Sunday Morning Opera: Sex, Violence & Politics


screen-shot-2016-10-22-at-5-04-20-pmAnyone who loves opera knows it is all about sex, violence, and politics, only very well sung.  Verdi excelled in all three.  Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was a political animal.  He was a patriot who believed in a unified democracy, and spent must of his adult life, in one way or another, trying to achieve that goal.  While doing so, he became, in his lifetime, the George Washington of his country, beloved, and honored.

“…During the struggle for Italian independence, the slogan Viva Verdi was used as an acronym for Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia (Long Live Victor Emmanuel King of Italy), playing on the famous Italian opera composer’s name.  Giuseppe Verdi’s funeral in 1901 remains the largest public assembly of any event in the history of Italy. During it Arturo Toscanini conducted the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ from Nabucco accompanied by a huge orchestra and choir composed of musicians from throughout the country…


Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, which was produced by Milan’s La Scala in November 1839 achieved a degree of success, after which Bartolomeo Merelli, La Scala’s impresario, offered the young composer a contract for two more works. Sadly, whilst working on his second opera, Un giorno di regno, Verdi’s wife, Margherita, died a tragedy made worse for the devastated composer as he had lost his two small children a couple of years previously. The opera was a flop and Verdi fell into despair and declared he was giving up musical composition forever. Merelli forced the libretto for Oberto on Verdi and on returning home, he tossed the text on a table, determining to have nothing to do with it. It happened to open at the words “Va, pensiero” and seeing the phrase, he decided to read the rest of the libretto. At his next meeting with Merelli, the impresario was able to persuade him to write the musical setting for Solera’s words. The opera proved to be Verdi’s breakthrough and this piece went on to become the unofficial hymn of Italian national liberation and reunification. It has been suggested that on several occasions that it replace the “Inno di Mameli” as the Italian National Anthem.”…”

“…Inventions swirling around ‘Va pensiero’ go back and forward from that funeral rendition. It has become part of opera myth that at Nabucco’s premiere in 1842, the chorus was received as an expression of contemporary Italian feeling about their nation state, then under the yoke of foreign domination – in spite of the fact that there is no evidence the chorus excited patriotic fervour in its early years. Quite when it acquired its patriotic status is not entirely clear, but overwhelmingly this transition occurred after Italian unification in the early 1860s: at a time when the chorus’s gentle nostalgia made it an ideal vehicle for fond reminiscences of an earlier period of action and heroism.

There is plenty of evidence that, in later life, Verdi himself encouraged the chorus’s canonization. The image of Verdi this fostered, as a revolutionary composer whose early choruses had done no less than inspire the struggle for Italian nationhood, then became standard in the early 20th century. It was notably encouraged, and for obvious nationalist reasons, during the Fascist years, and was sustained post-World War II by a continuing celebration of the heroic aspects of Italian nationalism.

A few caveats might be useful here. Verdi was indeed Italy’s most popular opera composer at a time when opera was Italy’s most important form of cultural activity. It would be strange indeed if his operas were not in some way involved in Italy’s great revolution. Nor has anyone attempted to deny that Verdi himself was, at times at least, a decided patriot. In the wake of the 1848 revolutions he even wrote an overtly patriotic opera to mark the establishment of the Roman republic of 1849 (La battaglia di Legnano)….”

Believe it or not, Rigoletto is another of Verdi’s political commentaries.  He constantly battled censors over the opera, which could be construed as a political commentary against Austria, which controlled Venice at the time.  Even today, we do not realize that MacBeth was also political commentary.

“…As Giorgio Strehler, the noted opera producer, has stated: Verdi managed, by dint of an extraordinary dramatic instinct, to go far beyond the nineteenth century conceptions of Shakespearian interpretation: “He was able to sense a new reading of Shakespeare that was absolutely unusual and profound with respect to the historical vision which surrounded it.” The dramatic concept that Verdi calls upon for the Macbeth is, as Strehler further noted, a “producer’s concept:” It is this concept which lies at the center of Verdi’s opera, especially in the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. For it is with regard to these relations that the solitariness of the characters is so profoundly and penetratingly revealed by Verdi. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are truly separated from the rest of society. Verdi quite deliberately, I believe, wishes his listener to be distanced from his and Shakespeare’s creation. This is not to say that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are totally distanced from us. We can and do and indeed must share in their humanity, however bereft of the consolation of human virtue we find them to be. Yet we are not like them. We are made of more redeemable stuff than that.

In no other opera does Verdi present with such concentrated brilliance a “history”, (one is tempted to say, a case history), as it were, of political man caught in the convulsive struggle for political ascendancy. In no other opera does the composer virtually saturate the stage with purely male struggles for power. Even Lady Macbeth is, to her own destruction, caught up in the agon, the macho struggle for dominion, surpassing Macbeth himself in aggressive, violent, and finally savage contesting. Never again will Verdi’s voice take such an obsessive form…”

The opera, Don Carlo is based on ‘fact’ – sort of.  It is also political commentary about freedom, with the noblest of all Verdi’s characters, the Marquis de Posa.  Naturally, we’re dealing with an amazing baritone role.  Like no other composer before or since, Verdi literally wrote for the baritone voice.  A baritone himself, his baritones were, in most instances, the very heart and soul of each of his operas, the conscience.

Un Ballo in Maschera was a headache for censors, which became a headache for Verdi.  He based the opera on the death of King Gustav III.  In order survive, Verdi changed the location of the opera from Sweden to Boston. It has always been about politics.  Marion Anderson’s debut role at the Met was as Ulrica. In keeping with the politically charged atmosphere of the opera, she was the first African American to sing at the Met.

Simon Boccanegra is another  highly charged political opera.  There are some who consider it to be one of Verdi’s greatest works, that and Otello.  It is long, and emotional.  I must disclose that I was watching Sherrill Milnes in the title role, at the Met (on tour in Atlanta) the night my sister’s first child, Rachel was born.

There would be certain moments in many of Verdi’s operas, which would have almost a ‘secret’ but highly charged political message. They would be accompanied by a certain almost martial beat. Political operatives, knowing something would be coming, would be waiting. There were times when it would almost start a riot. The opera would be shut down by authorities. People would soon have copies of the tune, and would go into the streets singing it.