“Una vela” and “Esultate”
Benjamin Bongers, Roberto Perlas Gómez, Babatunde Akinboboye, Robert Norman, and the Chorus
"Fuoco di gioia”
“Si, ciel pel”
Mr. Bongers and Mr. Gómez
“Salce! Salce!” and “Ave Maria”
Shana Blake Hill with Megan Gillespie
“Spuntato ecco il di”
Garden Scene: “Nei giardin del bello”
Nandani Sinha and Nicole Renée Bouffard, with VanNessa Hulme, Laura Schmidt, Judy Tran Gallego, Ms. Gillespie, Anne-Marie Reyes, and the Women’s Chorus
Gypsies and Matadors
The Chorus with Ms. Gallego and Mauricio A. Palma II
Act II Finale
Ms. Hill, Ms. Sinha, Mr. Bongers, Mr. Gómez, Gabriel Paredes, Mr. Palma, DeReau K. Farrar, and the Chorus
The Anvil Chorus: “Vedi! le fosche notturne spoglie”
“Stride la vampa”
"Il balen del suo sorriso”
Mr. Gómez and the Men’s Chorus
Chorus of Nuns and “Degg’io volgermi a Quel”
Ms. Hill, Ms. Sinha, Mr. Gómez, Mr. Akinboboye, and the Chorus
“E deggio e posso crederlo?”
Ms. Hill, Ms. Sinha, Mr. Bongers, Mr. Gómez, Mr. Akinboboye, Mr. Norman, and the Chorus
VanNessa Hulme and the Chorus
“O patria mia”
“Chi mai fra gl’inni”
Ms. Sinha and the Women’s Chorus
Ms. Hill, Ms. Sinha, Mr. Bongers, Mr. Gómez, Mr. Akinboboye, Mr. Palma, and the Chorus
It was Emanuele Muzio, an early pupil who became Verdi’s friend and musical factotum for almost fifty years, who dubbed Giuseppe Verdi il padre del coro – the father of the chorus – following the immense popularity of Nabucco and I Lombardi. Verdi had a particular talent for vivifying the choruses in his operas and, especially in the first half of his career, he created a remarkable number of choruses in each of his operas. He treated the people not just as props but frequently made them a central character – often those oppressed by the wealth and tyranny of the leading characters. Verdi had a lifelong mistrust of those in power, whether political or religious, and until the end of his life considered himself to be a man of the people. Because his choruses (as well as his remarkable melodies) captured so well the spirit of his time, he was much loved by an Italian public who came to know his music well even if they could not afford opera tickets. Verdi repaid their affection, frequently commenting that the only important judgment of his work is whether the theaters were full, not the opinions of critics and the literati. Several of Verdi’s opera choruses, notably “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco and “O Signore, dal tetto natio” from I Lombardi, are still learned by Italian schoolchildren and almost as widely known in Italy as they were at the height of Verdi’s fame as symbols of the Italian Risorgimento.
In the 200th year since Giuseppe Verdi’s birth, the composer ranks so high in the opera pantheon that it is hard to believe that he faced difficult odds against achieving a musical career at all. Although Verdi was known to exaggerate a bit in his later years about his parents’ poverty, there’s no doubt that he came from very humble beginnings. His musical talent was recognized early, but the most that anyone hoped is that he might become an organist or music director for a church. Thanks to the generosity of a benefactor who was also to become his father-in-law and close friend, Antonio Barezzi, Verdi was able to study composition. Although he was famously rejected as a student by the Milan Conservatory, Barezzi’s generosity made it possible for him to study in Milan with private tutors and begin to make connections in its important musical circles.
Verdi’searly career was quite difficult, professionally and emotionally. His first opera, Oberto, was a mild success, but his second, Un giorno di regno, was miserably received and canceled after only one performance. In the period between Oberto and the completion of Un giorno, Verdi suffered from financial difficulties and one of the frequent bouts of ill health that would plague him throughout his life. Even worse, during these years, both of his children died very young, and he lost his beloved wife to rheumatic fever. In spite of his grief and his desire to abandon his career, the libretto for Nabucco inspired him to write his first great triumph. Its success in 1842 was followed by the great popular success of I Lombardi in 1843.
Verdi was to call the sixteen years from his first success his “galley years,” as he composed a remarkable nineteen operas, growing in originality and dramatic power until the apex of these years with the extraordinary triumvirate of Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La traviata in 1851-1853. He was not joking about slaving in the galleys, as the demands of producing two or three operas in some years left him exhausted and frequently ill. During the galley years, he had to contend with sometimes unsatisfactory librettos, the stringent demands of censors in various Italian states and duchies regarding both politics and religion, shoddy productions with miscast singers, and a host of other problems including his sometimes precarious health and finances. Through it all, he insisted on forging ahead musically and dramatically, and by the time Italy achieved most of its unification in the 1860s and 1870s, he was recognized not only as Italy’s most important composer, but as the voice of the people who had written music that captured their own aspirations. The cry of “Viva Verdi” became known as a revolutionary catchphrase with the acronym VERDI also standing for “Vittorio Emanuele Re di Italia” (“King of Italy”), who was to become the united Italy’s first monarch. This recognition was to culminate in Verdi’s election in 1861 to the Chamber of Deputies in united Italy’s first government, a post he held for four years, and his appointment in 1874 as a Senator of the Kingdom by Vittorio Emanuele.
During this time, he began his relationship with Giuseppina Strepponi, a noted soprano who had played an important role in Nabucco’s being produced and was to become his second wife, and acquired his beloved house and farm at Sant’Agata, near his birthplace. For the rest of his life, he added to his farm holdings and reveled in the role of gentleman farmer, not above getting down in the mud with his workers to repair a canal. Although he could be exacting in financial matters, he was also widely recognized for his generosity to the poor of his province and to musicians who had fallen on hard times.
By 1859, Verdi began to declare that he was retired and would write no more operas. Although he no longer composed at the unbelievable pace of his galley years, this period nonetheless brought forth both La forza del destino, Don Carlo, and Aïda, as well as major revisions of Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra. Following Aïda’s enormous success in 1871 in Cairo and its subsequent productions in Europe and the premiere of his magnificent Requiem in 1874, it began to appear that Verdi had truly retired to his estate…until rumors began to circulate that he was at work on another piece. Otello was kept a closely guarded secret from all but Verdi’s closest circle during its long gestation and referred to only in code in his correspondence. The announcement of its opening in 1887 aroused enormous excitement, and it fully lived up to the anticipation at its premiere. In light of Verdi’s 74 years, it seemed it would be his final work. However, never one to follow expectations, Verdi was to follow it up with one more adaptation of his beloved Shakespeare with his opera Falstaff in 1893, and this lively comic masterpiece belied the fact of his eighty years.
Verdi suffered a stroke while staying at the Grand Hotel in Milan in 1901, and during the following week the hotel and the City of Milan made extraordinary efforts to limit noise and traffic near the hotel, even rerouting traffic. He died on January 27, 1901 and Milan virtually came to a halt as stores and businesses were closed in mourning, and cities across Italy prepared memorial concerts. Verdi’s will remembered a number of relatives and employees, but much of his estate went to poorhouses, schools and hospitals he had endowed, and the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, a home for elderly musicians in Milan which Verdi and his wife built. His will stipulated a simple funeral with no music and the simple procession was reputedly witnessed by a crowd of about 200,000 people. A month later, with the Italian government’s grant of his wish that he and his wife be buried in the chapel of the Casa di Riposo, over 300,000 people (more than half of Milan’s population) gathered to watch the cortege as Toscanini led a chorus of 820 voices in Va, pensiero. To this day, it remains the largest public gathering ever seen in Italy.
While Verdi may not have explicitly intended political statements with such famous choruses as “Va, pensiero, “O Signore, dal tetto natio” from I Lombardi, and Macbeth’s “Patria Oppressa,” there is no question that his intent in creating La battaglia di Legnano was overtly and passionately partisan. The rapidly growing Risorgimento (“resurgence,” or unification movement) came to a head in the mid 1840’s, and in 1848 the citizens of Milan ejected the Austrians after five days of street battles. Working in Paris at the time, Verdi returned to Milan almost immediately and was urged to write a patriotic piece but could find no story or libretto which he thought fitting. It was the prolific playwright and librettist Salvatore Cammarano who suggested the idea of the Lombard League’s defeat of Barbarossa in 1176. Its parallels with the struggles of the current Italian unification movement against the Austrians seemed ideal, and Verdi rapidly agreed. However, the opera was not finished until the resurgence had begun to suffer a string of losses. In the intervening months, the Kingdom of Upper Italy was declared, although much of it was retaken by the Austrians, and the pope escaped imprisonment from the most radical republicans in Rome, who swiftly declared the Papal States a republic and won a majority of seats in the new Assembly. It was in this atmosphere that La battaglia di Legnano premiered on January 27, 1849 and created a furor, hardly surprising in light of frequent references to la patria. Following a stirring martial overture, the opera opened with a chorus exclaiming “Viva Italia!,” particularly provocative at a moment when Italy did not yet exist. La battaglia was an enormous success and Verdi’s standing as the musical voice of the patriotic movement mounted even higher. Within days of its opening, the Republic of Rome had been established.
The first scene of La battaglia di Legnano, set in Milan in 1176, begins with the assembled members of the Lombard League as they prepare to battle the German king and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Proclaiming “Viva, Italia!” they declare that a sacred pact binds its sons together, and from many has been born one heroic people. Its flags fly on the fields of the invincible Lombard League and chill the bones of the ferocious Barbarossa. Italy is strong and united with sword and mind and the soil that was a cradle for them will be a tomb for the foreigner.
Following Aïda’s successs in 1871, Verdi claimed to be retired from writing for the stage and resisted all attempts to change his mind. Knowing that only a great libretto would entice the composer, his long-time publisher Giulio Ricordi took advantage of Verdi’s enduring love of Shakespeare. Rather than trying to revive Verdi’s interest in the long-abandoned libretto of King Lear with which he had struggled for years, Ricordi planted the idea of Shakespeare’s Othello (shrewdly initiating a conversation blaming a librettist for ruining Rossini’s operatic version of the same play). Ricordi suggested that Arigo Boito, considered an Italian authority on Shakespeare, was interested in writing the libretto. In spite of his demurs, Verdi was clearly intrigued, and the seed for what is perhaps his dramatic masterwork was sown – although it was slow to grow. Boito’s successful reworking of the libretto of Simon Boccanegra encouraged Verdi to consider him as a collaborator. (Remarkably, Boito was preparing the premiere production of his own Mefistofele simultaneously with his work on Otello.) Boito would write not only the libretti of Otello and of Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, but become a close friend who was with him during his last illness and death. It took 16 years from Aïda’s premiere (eight years after Ricordi’s suggestion and Boito’s initial scenario) until Otello’s triumphant premiere at La Scala in Milan in 1887. Verdi had completed his last tragic opera and supervised its production at the age of 72.
Verdi had always been interested in “la parolla dramatica” – the dramatic word – as a crucial part of his work, and not just a frame on which to hang splendid melodies. As both his fame and his skills increased, he became a consummate man of the theater and developed a firm hand in all matters having to do with his work. (For Otello, he dispatched the proposed designer to Venice to study the works of Bellini and Carpaccio in order to properly prepare the sets and costumes.) As with Aïda, Verdi was very demanding of his librettist in matters that affected not just the verse, but atmosphere, dramatic structure, everything that made an opera a piece of theater rather than concertizing. Verdi and Boito adhered to the major plot points of Shakespeare’s original, and the “father of the chorus” heightened the effect of the soldiers, courtiers, and Cypriot populace to great dramatic effect. George Bernard Shaw puckishly claimed, “The truth is that instead of Otello being an Italian opera written in the style of Shakespeare, Othello is a play written by Shakespeare in the style of Italian opera.” Regardless, there is no doubt that Shakespeare’s great tragedy was a brilliant match for Verdi’s mature genius.
Verdi and Boito begin their version of Shakespeare’s play with the first scene of Act II, omitting the first act in Venice in which Othello and Desdemona marry and the Doge and his council appoint Othello to lead their great expedition against the Turks. Given the limits of Elizabethan theater companies which rarely boasted more than twenty actors, Shakespeare could only have two messengers describe Othello’s arrival. Verdi is able to bring the full force of his orchestration to create the raging storm which threatens to overwhelm Otello and his troops as they return from the war.
The Venetian courtiers and soldiers and the Cypriot citizens anxiously watch the harbor during a ferocious storm, praying that Otello’s ship will make it safely to shore. They spy in the distance first a sail and then a ship with the Venetian flag (“Una vela! Un vessillo!”) They watch in terror as the waves first seem to overwhelm the ship, and then lightning reveals that it is still afloat. It seems that the universe itself is shaking. They entreat God to save the ship carrying Venice’s fortunes and bring it safely to the harbor. They cry for help as Iago mutters that he hopes the frenetic sea will be Otello’s tomb. Suddenly the throng realizes that the ship has been saved. As Otello steps onto shore, he tells the people to rejoice (“Esultate!”) that Venice has won glory, and the proud Muslims have been buried in the sea. The overjoyed crowd hails Otello by celebrating his victory and the extermination of the enemy. The people are exultant that the Turkish ships are buried on the ocean floor and that their only requiem will be the lashing of waves and the turbulence of hurricanes.
As the returning soldiers and the townspeople celebrate victory, they admire the joyous bonfire they have built (“Fuoco di goia”). The cheerful blaze drives away the night with its splendor, flashing, sparkling, crackling, and flaring up, flooding their hearts with fire as well. Looking first like young girls, then like butterflies, vague shapes dance in the burning palms and sycamores. But the golden flames burn as quickly as the fire of love, pulsing, then growing dark, the last sparks flashing and dying.
In Act II, Iago continues to nurture the seeds of doubt and jealousy in Otello’s mind, and when he manages to steal a precious handkerchief that was Otello’s first gift to Desdemona, he finds the final trick needed to fully convince Otello that his wife is unfaithful to him. Persuaded by Iago that Desdemona has given this important token to the young soldier Cassio as a token of her love, Otello is overcome by fury. Any trace of love or mercy vanishes as he cries out for blood! He falls to his knees as he swears by heaven (“Si, pel ciel”) by death, by the exterminating sea, that his hand will strike like lightning! Iago kneels with him to swear an oath to the sun and his Creator that he vows his heart, life, and soul to Otello. The two of them repeat Otello’s vow to their avenging God.
Otello, half-mad with jealousy, has violently humiliated Desdemona in front of the entire court and sends her to their bedchamber to wait for him. In the opera’s final act, the innocent Desdemona cannot understand the change in her beloved husband and her own sense of foreboding. She instructs her servant Emilia to lay out her bridal garments and to make sure she is buried in them if she should die. She recalls her mother’s beautiful young servant Barbara, who was abandoned by her lover and would sing a sad song over and over – a song which floods Desdemona’s memory on this fateful evening. The song tells of a lonely girl singing and weeping with her head fallen to her breast, calling to the weeping willow (“Salce! Salce!”) “Let us sing! The willow will be my funeral garland.” As the brook flowed between the flowering banks, so did a bitter wave of tears flood from the broken-hearted girl. The birds flew down from the dark branches, drawn by her sweet song, and she wept so much that even the stones by the river pitied her. Desdemona recalls that Barbara used to end the song by saying, “He was destined for glory, and I to love him and to die.” Desdemona sends Emilia to bed, wishing her “good night” and then “farewell.” Left alone, Desdemona falls to her knees and says her prayers, an ardent “Hail Mary” (“Ave Maria”), ending with the prayer’s traditional request that Mary pray for all sinners, now and at the hour of death.
Don Carlo, written for the Paris Opéra and premiered in 1867, was based on Friedrich von Schiller’s 1787 play Don Carlos and originally set to a French libretto by Camille du Locle and Joseph Méry. The drama begins during a truce between Spain and France in 1558. The title character is the son and presumed heir of Phillip II, King of Spain, who had annulled his son’s betrothal to the French princess Elizabeth and married the much younger Elizabeth himself, although Carlo and Elizabeth remain deeply in love. The familial conflicts take place amidst the sweep of a revolt against the Spanish occupation in Flanders (the Netherlands) and the height of the Spanish Inquisition. When the Opéra asked Verdi to compose a new work for them, among their proposals were King Lear, a libretto about Cleopatra, and Don Carlo. King Lear had long tempted Verdi, but although there is some evidence that he sketched out a few scenes, he wrote at the time that he saw too many difficulties to successfully adapt it. However, along with Shakespeare, Schiller was a favorite author of Verdi’s (the works of both were to be found at his bedside), and many of their plays had been translated by Verdi’s admired friend Count Andrea Maffei. Prior to Don Carlo, Verdi had already written operas based on three Schiller plays: Giovanna d’Arco, I masnadieri, and Luisa Miller. It was not only the theatrical appeal of Schiller’s play which appealed to him, however. The Italian Risorgimento, seeking to restore Italy’s autonomy and stature in the world, was at its height. In fact, as Verdi was writing Don Carlo, war between Italy and Austria broke out and he was forced to leave his beloved home, where he preferred to work. The underlying political conflict in Don Carlo, the Netherlands’ struggle to be free of Spanish rule, appealed powerfully to a composer who chafed at being under the Austrians’ sway. Likewise, the idealistic and essentially anticlerical nature of the work also appealed to him, and it was Verdi’s own inspiration to have the terrifying character of the Grand Inquisitor transformed into a blind and ancient man, neatly encapsulating his view of religious figures. Entitled Don Carlos at its Paris premiere, the Italian version, Don Carlo, was to become Verdi’s most frequently revised work, partly due to his dissatisfaction with the stringent demands of grand opera in Paris.
In Act II Scene 2, a huge crowd gathers to witness an auto-de-fé – a ritual burning at the stake of heretics condemned by the Inquisition (a scene not in Schiller’s original play). The crowd exults that the day of rejoicing has dawned (“Spuntato ecco il di”) and praises the honor of Phillip, the greatest of all kings. Their love will follow him everywhere and never diminish, for his name is the pride of Spain and must live forever. Monks lead the condemned across the square, saying the fatal day, the day of terror, has arrived and they must die. But on the day of judgment the voice of heaven will forgive their sins if they repent at this final hour. The excited mob again praises the glory of the king.
In the second scene of Act I, we are introduced to Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting, including the Princess Eboli, who leads the ladies in a favorite song, which tells of the gardens (“Nei giardin del bello”) of a beautiful Saracen palace where a lovely dancing girl covered in her veil gazed at the stars. The Moorish king praises her tender beauty and says he will give up his queen for her. The ladies join in the refrain that damsels should weave veils when the sun is in the sky, for it is veils that are dearest to love when the stars shine. The king asks the beautiful maiden to lift her veil, and again offers to give up his queen for her – and is shocked to discover that the maiden is the queen.
La traviata is set to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave based on Alexandre Dumas fils’ novel and play La dame aux camélias (more popularly known in English as Camille). Dumas’ work was a lightly fictionalized portrayal of the famous courtesan Marie Duplessis, who had liaisons not only with Dumas but other celebrated artists and nobles in mid-19th century Paris. The composer Franz Liszt wrote of her as the first woman he ever loved and praised her exquisite nature. Known in the novel and the play as Marguerite Gautier, the character was played to enormous success by such figures as Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse on stage and Greta Garbo on film.
Verdi had contracted for a new opera for La Fenice, then as now the major opera house in Venice, to be composed and premiered in the same remarkable three-year period in which he created Rigoletto (also for La Fenice ) and Il trovatore. Following the riotous success of Il trovatore in Rome in early 1853, Verdi returned to his home in Lombardy exhausted and ill. Already behind schedule on a first draft for his commitment to Venice, he set to work with his longtime friend and collaborator Piave (most recently the librettist of Rigoletto). Verdi became enamored of the idea of fashioning an opera from Dumas’ Paris success of the previous year. Verdi was constantly searching for material that would allow him to move forward, both musically and theatrically. Although he was advised against choosing such a subject and setting it in his own time, he pointed out that no one had liked the idea of a hunchback as an operatic hero, and Rigoletto had turned out to his and everyone else’s satisfaction. He worked feverishly with Piave to finish the piece, simultaneously battling with La Fenice’s management over casting issues and staging the piece in contemporary dress (which his eternal nemesis, the censors, refused to accept). He lost both battles but nonetheless allowed the production to proceed, with the mise en scène now set in the era of Richelieu. True to his predictions, La traviata did not achieve a great success at its premiere in March, 1853 (only two months after the premiere of Il trovatore), although it was not the “fiasco” which Verdi repeatedly deplored in numerous letters to friends. Having declared that time would tell whether its “failure” was his fault or the singers’, he withdrew it from subsequent productions until the appropriate cast could be found. This was achieved only a year later, first at a different theater in Venice where it met a brilliant success, followed by productions all over the world. (It was not, however, staged in contemporary dress as Verdi had intended until 1906, in Milan.) La traviata soon joined Rigoletto and Il trovatore in the mighty triumvirate of Verdi’s middle years, and it remains not only one of his most beloved works, but one of the most popular operas in the world.
Having originally named the opera Amore e morte (Love and Death), he took as its title the heroine’s characterization of herself as “La traviata” (a courtesan, but also meaning “the lost”). With the character Marguerite now named Violetta, Verdi created what is perhaps his greatest portrayal, a vibrant and soulful beauty who enchants everyone she encounters. Liszt described the living prototype of Violetta as a woman whose heart was never touched by corruption, and it is this nobility of spirit that Verdi captured with such sympathy and grace.
Set in the Paris demimonde of the 19th Century, it is the star-crossed love story of the glamorous Parisian courtesan Violetta Valéry and Alfredo Germont, an innocent young man from the provinces. The first scene takes place in August at a party at Violetta’s house in Paris. Violetta welcomes her guests, including Alfredo, who has loved Violetta from afar for some time. He quickly charms her with his unabashed ardor and charming manner. Violetta gives up her luxurious life and retreats to the country with Alfredo, who is shocked to discover that Violetta has been selling her possessions to support them. Alfredo rushes to Paris to try to raise funds, and Violetta is visited by Alfredo’s father, who initially castigates her for ruining his son’s life. He soon recognizes that Violetta is not what he had expected, and he begs her to renounce the liaison with his son, which threatens the proposed marriage of Alfredo’s young sister. Although heartbroken at the prospect of losing Alfredo, Violetta agrees and scribbles a note to him announcing that she is returning to her former life (and protector Baron Douphol) in Paris. The furious Alfredo follows her to Paris where he confronts her at a grand party and insults her in front of all of their friends. His father and friends are shocked by his behavior, and Violetta’s protector challenges him to a duel. In the final scene, the dying Violetta (racked by consumption) is visited by both Alfredo (who went abroad after wounding his rival) and his father, who has told his son of her magnanimous sacrifice. Violetta is overjoyed at his return and swears that she will survive to forge a new life with Alfredo, but her ecstasy at their reunion is too much for her, and she dies in his arms.
The second scene of Act II is set at a masquerade party at the palace of Violetta’s courtesan friend Flora to which Violetta has retreated after fulfilling her promise to Alfredo’s father to leave him. Masqueraders present themselves as young gypsy women (“Noi siamo zingarelle”) who have come from far away to read the guests’ palms and tell their futures. They note that Flora has several rivals, and say her lover the Marquis is unfaithful. As Flora and the Marquis bicker about his infidelity, the fortune tellers advise everyone to throw a veil over the past. What’s done is done, and they should only pay heed to the future. Other masqueraders burst on the scene saying they are matadors from Madrid (“Di Madride noi siamo matadori”). They tell the story of the handsome matador Piquillo, who conquered five brave bulls in one day to win the heart of his Andalusian love. By such feats do matadors win the hearts of ladies, but here at the ball the men and women agree they need only make believe in order to win at the game.
In the climactic Finale to Act II, Alfredo confronts Violetta, who tries to convince him that she is genuinely in love with the Baron Douphil. The outraged Alfredo shouts for the puzzled guests to return from the dining room and tells them that she had spent all she had to support him. Alfredo had accepted it blindly but now will repay his shameful debt to her in front of witnesses. He throws the money he won gambling with the Baron at Violetta’s feet, who faints at the affront. The shocked gathering recoils from his horrible infamy. He has not only assaulted Violetta’s sensitive heart but insulted all women. Saying that Alfredo fills them with horror, they order him to leave. Alfredo’s father has witnessed the insult to Violetta and likewise rebukes his son. A man who insults a woman, even in anger, is contemptible, and Germont no longer recognizes his son in the man who committed this act. Horrorstricken by his own behavior, Alfredo recognizes that mad jealousy has destroyed his reason. Wondering if he can ever gain her pardon, he now feels only remorse at having vented his anger. Meanwhile, Violetta’s friends try to revive and comfort her as the Baron draws Alfredo aside and vows revenge. The elder Germont realizes that Violetta has kept her vow never to tell Alfredo the truth behind her departure as the heartbroken Violetta tries to recover. She knows that Alfredo doesn’t comprehend the love in her heart, but that the time will come when he will be told of her sacrifice. She prays that God will save him from remorse and vows to love him even after her death.
Premiered in Rome in 1853 (the same remarkable year that saw the premiere of La traviata), Il trovatore (The Troubadour) had a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, the librettist of several other Verdi operas as well as Lucia di Lammermoor. Cammarano fell ill before it was completed and his friend Emanuele Bardare undertook the task, generously refusing any printed credit as co-author. Based on the popular 1836 Spanish play El trovador by Antonio García Gutiérrez (also the playwright of the original Simón Bocanegra), Il trovatore is set in war-torn 15th Century Spain. Even by the standards of the day, the plot has notable improbabilities, but it provided the sort of intensified action and high emotion which Verdi could dramatize so well. It is the story of two lovers, the troubadour Manrico and Leonora, a lady-in-waiting to the princess of Aragon, who are dogged by the young Aragonese nobleman Count di Luna, a fearsome rival for the heroine’s affections. The love triangle is caught up in a civil war between the Court of Aragón and a pretender to the throne. In addition to the familiar soprano-tenor-baritone triangle, Verdi – always on the lookout for innovative ideas – enlarged on the character of the gypsy Azucena. In an early draft, Verdi clearly intended Azucena to be the main role; he planned to title the opera La zingara (The Gypsy). It was at Verdi’s direction that Bardare provided a new aria for Azucena in the second act (“Stride la vampa!”) and Verdi provided the author with clear directions for the aria, going so far as to write some of the lyrics himself.
The first scene of Act II is set at daybreak in a gypsy encampment in the mountains. As the men take up their hammers and go to work at their anvils, they greet the sun pulling off the night’s dark cloak (“Vedi! le fosche notturne spoglie”) and ask “Who is it who cheers the gypsy’s days? The gypsy girl!” The women bring wine as the men fall to work. Azucena remains apart, lost in her memory of a roaring blaze (“Stride la vampa!”) and the untamed crowd howling as a disheveled and barefoot victim (her mother) is brought by guards to the bonfire to be burned as a witch. She shudders at the memory of the terrible death cry which echoed from the cliffs as the flames lit the horrible faces of the mob.
In the second scene of Act II, Leonora has retired to a convent, believing that her beloved Manrico has been slain in battle. On the night before she is to take the veil, the Count di Luna arrives at the convent with his captain Ferrando and a band of soldiers to abduct Leonora before she can take her vows. Di Luna also believes that his rival is dead and the obstacles to his possessing Leonora have been removed, but now another one has arisen – the altar! He swears that she shall never belong to anyone but him, as he remembers the flash of her smile (“Il balen del suo sorriso”) which can conquer the light of the stars. The splendor of her beautiful face fills him with a new courage. He prays that the love burning inside him may speak to her, and the sun of her glance drive away the storm in his heart. A bell announces that the rite is about to begin, and Di Luna orders his men to hide and seize her before she arrives at the altar. The soldiers encourage each other to be daring as they hide themselves in the mysterious shadows, bidding each other to be silent and obey the Count’s will. Di Luna relishes the fateful hour of joy approaching that not even God can take from him.
The nuns of the convent pray that Leonora will see at the moment of death that human error has been a shadow, a dream. The veil will hide her from human eyes. If she turns to heaven, heaven will open to her. Leonora asks her lady in waiting Inez why she is crying, and Inez replies that Leonora is leaving them forever. Leonora says that earth has no happiness, no hope, no flowers for her, and she must turn her eyes to He who supports the afflicted (“Degg’io volgermi a Quel”). After many penitent days she may rejoin her lost love and asks that they dry their eyes and lead her to the altar. She is startled by the Count di Luna’s entrance, and as he moves to seize her, Manrico suddenly appears to intervene. Leonora asks whether she can believe it (“E deggio e posso crederlo?”). Seeing him beside her is a dream, an ecstasy, a supernatural spell! Her heart can’t support such jubilation. She asks Manrico if he has descended from heaven, or is she in heaven with him? Di Luna is shocked to see his rival alive, and Manrico replies that neither heaven nor hell hold him, and God confounds the wicked. Di Luna warns him to flee if he still wishes to live, but Manrico’s fellow rebels arrive as Di Luna draws his sword. Inez and the nuns say the God in whom Leonora trusted has had pity on her as Manrico and Leonora escape while Di Luna’s followers attempt to restrain his mad fury.
Verdi had declined an invitation to write a celebratory hymn for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, although his longtime friend and assistant Muzio had directed the music for the Canal’s opening as well as Rigoletto for the opening of the new Cairo Opera House. The Egyptian leaders persisted, however, and Verdi agreed to write a new opera for Cairo provided it would have an Egyptian story and setting. The prominent French archeologist and Egyptologist Auguste Mariette promptly provided a scenario, and Verdi engaged Antonio Ghislanzoni (the librettist of the revised La forza del destino) as librettist. As he insisted for all of his libretti, Verdi constantly reminded Ghislanzoni that he wanted the “theatrical words” – i.e., the words that would develop characters or story, and not just high poetry arranged in a conventional way. (As usual, Verdi didn’t hesitate to rewrite the words when he felt the need. If he found a lyric too highly wrought, he would sharpen it to a more direct statement suited to the character.) Staging and rehearsals were undertaken in Paris rather than Cairo so that suitable singers could be engaged and production values closely monitored. The long siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War delayed the opening of the production in Egypt until 1871, when it proved a great success. This was followed by Aïda’s premiere at La Scala in 1872, vigorously overseen by Verdi, fiercely resisting all management attempts to “strangle” the premiere by haste or false economy and relentlessly insisting on attention to ensemble work and staging. In spite of Verdi’s usual pessimism, the premiere proved everything he could have hoped, and he was rewarded with an extraordinary personal ovation upon his return to a city and an opera house he had avoided for years.
Based on a number of sources, the story of Aïda suited the intense interest in Egyptian history aroused by the archeological finds of the 19th century (presaging the Egyptian mania later produced by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb) as well as the opening of the Suez Canal. Seemingly the quintessence of grand opera due to the majesty of the setting and intense historical struggle of the principals, Verdi outdid himself in using the elaborate musical and theatrical frame to focus on the intense personal drama of the leading characters. The daughter of Amonasro, the King of Ethiopia, Aïda has been captured by the Egyptians, who are ignorant of her royal status. She is now the slave-girl of Amneris, the daughter and heir of the Egyptian king. Amneris loves the young officer Radamès, unaware that Aïda is a princess and that she and Radamès are secretly in love. Discovering their love, Amneris vows to overcome her rival. Radamès triumphs over the Ethiopian army, returning with booty and prisoners. Aïda is shocked to see that her royal father Amonasro is one of the captured. Amonasro persuades his captors that he is an Ethiopian general and that the king died in battle. To honor Radamès’ valor, the Pharaoh spares the prisoners’ lives and grants Amneris to Radamès as his bride. Aïda submits to Amonasro’s demands that she save her country and betray Radamès by obtaining his plan to crush the Ethiopian army once and for all. Rather than defend himself against the subsequent charge of treason, Radamès goes to his death to find that Aïda has secretly joined him in what will be their living tomb, leaving Amneris to repent her jealousy and mourn her loss.
In Act I, Radamès learns that he has been chosen to lead the Egyptian troops against the Ethiopians. In the second scene, he stands before the altar of the god Fthà to have his mission consecrated. The High Priestess leads the other priestesses in a prayer invoking mighty Fthà (“Possente Fthà”), creator and animator of the world, the source of fire and light, and the priests invoke great Fthà as the life of the universe and the source of eternal love.
Earlier in Act I, the Ethiopians have regrouped forces and are preparing to attack Egypt again. In the palace at Memphis, the Egyptian high priest Ramphis has advised Radamès that the goddess Isis has selected a new commander of the Egyptian troops, and Radamès prays that he is the one chosen. His dreams of glory inspire a paean to his heavenly Aïda (“Celeste Aïda”), crowned with light and flowers, the queen of his thoughts, the splendor of his life. If he returns triumphant, he will return her to the beautiful sky and sweet breezes of her native land and raise for her a throne close to the sun.
In Act III, Aïda awaits Radamès for a secret meeting outside the temple of Isis. She wonders what he will say and trembles to think that he may plan a final farewell. If so, the dark whirlpools of the Nile will provide her a tomb and perhaps oblivion. She thinks of her fatherland (“O patria mia”) which she will never see again – its blue skies, its sweet air, where the beautiful morning of her life shone. Never to see it again! And its green hills, its sweet-smelling riverbanks, its cool valleys where her love promised her they would go, but now that dream of love has vanished. O fatherland! Never to see it again!
In the first scene of Act II, Amneris is in her apartments, being adorned by her slave women for the celebration to honor Radamès and the Egyptian troops for their triumph over the Ethiopians. The slaves praise the fame of the conqueror (“Chi mai fra gl’inni e i plausi”) as they ornament their mistress and sing of the glory of their love. Amneris anxiously awaits her beloved, calling out to him to come to her and gladden her heart as the dancing slaves prepare a crown of laurel for the conquering hero.
In the Finale to Act II, the Pharaoh and his court have come to Thebes to greet the triumphant Radamès following his victory over the Ethiopians. As the captured soldiers are brought forward, Aïda has inadvertently exclaimed, “My father!” Amonasro signals Aïda not to betray his royal status and informs the Egyptians that he is indeed Aïda’s father, a soldier in the service of the Ethiopian king, and that the king was killed in battle. The people hail the glory of Egypt, their sacred protector Isis, and their king, and cheer the conquering hero as they lay laurel and flowers in his path. The women twine laurel wreaths for the army as they call on the young girls to dance like the stars in the sky. The priests give thanks to their army and the god who has brought this lucky day. To the sound of Verdi’s famous Triumphal March, Radamès enters the city gates. As reward for his success, he asks the king to spare the lives of the captured Ethiopians and grant their liberty. The priests call for death to the prisoners, but the people join in Radamès’ plea for mercy. The high priest Ramphis protests that Egypt’s enemies will always seek revenge and pardon will allow them to return to fight again. Radamès says they are safe now that the Ethiopian king is dead (having been fooled by Amonasro’s subterfuge). The king bows to Ramphis’ advice that Aïda’s father at least be held as a hostage. As Radamès’ reward, the king decrees that Radamès shall marry Amneris and one day rule Egypt with her. Amneris is triumphant and dares Aïda to take Radamès from her. The priests and the people salute Isis and ask that fate always smile on them, while the Ethiopian prisoners praise the merciful Egyptians for granting them freedom and a return to their native soil. In the general triumph and joy, Aïda is devastated that Radamès’ triumph has stolen her desperate hope for his love, while Radamès is thunderstruck and realizes that the throne of Egypt is not worth losing Aïda‘s heart. Meanwhile Amonasro tells Aïda to take heart, that he sees a hopeful end for their country and his hope of revenge.
The wind was blowing fiercely. Water was pouring from Heaven in a perpetual cascade. It was a black day. In a very modest abode there was a birth, a male child entering the world as all children do, crying, gesticulating. Was he going to be destined to continue running a tavern as his parents were doing to earn a living?; was he going to be a lawyer, a politician, a merchant sailor, a physician, a soldier, a pimp?; or was he marked for the priesthood, for the beggar’s trail, or for a marriage with a princess? Through the small village streets soldiers from Napoleon’s armies walked, protected by thick capes. Suddenly the rain ceased and the leaves on the trees became peaceful. The sun came out, bursting out festive and happy. It was October 10, 1813. The little town was three miles from Busseto, in what is today upper central Italy, then the Duchy of Parma. The appearance of the sun after the storm occurred in the village of La Roncali—in French Le Roncole. The new baby was Giuseppe Verdi.
Later, this Verdi was going to witness, finally, the unification of Italy, all foreign troops and rulers—French, Austrian and Spanish—gone. Although that would bring happiness to him, his presence on this Earth would mark another milestone in Italian culture. No small feat was this conquest of his, attaining a high place in the country’s history. After all, Italy had been, and is, the longest uninterrupted active culture that the world has ever witnessed, from the Etruscans to today. In the reign of the arts it had produced colossus after colossus—Virgil, Giotto, Dante, Da Vinci, Palestrina, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Bellini, Manzoni, Croce, D’Annunzio, Eco, to name a few, taken at random. Verdi was to become the crowning jewel of the Italian XIX Century—a century that many consider the pinnacle of Western Culture. Life itself had determined that he was going to be a tremendous composer, a defining creator in the pantheon of the immortals. Incidentally, from his childhood on, Verdi himself was going to celebrate his onomastic on the 9th of every October. His mother had told him that such was the date of his birth, and he was always, as William Berger said in 2000, “a man of habit”.
After Napoleon’s downfall in 1815, the Congress of Vienna gave Parma to Marie Louise, Napoleon’s wife and also the daughter of the Austrian emperor. Thus Nabucco’s famed chorus Va, pensiero was going to be transformed, by Verdi’s admirers and Italians at large, from a Jewish plight into a rallying cry against the occupying Austrians. The biographical details of Verdi’s life, from his years in Busseto, initially as an organist then as a member of Antonio Barezzi’s prosperous household—including his marriage to Margherita Barezzi, passing then through his ascending, meteoric, successful creative career as a major rival to Richard Wagner, his trials and tribulations, his long association with soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, first as lover then as husband—to his glorious last years and death in Milan in 1901, cover parallel ups and downs of Italy’s XIX century history. Verdi’s biography, with all of the anecdotal minutia which colored it, can be checked in myriads of books. What can be interesting is to comment briefly on some aspects of his music and his artistic bequest.
Verdi was the direct musical heir of Rossini and Donizetti. From them he learned the Italianate treatment of the human voice, the breath of an aria, the beauties of duets and trios and, above all, the concertante ensembles of from five to eight or more voices—a constructive manipulation first splendidly developed by Mozart and then by Beethoven in his Fidelio, finally finding varied and constant use in Verdi. Verdi was a superb melodist, one of the most remarkable ones in the history of music, clear descendant of Mozart, Bellini, Chopin or Schubert. He redefined the use of melody, making it directly connected to humanity, with all the color and the passion of daily existence. His melodic invention was the language of a given character, and he configured his horizontal levels with care and developmental finesse, infusing them with perpetual elements of surprise and sophistication. He was magically able to manipulate time and space in such a way that the most absurd constriction of these elements seemed invariably natural and most effective. With a few musical strokes he delineated a given personage so perfectly as to make him or her clear and ever present in the minds of the public. Verdi’s orchestration was never obtrusive or overwhelming. With sure hand his instruments sounded always right when underlying a dramatic situation, and there were marks of refinement and delicacy that balanced commandingly the massive choral moments or the endings of acts. The use of the clarinet and the cello, possibly Verdi’s favorite instruments, invariably accentuate some of the most poignant and tender moments in his operas, and even paved the way for many early XX century orchestral palettes of composers like Respighi, Delius or even Debussy. Then, when hearing the mighty Dies Irae of his Requiem one feels that Verdi was updating Beethoven’s Ninth symphony.
Even in his most complex moments Verdi’s music reached the Italian public directly and profoundly. Verdi’s Italian XIX Century was a triumphal one. By the end of his life Verdi had become a wealthy man. Besides an acclaimed composer he was a successful landlord and a member of the Italian Parliament in a unified Italy, and had enough income as to be able to construct and establish that touching institution, the Casa di Riposo in Milan, destined to be a comfortable retirement place for old musicians. But during the years of his life, Verdi’s music was mostly unknown in the rest of the world. Germany slowly took him in, although the musicologists and critics of the moment put him down as a minor composer—Meyerbeer, and above all mighty Wagner, looming large and potent. Sporadically, there were performances in Saint Petersburg, Paris, New York, Buenos Aires, London, Vienna, or Rio de Janeiro, but in many big cities of the Americas, for example, there were operative Wagnerian Societies but not Verdian ones. Novelist Franz Werfel, in the 1920s, wrote extensively on Verdi, and subsequently German opera houses started paying more attention to his music. Then, in the 1930s, due to the writings of Francis Toye, the English-speaking world began to hear Verdi’s operas more frequently. Whatever opposition to Verdi existed—from English critic Ernest Newman, who continued to spew forth negative opinions about that “second rate musician” named Verdi, to Pierre Boulez’ vitriolic disregard for “the um-pah-pah composer”—by the late 1950s it was obvious that Verdi’s universal appeal was now total. Writers were talking about a Verdian Renaissance, discovering hidden treasures in Simon Boccanegra, praising the harmonic refinements of Otello, and feeling amazed at the wildest moments of La Forza del Destino or at the depths of Don Carlo. Even critics dared to mention that a few bars from Rigoletto outbalanced and overshadowed all the atonality and twelve-tonism of the XX Century. Verdi, undoubtedly, was not going to disappear, and some scholars began to consider if they had not misjudged Verdi after all. By the 1960s, every major and minor opera house on the planet played Verdi’s operas, in many cases more numerous times than the ones of Mozart, Puccini or even Verdi’s arch-rival Wagner. When in 1978 Julian Budden publishes his erudite and impressive three-volume analysis of Verdi’s operas, the composer from tiny Roncole had already become Italy’s most precious modern cultural asset.
Expressing concern and amazement of why even at present many academicians, musicologists and critics still keep putting down Verdi, treating him as a secondary composer, William Berger puts forward a fascinating theory: he considers Verdi’s operas dangerous…because they can not be killed. He wisely comments on the fact that, while old fashioned, these operas are never passé. Even if the world today is very different from Verdi’s one, the humanity with which he developed his dramatic characters remains eternal and distant from fashion and changing ethics. New operas come and go, and even when launched with a propaganda machinery that would have been the envy of Wagner and of Stravinsky, they seem to fade away rather quickly, while Verdi remains at the forefront. Other composers throughout history, operatic ones or not, produced more intricate works than him regarding construction, philosophical considerations or mere musical achievements in harmony or orchestration, but Verdi’s music persists vital and alive almost two centuries after it was put on paper. One wonders if revolutionary composers like Machaut, De Lasso, Monteverdi, Johann Christian Bach, Beethoven, Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner or Schoenberg remain more present in the public eye than composers who inherited a given musical vocabulary and perfected it exultingly, like elder Bach, or Schubert, or Brahms, or Verdi. At the bottom of the eventual permanency or vanishment remains the fact that beyond innovation, beyond initial shock, beyond fashion, beyond fireworks, beyond biographical entrapment, the intrinsic value and honesty of any artistic creation is what persists, what remains with us through the ages. Verdi is one of those few composers that have managed to transcend the limits of his own time. He remains very much in the limelight and, at present, even his obscure operas like La Battaglia di Legnano, Stiffelio, Il Corsaro, or his supposed ugly duckling Alzira, are part of the repertoire of many opera companies.
Historically, Verdi’s music ran parallel to the unification of Italy, and the composer himself became a coalescing artistic creator on par with Garibaldi, Vittorio Emanuele or Count Camillo Cavour, the political dramatis personae of the final emergence of Italy as a truly Italian independent kingdom ruled by the House of Savoy, with no more Hapsburgs, Bourbons or Louis-Philippes dictating the destiny of the country. These socio-historical developments which served as frame to Verdi’s musical inventiveness helped the composer’s career, since Verdi became a symbol of national pride and was somewhat transformed into an emblematic patriotic icon. Did the historical developments of the Risorgimento influence Verdi’s music? Yes and no. While his fame in Italy rose with each triumph towards Italy’s unification, making his life easier both financially and artistically, Verdi never changed his aesthetic or technical creeds because of what was taking place around him In reality he kept his art separated from his public life. He continued writing operas that, with the exception of La Traviata, Luisa Miller and Stiffelio (in fact the first verismo operas ever written), dwelt in the past.
One of the exceptions to his operatic creation was Verdi’s excursion into the realm of religious music. Verdi was strongly anti-clerical, but remained all his life a deeply religious person, a Roman Catholic at heart if not by action. Famed Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni died in May of 1873. The city of Milan, so centered in Manzoni’s writings, commissioned Verdi to write a Requiem to commemorate the first anniversary of the poet’s death. Some time back Verdi had written a Libera me segment for a Rossini Requiem, to be created by several Italian composers of the moment, a project that never materialized. It became the inspirational spark for Verdi’s acclaimed Requiem, one of his most moving works, remaining unequaled in the genre with the exceptions of the Mozart and Berlioz ones. There were to be a few more digressions into the vastness of sacred Christian music. A Pater Noster from 1873, the same year of his Requiem, for five-part chorus, and an Ave Maria from 1880, for soprano and strings, were to be followed by Quattro pezzi sacri, composed between 1886 and 1897. They consisted of Laudi alla Vergine Maria (1886, for unaccompanied female chorus), another Ave Maria (1889, for unaccompanied chorus—the most musically advanced piece that Verdi ever wrote), Te Deum (1895-1896, for double chorus ad orchestra) and Stabat Mater (1896-1897, for chorus and orchestra). Published in 1896 by Ricordi, they were premiered at La Scala through the good deeds of Arrigo Boito—the composer of Mefistofele and the librettist of Verdi’s two last operas, who became an inseparable amico of Verdi during his Winter years, and who helped so dearly in the dissemination and publication of the composer’s works.
The other non-operatic works of Verdi form a catalogue that by itself would constitute the pride of many composers. There are 19 songs, composed between 1838 and 1894, two piano works (Valzer, 1852, resurrected by Nino Rota in 1963 and orchestrated by him as the music for the film Il Leopardo, and Romanza senza parole, 1884), a well known and much played String Quartet in E minor (1873), and five works for orchestra, including three symphonies. To this extra catalogue, one must add two non-sacred choral works: Suona la tromba (1848), a hymn for chorus—Verdi’s only foray into patriotic music—and Inno delle Nazioni (1862), a cantata for tenor, chorus and orchestra on a text by Boito.
Would it be possible for a new Verdi to exist, create and prosper in today’s Italy? No. Verdi was the product of a given moment in Western Culture that is no longer in existence. The structure and characteristics that nurtured and formed him have totally disappeared.
Music is the most complex of all the arts, the most abstract, the last one to materialize in any given civilized time in its more decanted manifestation. Witness any moment of Greece, the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and observe that, while theatre, sculpture, painting, poetry and even philosophy turn up splendidly active and developed, music is the last indicator of the human intellect to appear fully matured. Great composers were the pinnacle of a particular moment of Western Culture. Bach was not born in the Amazon jungle, Haydn did not manifest himself on the steppes of Mongolia, nor is Bruckner the product of the heart of Africa. All the important composers of history were the handiwork of very sophisticated and evolved societies, and those societies needed to have the structural and socio-economic enhancement required to nurture said composers.
The type of music Verdi gave us was the direct exudate of Italy’s XIX Century: a stratified non-equalitarian community where religion still was a powerful ingredient not only of cult but of creativity, with theatres and publishers promoting operas, a populace that demanded this musical medium as an everyday form of entertainment, an educational system that taught the young the meaning and worth of artistic expressions, and a citizenry that learned to respect, value and applaud the most illustrious creators. Verdi was born, grew and flourished in the midst of that fellowship. Today’s cultural climate is radically different. Hierarchical values are no longer accepted, and one hears continuous proclamations of a tabula rasa formula that states that Beethoven’s art is as valid as the utilitarian furniture concocted by a carpenter. Handel is today’s commercial composer, and Mahler is substituted by the local rapper. The old opera lovers are today’s crowds that digest doses of car chase and super explosion movies. God has been replaced by recreational drugs, and the new coterie’s role models are the baseball player, the rock and roll semi-naked guitarist, or the boxer capable of inflicting bloody punches which grossly disfigure the faces of opponents. On top of all, the speed of life demands things short, fast, explosive, clip-like, shattering, rapidly changing, visually kaleidoscopic. All these lineaments have produced a hysterical, non-developmental, repetitive loud noise, accompanied by clapping of hands, tribal body movements and hypnotic rhythmic drones—elements, all of them, entirely alien to Verdi’s art.
It took centuries of artistic development to arrive at Verdi. With all its evident faults Western Culture was an awe-inspiring pyramid, and out of its tip protruded the great artists. The First World War shattered the pyramid; the Second leveled what was left. It will take again long hundreds of years to rebuild it, although it will be quite different from the one gone. Verdi’s music remains at present as a resplendent legacy enjoyed by survival minorities, but it can not be the forceful and real expression of the dissonant present, so devoid of long hours of reflection and peaceful bliss, of romantic utterances, of elegance, of reposeful pulse—so given to irreverence, to cynicism, to histrionics, and so sadly disrespectful of history.
When life left Verdi in Milan that early afternoon of January 27, 1901, the whole city went on a death vigil. Boito, Teresa Stolz (the Czech soprano who was briefly Verdi’s lover and then friend of him and of Giuseppina Strepponi), the Ricordis, Maria Carrara and her family, and a few close friends were present. Silent crowds gathered in front of the Grand Hotel, where Verdi passed his last days. The government declared two days of National Mourning. The funeral cortege passed through the streets of the city, filled with two hundred thousand people, and, after a brief blessing at a church, entered the Cimitero Monumentale, where Verdi’s body was placed next to that of his wife Guiseppina. Thirty-two days later both bodies were re-entombed in a crypt at the Casa di Riposo. This time the crowd swelled to three hundred thousand. Toscanini conducted a chorus of eight hundred and twenty singers intoning Va, pensiero. An impressive chapter of Italian history had come to a close.
Verdi must have been very conscious of his own importance and of the size and meaning of his legacy. His gift to Italy, through his music, was immense. What he probably never envisioned was the permanent omnipresence of his artistic creation and the absolute universality that his music would attain. All through the XX Century his operas swept aside doubts, criticisms, wrong evaluations and ephemeral artistic fads of every kind. His overtures, his arias, his ensemble numbers, his choruses invaded all of Europe, the Americas and both the Far and Near East. Like a scimitar, they crossed plains, climbed mountains and put to rest many other radical compositional voices that had tried so fervently to dismiss him. In the threshold of the present century he reigns more supreme than ever, his operas more performed than ever. The composer who Gabriele D’Annunzio described as “a man who sang and wept for all” entered into history as an Italian modern pillar of a multi-millenary culture. That man, Giuseppe Verdi Uttini, gave the world a glorious treasure of sound and emotional charge that transcends aesthetic pronouncements and geographical location. For that we are most grateful, since the indebtedness is full of admiration, of joy, of exultation and of beauty.
August of 2013
© Copyright 2013 by Aurelio de la Vega
Verdi with a Vengeance—William Berger; Vintage Books, New York, 2000
The Verdi Companion—William Weaver and Martin Chusid, editors; Norton, New York, 1979
Aurelio de la Vega, Distinguished Emeritus Professor of California State University, Northridge, is an internationally known composer, and is a member of the Executive Board of the Verdi Chorus