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NBD0027 - VERDI, G.: Ballet Music from the Operas (Complete) (Bournemouth Symphony, Serebrier) (Blu-ray Audio)
Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)
Whenever I conduct Verdi operas I find myself having to insist on including the ballet scenes, most of which have been left out of the published scores or included as an optional addendum. Since Verdi, like most opera composers, wrote so little concert music, I thought that making these vibrant pieces more available would be of interest. Some of it is regularly performed on its own, or as part of ballets by famous choreographers. The Four Seasons ballet, from the opera I vespri siciliani has a life of its own. Otello’s short ballet score used to make regular appearances in concert programmes in the twentieth century, and the Aida ballet scenes are easily recognizable as accompaniments for other media. But some of the others, Jérusalem in particular, remain practically unknown. We searched the basements of operas houses in Europe to find this and some of the other long-forgotten ballet scores.
A couple of months before Otello had its première in France in 1894, shortly before the deadline, Verdi composed the obligatory third act ballet music demanded by the Paris Opéra. The seven short sections are Allegro vivace; Arabian Song; Invocation to Allah; Greek Song; Dance; Muranese and The Warrior’s Song. Verdi asked his publisher to include the following detailed description: “Looking at the splendid scene of the Third Act, I decided to make the music go as follows: At the beginning, a group of Turkish slave-girls dance with reluctance because they are slaves. Then, hearing the strains of the Arab Song, they grow livelier and at the end dance quite wildly. At the invocation of Allah, they fall to the ground. Several beautiful Greek girls then appear, and four measures later another similar group; at the thirteenth measure these two groups join in a quiet, aristocratic, classical dance. The next motif is that of La Muranese: another group of Venetians enters and at the eighteenth measure these two groups meet and dance at the front of the stage. After a fortissimo there is a passage of very light music in F sharp, which should be danced by couples. This motif is repeated louder, and then all the Venetians dance together. The 6/8 motif reappears, and here I should like to see another group of Venetians come forward. The War Song should be danced by men alone. At the recurrence of the first motif, all the Venetians dance again, then at the più mosso, Venetians, Turks, Greeks, and the rest all dance together…Amen.”
Some of the sections described above are only a few bars long. The entire ballet lasts less than six minutes. These days, the ballet is often omitted from performances of the opera. Verdi himself eventually insisted that his publisher should not include the ballet in the final printing of the score because “it breaks the continuity of the action”. The ballet music is included in the Ricordi score as an appendix. Verdi composed this brilliant ballet score, his last stage music, at the age of 81, specifically for the Paris production. He was very concerned that it should make stylistic sense, and asked for help from his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, and from his librettist Arrigo Boito. They sent him songs by Bizet, and numerous Greek songs, but Verdi did not find any of them useful. Eventually he found inspiration in symphonic works by Félicien David, which surprised everyone involved in the search. The Otello ballet became a favourite concert work of Arturo Toscanini, and it has taken on a life of its own as a concert piece.
Macbeth was the first of the Shakespeare plays adapted by Verdi for the operatic stage, and was completed in 1847 while Verdi was still in his thirties. With a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, it was the product of Verdi’s self-assurance after the success of Attila in 1846. Shakespeare was a constant inspiration to Verdi, and adapting King Lear was one of his dreams, but it never came to be. His two last operas were based on Shakespeare plays, Otello in 1887, based on Othello, and Falstaff in 1893, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor. In 1865 Verdi was asked to make a new version for the Paris Opéra in French, and with the obligatory ballet. This revised version was not successful, and the opera received only a few performances for almost a century. Today it is performed by all major opera houses and there are many recordings of it.
Jérusalem / I Lombardi is based on an epic poem by Tommaso Grossi, adapted for the opera stage with a libretto by Temistocle Solera. It had its première at La Scala, Milan, in 1843 as I Lombardi alla prima crociata (The Lombards on the First Crusade), its original incarnation. In 1847 the opera received extensive revisions and changes for the Paris performances and it became Jérusalem, with a new libretto by Alphonse Royer and Gustav Vaez. It was the first of Verdi’s operas to be staged in New York, also in 1847. These days it receives very few performances in either version, and the Paris version is seldom staged. In 2011 it received a historic first staging in Jerusalem, conducted by David Stern. When Verdi received the commission from the Paris Opéra, he only had a couple of months’ notice, so he opted to adapt I Lombardi. Royer and Vaèz moved the action from Milan to Toulouse, but essentially it remained the same work, while changing the names of the characters, simplifying the plot, and adding the long ballet scene, a prerequisite of the Paris commission.
Don Carlos was the original title of the five act 1866 opera written with a French libretto by Camille du Locle and Joseph Méry, based on the play Don Carlos, Infante of Spain by Friedrich Schiller, which recounts the dramatic life of Carlos, the Prince of Asturias (1545–1568). The opera was first heard in Paris in 1867. It has had more cuts, additions and changes than any other Verdi opera, and it survives in several versions. With the long ballet and without cuts, Don Carlos is Verdi’s longest opera. During the Paris rehearsals it became apparent that the opera would end after midnight, and thus many listeners who lived in the suburbs of Paris would have missed their last train. That resulted in even more cuts, all reluctantly authorized by the composer. The published score was printed with the cuts, but included the ballet. In 1866 the opera was translated into Italian and became known as Don Carlo, performed first in London and subsequently in Bologna and other Italian cities. In the twentieth century, very few performances of the full five-act version were staged around the world, but presentations of the shortened four-act version without the original first act and without the ballet were more frequent. More recently, the original five-act version has been staged in various countries, and a number of important recordings have appeared.
When Cairo inaugurated its new opera house in 1869 with Verdi’s Rigoletto, it was felt that there should be a newly-commissioned opera from Verdi. After several delays, Aida was finally given its première in Cairo in December 1871. It was a great success from the start. The ballet scenes, as well as the Triumphal March, are an integral part of the plot, not just a necessary addition for the Paris performances. Verdi included the ballet music in the publication of the score.
Il trovatore, first staged in 1853, is one of Verdi’s most traditional operas. The original play by Gutiérrez was adapted by librettist Salvatore Cammarano and completed by Leone Bardare when Cammarano died before completing it. Originally entitled Azucena, it was finally named Il trovatore and the title was changed again in 1856, when Verdi was commissioned to adapt it for the Paris Opéra. It was translated into Le trouvère, with the addition of the mandatory third-act ballet, and other changes for the Paris production, including the rewriting of the final scene. The substantial ballet is in two scenes, subdivided into three and four sections respectively. These days the opera is more often performed in the Italian version, without the ballet.
After La traviata was given its première in 1853, Verdi began gradually to slow down the creation of new operas. There were many reasons for this, including recurring disagreements with the directors of La Scala, and Verdi did not go to Milan for twenty years. More interested in Paris after the success of Jérusalem in 1847 at the Paris Opéra, Verdi decided to compose a new opera especially for that house, rather than adapting previous operas. With a libretto by Eugène Scribe (Meyerbeer’s famed librettist), an adaption of an existing libretto by Charles Duveyner and Eugène Scribe for an unwritten opera to be titled Le duc d’Albe by Halévy, Verdi started the five-act grand opera, Les vêpres siciliennes. Donizetti had used part of the same libretto in 1839, but did not finish it. In spite of this checkered history, this story was the one chosen by Verdi after a long search of available ready-made librettos. This time the ballet became an integral part of the opera from its inception. In the third act, the long ballet, Les quatre saisons, was originally a combination of dance and mime. The Paris première took place in 1855. Today it is mostly performed in the Italian version, I vespri siciliani, which uses mostly a revised text by Eugenio Caimi.
© José Serebrier
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