Happy Birthday: Guiseppe Verdi


Screen Shot 2013-10-10 at 12.24.35 AMLet’s face it, if you are a baritone junkie like I am, then you are required to be a huge fan of Verdi!

It’s time to take a break from politics and deal with something truly important – opera.  Today is the 200th birthday of the greatest operatic composer of them all:  Guiseppe Verdi.  I am a Verdi freak.  I love his music, which has stood the test of time.  It is beautiful – perfection.  one only needs to listen to the Act 3 of Rigoletto to realize how absolutely perfect the man was.  In fact, Rigoletto is considered to be as revolutionary in scope as Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (perhaps my favorite symphony).  By Act 3, Verdi had created very modern music, and tonal poems.

In the quartet you can hear the beginning of a thunderstorm, which grows stronger, more fierce, as Gilda is murdered, killed by an assassin, hired by her father, Rigoletto, who wanted the Duke of Mantua, who had seduced his innocent daughter, dead.

Verdi was all about the relationship between parents and their children, especially fathers and daughters.  His two daughters died in infancy while he was working on his first opera.  His beloved wife, Margherita died in 1840.  Their deaths, in quick succession, effected his work, from then on.  His music is heartbreaking in the love for fathers and their daughters, to the point where it leaves you in tears.  The greatest example of this is Rigoletto.  Or in the love Germont soon acquires for the dying Violetta, not as a lover – but as a father.  The greatest Germont I’ve ever heard is Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

If you want to know how a Verdi Baritone should sound, this is one of the greatest ever – at his best – the way Verdi intended the baritone voice to sound.  FYI:  I never liked Traviata until I watched the Willie Decker version.  I don’t like opera turned modern, but this is perfect.  Violetta was suffering from ‘consumption.  Considering today’s resistant forms of TB, it does work.   I’ve seen Sherrill Milnes do this role, and think that Dmitri Hvorostovsky is a better Germont.

This clip features perhaps the greatest Duke of Mantua Luciano Pavarotti and the very greatest Rigoletto there ever was and ever will be – Sherrill Milnes.  It is operatic perfection.

While Verdi wrote some of the most important tenor arias and music ever, his greatest love was for the baritone voice.  Verdi himself was a baritone.  He understood the voice, perhaps more so than any other composer.  His operas almost always center around the baritone, perhaps not in the lead, but almost all of his operas are centered around the baritone – that wonderful Verdi Baritone, exemplified by Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill,  Sherrill Milnes, and now Dmitri Hvorostovsky.  If you love opera, you know that there is only one reigning Verdi Baritone in a generation, with those four being the greatest voices, ever – in my humble opinion.

This said, two of the greatest voices to ever sing Verdi are Beverly Sills and Leontyne Price.

This is where I completely lost it.  Tupelo, Mississippi has produced two of the greatest voices this nation has ever known.  Leontyne Price is one of them.  This is her last O Patria Mia on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.  She retired that night.  At the end, during the thundering ovation, you can see her break down in tears. I cry every time I watch this clip.  At the Met, one does not acknowledge an ovation, but here, she did, rather like Ted Williams going out on that last home run.

I don’t mind admitting I cried through this entire aria.  I still cry, when I watch it.  I never was able to see her on stage, but I did get to watch her as she left the rehearsal room at the Met, that very same year. She stop and spoke.  As for Bubbles, I did get to see her.  I don’t mind admitting that I’m not a fan of sopranos and especially not mezzos.  I can tolerate tenors.  My real love is for the baritone voice – the men in the room.  But – Bubbles and Leontyne are two of my favorite all time voices.

One of the little known facts about Guiseppe Verdi, at least in this country, is the fact that Verdi was one of the Founding Fathers of Italian Independence!  He was, in many ways, considered almost the George Washington of Italy.  His music became synonymous for the fight for independence.   Perhaps the most important piece of music being Va, pensireo.  Patriotism was rampant throughout his music.  There are some scholars who try to minimize his patriotism, but when one examines his music, the stories of his opera, there is no way it is not about Italy and patriotism.

“...Commentators have often remarked on the sympathy with which Verdi treats parent-child relations in his operas, and especially fatherchild relations; this is often related to the terrible tragedy of his early adulthood, when within two years ( August 1838 to June 1840) his two infant children died, to be followed by their mother Margherita. Setting down his memories of those griefs some forty years later, Verdi remembered these three deaths as occurring within two months — a mistake that has puzzled some biographers, but surely shows how for Verdi these three deaths made up a single cumulative tragedy. There were no more children to replace the lost ones, and it does not seem fanciful to think that the composer poured his frustrated fatherly feelings into scenes such as those between Rigoletto and Gilda, and between Boccanegra and Amelia. But if this is plausible, why should critics baulk at the comparable suggestion that Verdi’s political feelings and commitments also found their way into his operas?…”

In 1861 he  was elected as a member of the Chamber of Deputies, following a request of Prime Minister Cavour but in 1865 he resigned from the office. In 1874 he was named Senator of the Kingdom by King Victor Emmanuel II.

“...Some scholars initially thought that the chorus was intended to be an anthem for Italian patriots, who were seeking to unify their country and free it from foreign control in the years up to 1861 (the chorus’s theme of exiles singing about their homeland, and its lines like O mia patria, si bella e perduta / “O my country, so lovely and so lost” was thought to have resonated with many Italians). Some modern scholarship has refuted this concept, failing to see connections between Verdi’s 1840s and 1850s operas and Italian nationalism, with the exception of some of the sentiments expressed in his 1843 opera, I Lombardi.

Other recent research has discussed several of Verdi’s works from the 1840s (including Giovanna d’Arco and Attila) emphasising their ostensible political meaning.  Work by Philip Gossett on choruses of the 1840s also suggests that recent revisionist approaches to Verdi and the Risorgimento may have gone too far in their thorough dismissal of the political significance of “Va, Pensiero”.

In 2009 Senator Umberto Bossi proposed to replace Italy’s national anthem by “Va, pensiero”.

In 2011 conductor Riccardo Muti interrupted a performance of “Va, pensiero” at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome for a short speech protesting cuts in Italy’s arts budget, then asked the audience to sing along in support of culture and patriotism….”

Oberto, 17 November 1839
Un giorno di regno, 5 September 1840
Nabucco, 9 March 1842
I Lombardi alla prima crociata, 11 February 1843
Ernani, 9 March 1844
I due Foscari, 3 November 1844
Giovanna d’Arco, 15 February 1845
Alzira, 12 August 1845
Attila, 17 March 1846
Macbeth, 14 March 1847
I masnadieri, 22 July 1847
Jérusalem,  26 November 1847
Il corsaro, 25 October 1848
La battaglia di Legnano, 27 January 1849
Luisa Miller, 8 December 1849
Stiffelio, 16 November 1850
Rigoletto, 11 March 1851
Il trovatore, 19 January 1853
La traviata, 6 March 1853
Les vêpres siciliennes (in French), 13 June 1855
Simon Boccanegra (original version), 12 March 1857
Aroldo (A major revision and re-working of Stiffelio), 16 August 1857
Un ballo in maschera, 17 February 1859
La forza del destino, 10 November 1862
Macbeth (revised version with added music), 19 April 1865
Don Carlos (5 acts, in French), 11 March 1867
Aida, 24 December 1871
Simon Boccanegra (revised version), 24 March 1881
Otello, 5 February 1887
Falstaff, 9 February 1893

My favorite of all Verdi operas is Don Carlo. My favorite Verdi role is de Posa.  My second favorite is Iago.  Both are Verdi at his greatest. I managed to see Milnes, do this production, at the Met, several times.

I’m still waiting for a usable upload of Dmitri Hvorostovsky doing Iago. He did his first, a few weeks ago and knocked it out of the part, delivering what some are saying is the greatest Iago ever.  This may be my favorite baritone aria.  Except here – when we mention this and Hvorostovsky – we must use the term:  Barihunk!

When Verdi died, in 1901, as his funeral cortege made its way through the streets of Milan, people began singing Va pensiero.

“...Despite his fame, Verdi could not have known that his instructions, for a modest funeral with two priests, two candles, and one cross, would be ignored by his public. At his friend’s funeral, Arturo Toscanini conducted the music — performed by a vast orchestra and chorus gathered from among Italy’s best musicians. As the funeral procession passed, the 200,000 mourners lining Milan’s streets spontaneously broke into singing “Va, pensiero.”  The event remains one of the largest assemblies in Italian history.

The eulogy for Verdi described him as “our great unifier. When the wave of his passionate music, something that the enemy could not seize, embodied the idea of our nation, which swept freely from the Alps to the sea, [it set] our hearts on fire.”…”

Fly, thought, on wings of gold;
go settle upon the slopes and the hills,
where, soft and mild, the sweet airs
of our native land smell fragrant!

Greet the banks of the Jordan
and Zion’s toppled towers…
Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost!
Oh, remembrance, so dear and so fatal!

Golden harp of the prophetic seers,
why dost thou hang mute upon the willow?
Rekindle our bosom’s memories,
and speak to us of times gone by!

Mindful of the fate of Jerusalem,
give forth a sound of crude lamentation,
or may the Lord inspire you a harmony of voices
which may instill virtue to suffering.

My favorite version of Verdi, unfortunately comes not from the world of opera but from a more Marxist point of view. It features the opening to Il Trovatore.

Then, I watched this scene.  I still cannot listen to the Anvil Chorus without visions of Harpo dancing through my head.