honour: watch for details of that in due course on this website www.georgefleeton.com

 

[2] Un trovatore straordinario

by George Fleeton

Fraught parent-child and notably father-daughter relationships abound in Verdi’s operas: Luisa-Miller, Gilda-Rigoletto, Aida-Amonasro … and there may be good reason for this, an exorcising of painful memories, perhaps?

Verdi was married twice.

His wedding to Margherita Barezzi took place in May 1836.

They had a daughter Virginia Maria and a son Icilio Romano; both died before their second birthdays.

And then unexpectedly Margherita died in June 184o:  ‘a third coffin went out of my house, I was alone, alone,’ Verdi recalled in later life.

They were both twenty-six and Verdi had already composed his first opera (Oberto) for La Scala Milan and was working on a second.

I’d often considered, when teaching Verdi, that such intense personal tragedy so early in life led to his blunt streak of pessimism and social detachment; a man with a taciturn personality that marked both his own character and many which he went on to create in a further twenty-six operas designed and sculpted in the remaining sixty years of his life.

That second opera by the way, Un giorno di regno, a comedy,was a total failure and Verdi abandoned composition, going to ground at Busseto, his home place near Parma.

However with the help of a few loyal friends and some persuasion from La Scala he managed to pull himself together and by March 1842 he was being fêted for his third opera Nabucco in which the malevolent character of Abigaille was created by Giuseppina Strepponi, a renowned bel canto soprano.

Verdi and she became great friends and they married in August 1859; she pre-deceased him by four years in November 1897.

To her is due enormous credit for her critical support for Verdi, in bad times and in good, the husband who became the indisputable maestro – il trovatore straordinario - of Italian opera for the entire second half of the 19th century.

In our Verdi Gala Concert on 16th May we remembered the inestimable involvement of Strepponi in Verdi’s life and work, just as we anticipated the 90th birthday of Lyric Opera’s patron Dr Veronica Dunne: two formidable women of international opera as performers and as teachers.

Later this year we will mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Maria Callas, and in my pre-performance Talk before the Concert I had the opportunity of illustrating my introduction with archive film of Callas singing Leonora in Il Trovatore and Elisabetta in Don Carlo.

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Verdi was the full-bearded revolutionary, the musical dramatist who single-handedly kept Italian opera distinct from styles then emerging in Germany and in France.

He revitalised Italian opera - giving it an identity as significant and as secure as that created for German music by his exact contemporary Richard Wagner - in that turbulent period of risorgimento leading up to the unification of Italy as a sovereign kingdom in the 1860s. 

He changed his musical and dramatic style of storytelling three times in the course of more than fifty years, writing masterpieces as a young man, as a mature composer and as an elderly genius.

Following Beaumarchais’ dictum that ‘what is too dangerous to say in words can be sung in music’ Verdi was able to bypass both church and state censorship of his work.

As his music developed, beauty of vocal delivery - Strepponi’s style - soon gave way to an emphasis on plot and character which required voices to  dramatically suit the physical and emotional conflicts on stage and their concomitant, melodramatic states of mind - which the music is charged with conveying to us - such as female madness or pathological male jealousy.

As a young, ingenuous composer,  who was refused at age 19 a place at the Conservatorio in Milan which now bears his name,  Verdi in his spare time had written those first two operas, already alluded to but seldom seen or heard today (although Wexford did stage Giorno di regno in 1981 with Belfast soprano Angela Feeney).

After Nabucco his status grew to that of national hero, both politically and artistically, a one man opera factory, with a long, successful and moderately happy life which he had started as a talented provincial musician and was to finish as the polymath and sage bar none of Italian opera - until, that is,   Puccini assumed, reluctantly and only to a certain degree, such an historically responsible mantle.

More precisely ‘ batons were exchanged’ – as I have always put it - in a single week in February 1893 when Puccini’s third opera Manon Lescaut and Verdi’s last, Falstaff, each had its first performance in Turin and in Milan respectively.

By then, aged 80, Verdi had put the chorus unequivocally back into mainstream Italian opera, put it centre stage in fact as a main player in the drama; and he had written meaningfully for expiring sopranos, distressed tenors, imperious baritones and wicked basses and always with those wonderful ensemble, hallmarked pieces which are his signature.

I have always believed that, after Verdi, no one dared to write (or was capable of writing) the kinds of operas that were the staple diet of his dominant time, that creative arc which had run from the 1840s to the 1890s, bearing in mind though that la belle époque and World War I each in very different ways changed beyond recognition tastes and trends in  the delivery, the content and the reception of all the arts; music too of course was changed utterly and as a result the terrible beauty of 20th century opera was born. 

To mix a few more metaphors, from Nabucco to Falstaff, like a huge sequoia Verdi stole the heat and the light from the smaller trees in the forest and the majority of his operas have since become important planets in our operatic solar system.

I used always, with my students, paraphrase for them Paul to the Corinthians: “And now there remain Mozart, Wagner and Verdi, these three: but the greatest of these is Verdi.”

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So did our Verdi Gala Concert that night in May convince unbelievers?

There were four overtures on offer from the operas I due Foscari (Rome, 1844), Nabucco (La Scala, 1842), Attila (Venice, 1846) and Giovanna d’Arco (La Scala, 1845), overtures which are rather conventional in that they make use of various melodies and choral themes from the operas for what I still call ‘gathering music’ when the audience who had, in those more distant times, come just for the voices had to be assembled and quietened down as the curtain went up.

All four overtures come from Verdi’s early period of composition; the genius may be self-evident but he is not yet fully opera-trained; they do have value though in allowing us to focus our listening on the music, the scene-setting process (before the principals and chorus take over the show) and in their noble simplicity and vitality such music reminds us that Verdi’s is the voice of a world that is no more.

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Choruses in Verdi are equally plentiful: the coro di zingari from Il Trovatore has gypsies singing the praises of wine, women and hard work on the anvil, with lots of sing-along zing.    

Patria oppressa comes from Macbeth (Florence, 1847) and initial funereal brass leads to a typical, predictably fine chorus in which the wretched Scots, clansmen of Macduff, gurn and grumble about their miserable life and hard times in exile across the border.

Earlier in the Concert we also heard the opening coro di streghe - the Witches’ chorus: Che faceste? Dite su! - before this great opera, whose narrative and dramatic focus is largely on Lady Macbeth, takes us inexorably, with crashing music and violent contrasts, to a destination we already know but to which the journey  is  made more interesting by the spectacle of a young Verdi really getting into his stride.

Our Concert also included Macbeth’s final, self-reflective soliloquy Pieta, rispetto, amore: facing death he laments a life without honour, respect or love.

Macbeth is a rare opera in that it that dispenses with conventional romantic love - there are only three principals, Macbeth, his wife and the witches, and there’s no love lost in that combination; four decades later Verdi would revisit Shakespeare in his two final, clever and complex  operas Otello and Falstaff.

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Of all the operas from which music had been chosen for this Concert, perhaps the least known was Luisa Miller (Naples, 1849), the one in which the hero (Rodolfo) is an imposter, the heroine (Luisa) double crosses him and they both die, poisoned too soon for what could have been a happy ending.

Nothing new there, I can hear you say; but musically Luisa Miller is the most underestimated of all Verdi’s operas; and we savoured some of its surprising quality in the tenor aria Quando le sere al placido [Marc Heller], as Rodolfo voices his pain and grief on receipt of a letter from Luisa saying she never loved him (and for the record, Wexford produced this opera in 1969, with Bernadette Greevy as Luisa).

The best perhaps was to come, for inevitably such a Concert as this would celebrate the high peaks of Verdi’s middle period, culminating in that informal trilogy of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata, the latter two opening, in Rome and in Venice respectively, within seven weeks of each other in early 1853, indicative of a work ethic worthy of Donizetti.

In Rigoletto (Venice, 1851), Gilda the over-protected daughter of the court jester, has been abducted and seduced by the Duca di Mantova; grief-stricken, Rigoletto [baritone Lucia Lucas] finds her and swears   vengeance (vendetta, in Italian): ‘like a thunderbolt from the hand of God’, he sings, ‘the jester’s revenge shall strike you down!’  as Gilda begs her father to relent.

From La Traviata we have the fine tenor aria which opens act 2: Alfredo’s happiest time: country house outside Paris, ménage à deux with Violetta: what could possibly go wrong?

Later in their duet Parigi, o cara they promise to go away from Paris to live their lives together, but for Violetta (as it will be many years later for Puccini’s Mimì) the endgame has already been played.

Irish soprano Sinead Campbell Wallace sang Pace, pace, mio Dio - Leonora’s prayer from Verdi’s Spanish melodrama La Forza del destino (St Petersburg, 1862) - an aria of the utmost delicacy, accompanied by harp, in which, living as a hermit and separated from her lover for six years, she  summons up remembrance of things past and begs God to end her joyless life; and He will.

From earlier in the opera, as Leonora enters the monastery, her voice is joined by a chorus of monks in the beautiful prayer La Vergine degli angeli.

And finally the other operas featured in the Concert were Don Carlo and Otello both from Verdi’s final period of maturity.

There was the stirring duet of friendship and allegiance between Don Carlo and Rodrigo, Dio, che nell’alma infondere amor, in that grandest of grand operas, which is surely Verdi’s capolavoro?

Finally three pieces from Otello dominated the Concert: scheming Iago’s self-analysis as evil personified, Credo in un Dio crudel, to trumpet accompaniment; Desdemona’s ‘Willow Song’ (sad, unearthly, with spare, bare accompaniment) and her Ave Maria in  a compelling stream of lyrical poetry during those intense, fearful moments before Otello’s arrival in her chamber…  and Otello’s act III aria Dio! Mi potevi in which on the brink of jealous mania he pours out his grief.

You will notice that there aren’t many intentional laugh-aloud moments in Verdi’s output for, even if he was the Shakespeare of 19th century Italian opera, comedy was something for which he had little flair – which brings us full circle to the stern, gruff individual and to  his theatrical  parent-child narratives (and I include Fenena-Abigaille-Nabucco, Azucena-Manrico, and Germont père-Violetta in those) which will have tragic consequences but which are  surely the right stuff of opera at its best from the best.

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A last word, if I may, on the pre-eminence of Verdi’s operas in Callas’ choice of roles.

Between 1948 and 1958 she recorded seven of his operas (La Traviata twice) and three albums of Verdi soprano arias.

She performed in ten Verdi operas on stage: in particular La Traviata on sixty-three occasions, Aida on thirty-three and in Il Trovatore twenty times.

All of which cuts across less than well-informed views that she was a Bellini (Norma), Donizetti (Lucia) or Puccini (Tosca) specialist.

Her 40th anniversary is on 16 September 2017.

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The next Lyric Opera production in NCH Dublin is Verdi’s La Traviata fully staged on November 4, 5 and 7; and then in  February 2018 we are doing Puccini’s Tosca: www.lyricoperaproductions.com

 

© georgefleetonmmxvii