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8.578068-69 - VERDI, G.: Ultimate Opera Album (The)

The Ultimate Verdi Opera Album


Giuseppe Verdi’s much-celebrated rôle as the composer most actively involved in the Risorgimento (the military and political struggle to free Italy from foreign rule and establish it as a unified nation) rests on two main claims, neither of which is quite as straightforward as may seem. The first claim is that when the chorus first sang Va, pensiero from Nabucco the audience responded with nationalistic fervor to the Hebrew slaves’ lament for their lost homeland and demanded an encore. Recent scholarship has shown that the audience actually called for the encore of a different chorus, and that while Va, pensiero later became an iconic patriotic song Verdi did not intend it as such. (Nor, it seems, was Va, pensiero sung by a massed choir at Verdi’s funeral, but rather the Miserere from Il Trovatore.)

The second claim relates to the revolutionary slogan ‘Viva VERDI!’, used throughout Italy as a coded demand that Victor Emmanuel II, then merely king of Piedmont, Savoy and Sardinia, become the sovereign of the new Italian nation. The composer’s surname fortuitously stood in for the acronym Vittorio Emanuele Re DItalia, and while privately expressing support for the birth of a free Italian nation Verdi distanced himself from the struggle itself. Although the publicity initially did his reputation no harm at all, he was appalled by the bloodshed of the 1848 uprisings and, whatever patriotic uses were made of his name and his music, his early enthusiasm and even a stint in the newly-formed Italian parliament gave way to an increasingly conservative outlook as the composer’s fame and fortune became established internationally.

However, it is not this much-vaunted political significance but his operatic music itself that has made Verdi a household name around the world, music whose powerful drama (both for the singers and, equally importantly, for the orchestra) attains a sometimes shocking violence that can still thrill listeners today more than a century after it was first heard. Small wonder, then, that such potent artistry should have proved appealing for political repurposing. (Similar, but much better grounds for its political significance can be found in his contemporary Wagner’s writings and music—see The Ultimate Wagner Opera Album 8.578070–71.)

The Naxos Verdi Album presents famous excerpts from his most well known operas, Nabucco (premiered in 1842), Macbeth (1847), Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore (1853), La Traviata (1853), La forza del destino (1862) and Aïda (1871). Each was scrupulously shaped in close, often somewhat overbearing, collaboration with his librettists to create concentrated, highly melodramatic operas based respectively on the Old Testament, plays by William Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Antonio García Gutiérrez, Alexandre Dumas fils, Friedrich Schiller and the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette. Verdi’s theatrical instinct, his growing experience of how to achieve maximum impact on the operatic stage, and his ability to compose emotionally compelling music that avoided merely entertaining virtuosity combined to create an immediately recognisable and distinctively innovative style. His effective use of the spectacular, the supernatural, the superstitious, the sentimental, the scandalous, even the downright silly, are evident to everyone familiar with these great operas. But Verdi cannily uses these melodramatic conventions of Romantic opera to reveal his characters’ psychological situations both directly (through their own words and actions, which of course give rise to their predicaments) and indirectly (as mirrored by, say, the famous storm in Rigoletto, or by contrasting Aïda’s inner turmoil when she discovers her father has been taken captive with the Egyptian’s public victory celebrations over the Ethiopians). Few may find it credible when the old gypsy Azucena reveals that she had mistakenly thrown her own baby into the flames instead of the son of the man who burned her mother at the stake as a witch, but the disastrous consequences are tragic for all concerned. And the wide-ranging grand guignol plot of La forza del destino may beggar belief, but it remains a gothic classic, complete with its own legendary ‘curse’ which apparently originated when the American baritone Leonard Warren died on the Metropolitan Opera stage on 4 March 1960 while singing Morir, tremenda cosa (‘to die, a momentous thing’). La Traviata, today a much-loved mainstay of the repertoire, had to await the 1880s before the composer’s and librettist’s original wishes were carried out and this tale of a noble-hearted courtesan (heroine of the 1852 noveletta La dame aux Camélias) was presented in a realistic near-contemporary setting rather than being backdated to a more distant (hence more fictive and less threatening) historical period.

But for Verdi, as for any Romantic artist, the more extreme the situation the stronger the drama, and he wasted no opportunity to create highly unlikeable yet fascinating characters who often get the best tunes and escape just retribution. The filandering Duke from Rigoletto is no Don Giovanni dragged to Hell for his sins, nor despite the pathos of his predicament is the vengeful hunchbacked jester himself a paternal rôle model—Rigoletto’s machinations result in his beloved daughter’s self-sacrificial murder. Lady Macbeth is perhaps his most famously unlovely lady, but her ambitious husband commands less respect. Alfredo from La Traviata is a much more weak-willed ‘hero’ than the high-spirited Violetta deserves. And are any of the main characters in La forza del destino more than the playthings of implacable destiny? Perhaps, but only in so far as the hatred between Don Alvaro (Leonora’s lover) and Don Carlo (her brother) is the dynamo that drives the plot to its ineluctable conclusion…Yet however contrived the plots, however flawed the characters, Verdi’s theatrical genius compels us to suspend disbelief and experience the shuddering catharsis that he serves up like the master chef of melodrama that he was.

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