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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Happy Birthday, Maestro Verdi!

The composer turns 200.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
It's not every day a composer turns 200.

Today marks the 200th birthday of Giuseppe Verdi, whose long career and vast output make him the dean among Italian opera composers. So what are we celebrating here, apart from a number?

Verdi's body of work continues to have depth and resonance for the contemporary listener, who can choose from the composer's different career phases. Let's start with the vocal virtuosity and patriotic fervor of his early period, featuring oom-pa-pa rhythms and rousing choruses, music that shaped the conscience of a nation. It was his third opera Nabucco that caught the public's imagination, as the chorus Va, pensiero became an unofficial anthem of the Risorgimento movement that gripped Italy during Verdi's lifetime.

Not all of these operas are heard today, although  gems like Ernani, Attila and Macbeth continue to challenge singers and fascinate audiences. The "lesser" operas of the so-called "galley years" (including most of those written in the 1840s) have their good and bad points. Some of the less successful experiments, like I Masnadieri (with its bel canto heroine and dark plot) and Stiffelio (an opera that remained virtually unstaged until the late 20th century) have turned out to be minor masterpieces.

The composer from Bussetto was already a success as he entered the 1850s, but the operatic world was unprepared for the "hat trick" of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La traviata. These three operas alone ensured his place in the pantheon of great composers. Each of these operas was a theatrical adventure. One was a father-daughter revenge drama based on a play by Victor Hugo. Rigoletto was nearly gutted by the censors. Trovatore was next a potboiler dealing with heartbreak and packed with hit tunes. The last was Traviata, Verdi's most personal opera. The story of a Paris courtesan battling a fatal disease, it also had trouble with the censors.

Following the success of La traviata, Verdi continued to experiment. Operas like Les Vépres Siciliennes and Simon Boccanegra were failures. Un Ballo in Maschera battled censorship issues (today, one version of the libretto sets the action in Sweden, another in Colonial Boston) while La Forza del Destino and Don Carlos were massive dramas written for the stages in St. Petersburg and Paris. The latter is a French grand opera: a full five-act performance of the latter (with the ballet) is eightier than some Wagner operas. Aida, set against the grandoise backdrop of Ancient Egypt. is a more intimate (and simpler) drama--and one of the composer's greatest successes.

Verdi was not above reworking his past. I Lombardi, an early drama, was revamped and restaged for Paris as Gerusalemme. Stiffelio got a new libretto (Aroldo) but remained obscure. (Currently, Stiffelio enjoys time on the stage while Aroldo gathers dust as Verdi's least-performed opera. Vépres and Carlos were shortened, translated (as I Vespri Siciliani and Don Carlo, respectively( and played on the Italian stage. The latter work found its audience after the composer excised the Act III ballet and the entirety of Act I. Today, that cut first act is generally restored, and some productions even include a version of the ballet.

Following the huge success of Aida and the following Requiem, Verdi retired from music. He entered Italian politics. Eventually, his absence from the stage ended following a collaboration with the young librettist Arrigo Boito. The result was a lengthy revision of Simon Boccanegra, in the form that we know it today. The Verdi-Boito team proved fruitful, bringng the composer's career fot a climax with Otello, the composers most successful Shakespearean effort and an enormous smash hit. Otello was an instant classic, followed by the composer's last opera, Falstaff.

Yes, after all those tragedies, murders and onstage revenge ensembles, Verdi chose to end his career wih a nod and a wink, one of the best and most Shakespearean comoedies ever written. Working once more with Boito, he threw every compositional idea of his long career into the brief pages of Falstaff. The score bulges with inside jokes and opera references, culminating in a giant fugue for the whole cast on the words "Tutto il monde la'burla"--"All the world's a joke."

Happy birthday, Maestro Verdi. The last laugh is yours.

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