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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

A conspectus of his life and a review of the audio and video recordings of his works - Robert Farr



PART 1. Verdi's background, getting established and first five operas from Oberto (1839) to Ernani (1844)

PART 2. Verdi’s ‘anni de galera’ (galley years). The ten operas from I due Foscari (1844) to Luisa Miller (1849)


PART 3. Verdi’s middle period. The eight operas from Stiffelio (1850) to Un ballo in Maschera (1859)

PART 4. Verdi’s great final operas from La Forza del Destino (1862) to Falstaff (1893) and including the revisions of Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra. Also appendices covering The Requiem, collections of arias, overtures and choruses.


PART 2. Verdi’s ‘anni de galera’ (galley years). The ten operas from I due Foscari (1844) to Luisa Miller (1849)

With five operas under his belt, including the failure of Un giorno di Regno, Verdi was in demand throughout Italy. Despite the modest success in Venice of his fifth opera, Ernani, it was acclaimed in Vienna and at La Scala in 1844 leading to increased demand on the composer to supervise revivals or write operas for other theatres. Even before the premiere of Ernani, Verdi was in negotiation with other opera houses in Italy. For Merelli, impresario of La Scala, he agreed to write Giovanna D’Arco. For the San Carlo at Naples he contracted to write Alzira. He was also discussing the subject of Attila with Piave, his librettist, and had sent him an outline to versify. These operas, and the half dozen or so that followed, were all written quickly and with the composer under great pressure. This was the period Verdi referred to as his anni de gallera, his years in the galleys when he was always racing against time. Whilst composing one opera, he was planning the subjects of others and supervising, often in minute detail, the writing of the librettos of another one or two. Added to those pressures were negotiations with impresarios and publishers for operas to follow.
On his return to Milan after the Venice production of Ernani Verdi’s first task was to agree a subject for production as the customary new opera at the forthcoming season at the Teatro Argentina in Rome and for which he was again contracted. He suggested an opera on ‘Lorenzino de Medici’. The censors objected and Verdi turned to the subject of I due Foscari (The two Foscari) which he had considered for Venice but had been warned off; the Venetians only liked good news stories about their city. I due Foscari is based on Byron’s play, one of the first to investigate the dark and repressive side of Venice, a city that was so often portrayed as a carnival town. The subject appealed to Verdi as ‘a fine subject, delicate and full of pathos’ whilst he also recognised its theatrical limitations The story was acceptable to the censors in Rome and the composer set to work on the music whilst constantly bullying Piave for changes in his verses for others that he considered would have greater theatrical effect or dramatic bite. Ever willing, Piave who also been instructed by Verdi to keep close to Byron, resorted to false and somewhat repetitive coups de theatre. In later years Verdi described I due Foscari as ‘being too monotonous and inclined to harp on one string’.
As so often in this period, when subjected to the pressures of time and the demands of creativity, Verdi was afflicted by psychosomatic symptoms. He complained of headaches, stomach pains and of a continuous sore throat. Even a break in Busseto failed to cure him. Despite these tribulations the opera was completed except for orchestration by the end of September 1844. Verdi spent October in Rome orchestrating the score and rehearsing the work. I due Foscari, Verdi’s 6th opera was premiered to acclaim with the composer conducting on 3 November. On the second night Verdi himself took over thirty curtain calls!
What Verdi achieves in the opera is done by a lighter style than in his previous operas. He eschews rhythmic elaboration and there is not a single stretta. For the first time Verdi uses themes to characterise the three principals and, to a lesser extent, The Council of Ten. These themes reflect the impetuousness of Lucrezia, the pathos of Jacapo and the grandeur of the Doge. The writing for the three principals, together with the implacable character of the basso comprimario role of Loredano and I due Foscari provides an ideal challenge for the recording studio. A late 1940s Cetra recording featuring the young Bergonzi and conducted by Giulini has been re-issued by Warner Fonit (8573 83515-2). Realistically there is no serious audio rival to the 1976 Philips recording featuring Cappuccilli’s long-phrased brooding Doge, Carreras’s plangent Jacapo and Katia Ricciarelli’s strong Lucrezia. Sam Ramey does ample and sonorous justice to the role of Loredano whilst on the rostrum Gardelli illuminates Verdi’s more mundane passages (Philips 422 426).
For a Verdi opera with few staged performances, I am particularly pleased to give a warm welcome to a choice of versions of I due Foscari on DVD. The most recent recording, which I haven’t seen, features Leo Nucci as the Doge (TDK. DV-IDF). Whatever its virtues it would take much to persuade me away from Renato Bruson’s superbly sung and acted performance in the 1988 La Scala production by Pierre Luigi Pizzi (Opus Arte OALS 3007D). The vibrant and dramatic Linda Roark-Strummer matches Bruson for achievement whilst Alberto Cupido, as Jacopo, could sing more sensitively and which might have avoided his periodic signs of strain. Nonetheless this staging and performance makes the case for I due Foscari as good viewing. Together with the Philips audio recording it shows the opera to be one of the most original of Verdi’s early works. Despite the fact that the opera was only a modest success in Rome, and Donizetti considered it only showed Verdi’s genius in fits and starts, it was widely performed over the next thirty years.
Despite his health problems during the composition of I due Foscari, Verdi faced a heavy workload on his return to Milan. He was involved in a revival of I Lombardi which opened the season at La Scala on 26 December 1844, whilst also starting to compose a new work for presentation at the theatre later in the season. In agreeing to write a new work for La Scala Verdi was aware that he would not have the choice of singers or librettist, which would be in impresario Merelli’s gift. Whether under pressure from his publisher or out of indebtedness to Merelli who had stuck with him through the dark days of the failure of Un Giorno di Regno, he had agreed to this arrangement. The subject chosen was Giovanna d’Arco his 7th opera. Despite librettist Solera’s protestations to the contrary, he fearing copyright problems in France, it is loosely based on Schiller’s ‘Die Jungfrau von Orleans’. During the composition of Giovanna d’Arco, and the preparation and performances of I Lombardi, Verdi became increasingly frustrated and angry. Merelli was a very warm-hearted and generous man, but a pretty lousy impresario. Far too often the singers dictated what went on. This even involved them inserting arias by other composers in order to show off their strengths or to give greater weight to a role that they considered not commensurate with their status. The I Lombardi rehearsals became stormy with Verdi complaining about the size of the orchestra as well as the indolence, arrogance and poor quality of the principal singers who were also scheduled to feature in the new opera.
Verdi refused to attend the opening night of the new production of I Lombardi. Nevertheless the revival was successful. Giovanna d’Arco opened on 15 February, a mere eighteen weeks after the premiere of I due Foscari. Despite a poor public response to the tenor, Giovanna D’Arco was well received and soon the street barrel-organs were ringing to the prologue tune of Tu sei bella, the demons’ chorus that haunts Joan. As well as the stage and singer problems, Verdi’s relationship with Merelli became strained when the latter negotiated the sale of the full score without the composer’s knowledge. It was the end of a friendship. Verdi vowed never to set foot in the theatre or speak to Merelli again. A man who carried grudges, Verdi carried out his threat for over twenty-five years until the revised La Forza del Destino was premiered there in February 1869. The hatchet buried, La Scala premiered the revised Simon Boccanegra in 1881, the four-act 1884 version of Don Carlo, the first Italian performances of Aida and the composer’s two final operatic masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff.
Giovanna D’Arco is scored for three primo singers: soprano, tenor and baritone. It requires singers with true Verdian voices, ones with the subtle combination of legato, the ability for a wide range of vocal expression and colour and to convey the character and emotions of the roles being portrayed. None of the three principal characters, Joan herself, Carlo the King and her father Giacomo, are sketched, musically, in any great depth or complexity. The trio of soloists have to work really hard to make the roles anything other than ciphers. This may well account for the paucity of both staged and recorded performances. The only studio recording is that from EMI in 1972 with James Levine conducting and the trio of Montserrat Caballé, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes, Verdi singers of the first class. Levine’s conducting, particularly of the overture and chorus scenes, is rather harsh and metronomic for my ears (CMS 7 63226 2).
What Levine’s conducting lacks in feel for the Verdi idiom on the audio recording of Giovanna D’Arco, is found in abundance by Riccardo Chailly in the Warner Music DVD of Werner Hertzog’s 1989 production at Bologna (see review). Although Susan Dunn as the Maid and Vincenzo La Scola as the King are stolid actors both are vocally more than adequate whilst Renato Bruson is outstanding vocally and histrionically.
After the 1844 success of Ernani one of the first people to approach Verdi for a new opera was Vincenzo Flauto, impresario of the San Carlo theatre in Naples. Together with La Scala and Venice’s La Fenice, the San Carlo made up the trio of leading theatres in Italy. It had been the cradle of classical opera and the base for Rossini’s musical innovations and greatest opera seria, both facilitated by its professional orchestra. Verdi contracted to write an opera for production in June 1845, a mere four months after the premiere of Giovanna d’Arco. The subject settled on, between the theatre and the librettist, Cammarano, was Voltaire’s play ‘Alzire’. Cammarano had written the librettos for several of Donizetti’s successes including Lucia di Lammermoor and Roberto Devereux. He was adept at avoiding conflict with the repressive Neapolitan censors and Verdi readily approved his synopsis. The speed of Verdi’s approval, and the few instances of the composer’s interference, might have sounded warnings had Flauto known his man better. The composer was emotionally, and perhaps creatively, exhausted. The stresses of I Lombardi and Giovanna d’Arco at La Scala and his falling out with Merelli had taken their toll. He pleaded for a time extension furnishing medical certificates in support. Flauto, a doctor, at first dismissed his pleas suggesting the warm air of Naples would effect a speedy cure. With Cammarano’s aid a postponement was achieved and Alzira, Verdi’s 8th opera, was premiered on 12 August 1845.
Cammarano’s libretto for Alzira reduced Voltaire’s five-act play to a prologue and two acts, a total of six scenes. The plot became a love triangle for tenor, soprano and baritone set in Lima, Peru. Verdi is said to have composed the music in twenty days, for him a barely believable time-scale. The opera was only moderately well received in Naples and was a failure when revived in Rome in the November following its premiere. A revival at La Scala in 1846 earned Verdi his worst notices since the fiasco of Un Giorno di Regno. In later years the composer recognised Alzira’s limitations and considered it beyond redemption. It was lost sight of until revived in a production in Rome in 1967 that indicated the score to be at least vibrant and melodic in parts.
When Philips concluded their series of eight early Verdi operas conducted by Lamberto Gardelli, the option to record Alzira fell to the small German company Orfeo who recorded it in 1982. With Gardelli again on the rostrum, and a cast of Ileana Cotrubas, Francesco Araiza and Renato Bruson as principals, its only drawback is the layout on the two CDs with the separation of the finale of act 1 spreading onto disc two (Orfeo C 057832 H). Philips eventually got round to recording Alzira in brief sessions in Geneva at the end of 1999 with Anna Mescherakova in the name part, Ramon Vargas and Paola Gavanelli. Fabio Luisa on the rostrum is as idiomatic a Verdian as Gardelli (Philips 464 6282 PH2). While the Philips recording is more atmospheric the Orfeo has the stronger male principals, particularly Bruson.

The failure of Alzira and the pace of his compositional life took its toll on Verdi’s frail psyche and bodily well-being. In 1845 he wrote ‘My mind is always black … I must look forward to the passing of the next three years. I must write six operas’. One of those six was Attila, his 9th opera. It was the first of three written under a contract with the publisher Lucca who retained all rights. It was the first time Verdi had written for a publisher not a theatre. Some years later Lucca sold the autograph of Attila to a wealthy Englishman living in Florence. It is now held in the British Museum and is the only Verdi autograph not held by the Italian publisher Ricordi or the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
Earlier Verdi had enthused to Piave about Werner’s play of 1808 titled ‘Attila König der Hunnen’ and after the success of Ernani the librettist prepared an outline. When Attila became the subject of the opera for presentation at Venice’s La Fenice the composer considered the more grandiose Solera a better bet for the libretto of Attila. Later, when the dilatory Solera had to go to Spain on family matters, Verdi turned again to Piave to make the modifications he required to the last act. Solera was not pleased! It was the end of a collaboration that had not produced a single failure.
Verdi began composing in September 1845 a month after the premiere of Alzira. He became afflicted with rheumatism which aggravated his general despondency. In January 1846 he was stricken by severe gastric fever and alarming reports circulated as to his health and even an obituary appeared in Leipzig! Despite these travails, which included allowing himself to be bled, and under pressure from the publisher Lucca, he kept beavering away at Attila which was premiered on 18 March 1846, somewhat later than the New Year’s Eve originally intended.
Verdi’s Attila is traditional in structure with arias, duets and cabalettas. It has the Verdian hallmark of verve and colour as one scene or confrontation moves to the next. Although the librettists followed the composer’s instructions to concentrate on the principals there are significant and particularly vibrant choruses. Neither Verdi, nor the audience, passed over the dramatic situation when the Roman General Ezio calls on the conquering Attila, King of the Huns, You may have the universe but leave Italy to me. It is a wonder that he occupying Austrian censors passed the scene, which regularly produced a vociferous reaction from the audience. It doubtless contributed to the contemporary success of Attila. The opera maintained a strong hold on popular affections throughout Italy until replaced by Rigoletto. It is the heaviest and noisiest of the ‘galley years’ operas and maintained its place in the repertoire of Italy’s theatres during Verdi’s lifetime. To the best of my knowledge Cetra did not record the 1951 anniversary revival.
On record Attila was a natural for the second in Philips’ early Verdi series. Recorded in London in 1972 (Philips 426 115) it has Ruggero Raimondi and Christina Deutekom from the earlier recording of I Lombardi. They feature as Attila himself and Odabella, whose father was killed by the Hun and on whom she avenges herself by stabbing him to death. Raimondi is in sonorously refulgent voice and conveys the magnanimity of the role well. He is matched vocally by Samuel Ramey in the 1989 EMI recording (CDS 7 49952 2) made in association with performances under Muti whose affinity for Verdi matches that of Gardelli on Philips. Elsewhere the rival casts make something of a box and cox frustration. Cheryl Studer on EMI is far more secure and tonally varied than Christina Deutekom, whilst EMI's Neil Schicoff’s penny plain singing is not in the same league as Carlo Bergonzi’s elegantly sung and phrased Foresto for Philips and which is some of the finest tenor singing on record. Both Sherrill Milnes (Philips) and Giorgio Zancanaro as the Roman general Ezio are equally excellent although the latter probably shades it for his Italianata. For those who enjoy the frisson of a live performance the Capriccio issue has plenty of brio although the tenor singing in particular is not strong and the soprano is not as steady as she should be (see review).
On DVD Sam Ramey, who seems to have made something of a speciality of showing off his fine chest as Attila, stars in an atmospheric 1991 La Scala production that also features Cheryl Studer and Giorgio Zancanaro. As in the audio recording from La Scala, Muti is again on the rostrum with Kaludi Kaludov an undistinguished Foresto (Opus Arte OA LS3010 D). As an alternative, the Verona performance with Yevgeny Nesterenko as Attila, Maria Chiara, Silvana Corroli and Veriano Luchetti is reported as one of the most vocally committed and musically vibrant of the 1980s series of performances from that venue (Warner 50504679932-2).
Five days after the premiere of Attila, Verdi returned to Milan. He was expected to travel to London to write an opera for the impresario Benjamin Lumley, to be produced at Her Majesty’s Theatre. He was in a state of collapse. His doctors forbade travel and ordered six months complete rest with no thought of composing or future commitments. Although physically strong, Verdi’s psyche was unable to sustain the demands made on composers by the Italian theatres in the way Rossini and Donizetti had. Whether this was a consequence of the intensity and involvement he brought to the planning and staging of his works, perhaps coupled with the lack of the support of a family and the manner of their early deaths, can only be conjectured.
For the first few months of his enforced rest Verdi did as instructed by his doctors whilst being cared for by his pupil and amanuensis Emmanuele Muzio. Verdi sent medical certificates to Lumley in London who tended to be as sceptical as Flauto in Naples had been regarding the composer’s illness. Whilst taking the waters at Recoaro in July his friend Andrea Maffei was a visitor. A man of letters and translator of Shakespeare and Schiller, Maffei set Verdi’s mind on different directions to Byron’s play The Corsair which the composer had earlier discussed with Piave and Lucca as the subject for London. By mid-August his mind was divided between an opera based on Schiller’s ‘Die Raüber’, and which later became I Masnadieri, and Macbeth based on his beloved Shakespeare. He envisaged Schiller’s Karl as a tenor and wrote to Lanari, the impresario in Florence, to enquire if the tenor Fraschini was to be a member of the company. He was not, and Verdi turned to the subject of Macbeth knowing he would have the baritone Varesi available in Florence whom he considered ideal in temperament and appearance for the title role.
At the beginning of September 1846 Verdi sent Piave a summary of Macbeth together with very detailed instructions to his malleable librettist. During the composition of the music Verdi worked slowly and carefully and with a deeper commitment than he had given to its immediate predecessors. He gave Lanari instructions as to décor and costumes, which he wanted to be historically accurate. Early in January 1847 he wrote to the singers who were to portray Macbeth and his wife giving precise instructions as to how the music was to be performed. He wrote ‘I wish the singers to serve the poet rather than the composer’ adding ‘If there is any passage that does not lie well for you let me know before I orchestrate it’.
Whilst in Florence for the new opera, Attila was given. Rehearsed by Muzio it was a great success with the audience demanding Verdi’s presence. By the time of the Macbeth premiere, Verdi’s 10th opera on 14 March 1847, nearly a year after Attila, expectations were high. Verdi had rehearsed the singers to the last moment and on the first night the composer took thirty-eight curtain calls. Varesi referred to the success he had obtained with the role of Macbeth as the most important of his career. He described the second performance as consisting of one single prolonged ovation!
In 1864 Verdi was asked to provide ballet music for insertion in performances of Macbeth in the Paris Théâtre Lyrique. He responded that he would undertake a more fundamental revision of the work. The revision was premiered on 1 April 1865 in the composer’s absence. Except for the odd occasion, it is in this 1865 form that Macbeth is performed and has been recorded. In view of this and the major revisions involved I will deal with that version in Part 4 of this conspectus. Fortunately for the recorded legacy, the BBC, under the inspired leadership of the Verdi scholar Julian Budden, recorded and broadcast performances of the original versions of five of Verdi’s works including Macbeth. The 1969 Macbeth recording features the Yorkshire baritone Peter Glossop in the title role, arguably the finest British Verdi baritone of the post-Second World War years. Glossop conquered the demanding audiences of the Italian provinces as well as La Scala and the major American lyric theatres, including the Met, singing Verdi baritone roles. His Lady on the recording is Rita Hunter a formidable Brünnhilde in the theatre. She may not have the ideal Italianata of Verdi’s dreams, but hers is a formidably sung interpretation. With the support of the Peter Moores Foundation the performance has been issued on CD and should be part of any Verdi collection (see review). I have not been able to hear the live recording from the 1997 Martina Franca Festival with the dark-hued soprano Iano Tamar as Lady Macbeth and Yevgeny Demerdjiev in the title role (Dynamic CDS 194).
For Verdi his ‘anni de gallera’ were not yet over. However, in Macbeth there is a new freedom and depth in his composition. Those qualities surely reflect the less pressurised period that the composer had enjoyed during the work’s composition compared to that previously. The work has novelties such as the sleepwalking and apparition scenes and the lack of love interest. After the reception in Florence, and before going back to the grindstone, there were both bridges to be mended and sturdy barriers to be built. Piave had been deeply hurt by Verdi having his verses for Macbeth tampered with by Maffei and the composer needed to placate him. Meanwhile, La Scala had butchered I due Foscari, with the second and third acts performed in reverse order and a substandard performance of Attila had opened the carnival season on 26 December 1846. Verdi was in high dudgeon. He instructed Ricordi that he was not to permit La Scala to perform Macbeth or any of his subsequent operas. As I have noted Verdi did not relent on this embargo for nearly twenty-five years. .
Whilst in Milan composing Macbeth, Verdi was visited by Lumley. They agreed that the London opera, one of those placed by the publisher Lucca, would be I Masnadieri the composer’s 11th opera with the libretto by the composer’s friend Andrea Maffei. It is possible that some of the music was composed before Verdi started on Macbeth. This would account for the ditching of Il Corsaro for London and which did not please Lucca. Verdi travelled to London via Paris with the vocal score finished. He sent Muzio ahead to London while he stayed briefly in Paris seeing his friend Giuseppina Strepponi who lived and taught there. He arrived in London on 7 June 1847 where he found the found the fog and rain of the English capital a trial. He worked hard on the orchestration, even declining an invitation to meet Queen Victoria. It was by her command, however, that the opera had its premiere on 22 July as Parliament went on vacation. In a house comprising royalty and aristocracy the opera was received with enthusiasm. The critics were less kind to the first Italian composer of the 19th century to write a work for London.
Lumley had gathered a fine cast for Verdi’s opera including Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale. For the first time in her life she was to create a role specially written for her. Verdi was impressed by her personality but less so by her singing with her inclination to show off her technique in fioriture and trills. Significantly, Verdi left the cadenzas to her invention. She expected to derive her own and they remained her property. Mindful of Jenny Lind’s vocal qualities and limitations, Verdi’s writing of the role of Amalia keeps to the middle and upper soprano reaches, much as for Gilda in Rigoletto. There are obvious situations in the story when a voice with a lower middle register could have given more dramatic bite if the music composed specifically for Lind had allowed it.
Verdi conducted the premiere and second performance. Michael Balfe, friend of Rossini and composer of The Bohemian Girl and Maid of Artois, took over as Verdi left for Paris. I Masnadieri has never received the popularity of Attila although the structure is very similar, being one of scenes with double arias and ensembles. As an opera it was too complex for a fill-in work for an Italian theatre during a season and didn’t have the Risorgimento feel to make it particularly popular there. Given the sparseness of stage performances, I have only ever managed to see it once over thirty years ago by the Welsh National Opera. It is therefore pleasing and surprising to realise that the work has had two studio recordings. Recorded in London in 1974 the Philips (422 423) issue has an outstanding trio of male principals in Carlo Bergonzi, Pierro Cappuccilli and Ruggero Raimondi with Montserrat Caballé in the Jenny Lind role of Amalia. Although Caballé had recorded the lyrico spinto role of Aida a month before in London, with Muti on the rostrum, she had the capacity to fine down her voice for the lighter role of Amalia. Caballé was also the queen of the sotto voce pianissimo and coloratura floated on a wisp of breath. What Caballé didn’t have, but Sutherland did, was a trill to die for. Whether because of that skill, or the London connection, Decca recorded the role with their diva. Her supporting cast of Franco Bonisolli, Mateo Manuguerra and Sam Ramey are no rival to their Philips counterparts. Nor is Bonynge as natural a Verdian as Gardelli (Decca 433 854). Sonically both recordings are of a high quality with the Decca being DDD.
Although Queen Victoria’s appreciation of I Masnadieri was limited, impresario Lumley was sufficiently impressed to invite Verdi to become Musical Director of Her Majesty’s Theatre. This would involve him in writing one opera each year and conducting the others in the season. The proposed contract to be for ten years. Like the London climate this proposal did not appeal to Verdi who suggested a three-year deal at ninety thousand francs per season. Although Lumley suggested discussing the matter further when he visited Italy, the matter did not proceed.
Back in Paris, as well as seeing a lot of Strepponi, Verdi agreed on a work for the Paris Opéra. Given the lack of time Verdi followed the example of Rossini and Donizetti in adapting an existing work. The work chosen was I Lombardi, which became Jérusalem, Verdi’s 12th opera. The composition kept Verdi in Paris for the next few months during which his relationship with Strepponi came into full blossom. The French librettists Royer and Väez produced a libretto that was no mere translation of the Italian of I Lombardi. Although the shape of the plot and the historical period of the crusades remained the same, the Italian crusaders of Lombardy became French from Toulouse. Verdi wrote a new orchestral introduction to replace the brief prelude and as well as the required ballet music he also composed substantial additions to the score. Importantly, he discarded the rather immature scene in which the deceased Oronte appeared from heaven complete with aria. The changes are sufficient for Jérusalem to be considered a separate entity from I Lombardi. The opera, involving the tenor Duprez, creator of Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia, was a fair success at its premiere on 26 November 1847. Although Verdi had high hopes for the Italian translation, as Gerusaleme, these were only partially realised. The changes in Jérusalem from I Lombardi are sufficient for it to be considered a separate entity. Both operas circulated simultaneously in Italian theatres for some years.
The challenges of Paris and its musical standards kept Verdi interested in The Opéra, whilst Jérusalem was sufficiently successful to keep the theatre management interested in Verdi. Jérusalem was to have been followed by a completely new work by Verdi for The Opéra, but the dramatic political upheavals in France in 1848, leading to the abdication of Louis Phillipe and the establishment of the Second Empire, made that impossible. Jérusalem was the last of the composer’s works to receive a studio recording when Philips recorded it in Geneva in the last week of August 1998 with the dynamic Fabio Luisi on the rostrum. With two of the male principals, Marcello Giordani and Roberto Scandiuzzi, Italian, and the soprano lead Russian, the French is hardly idiomatic. There are further drawbacks in that Scandiuzzi is not in best voice and Marina Mescheriakova has poor diction. Despite these limitations, the fluidity of Luisi’s conducting and the idiomatic chorus the performance give support to Verdi’s own favourable view of his creation (Philips 462 613-2 PH3). A second opinion of this recording can be found at (see review). A DVD (TDK DV-OPJER) of a production in Genoa has been reviewed by a colleague (see review).
Around the time of the staging of Jérusalem, Verdi and Giuseppina Strepponi’s love affair flourished. At one point in the autograph of Jérusalem, alternate lines in the love duet are written in each other’s hand and make a touching declaration of mutual affection. Their cohabitation, which was to cause problems in Busseto, passed without notice or comment in free-thinking Paris. Meanwhile Verdi had a third obligation to Lucca to fulfil. It says something about his recent financial situation that he offered the publisher ten thousand lire to release him from the contract. The offer was refused and Verdi turned to Piave’s libretto of Byron’s ‘Corsair’, which he had held for some time under the title Il Corsaro. It was to be his 13th opera. Verdi composed the work over the winter months of 1847-48 and sent the completed score to Muzio in Milan asking that he deliver it to Lucca. Normally, Verdi would have attended rehearsals, modifying the score to meet the singer’s strengths and limitations. He didn’t do so. Even worse, he could not be bothered to attend the premiere at the Teatro Grande, Trieste on 25 October 1848 preferring to stay in Paris with Strepponi. As was soften the case when this happened, local patriotism was outraged and the reception hostile despite Lucca having carded a strong cast for the premiere. Verdi had hoped that Muzio would conduct the opera, but he had previously had to flee to Switzerland following the failed Italian revolution. The local press made hay with comments about full pockets of English guineas and French francs. Il Corsaro appeared in Milan, Venice and Naples in subsequent seasons but was not received with enthusiasm. Later, when La Fenice in Venice’s proposed its revival in the season that was to produce La Traviata, Verdi declined a special contract to take charge of rehearsals. After 1854, Il Corsaro disappeared for more than a century.
Piave’s libretto for Il Corsaro adheres closely to Byron except in keeping both heroines alive longer to provide a final trio. The brevity of the opera does not permit Verdi to draw convincing music characterisations of the principals. Nevertheless the music has many felicitous Verdian touches including a vibrant and a dramatic prison scene. The most convincingly drawn portrayal is that of Pasha Seid. On Philips’ 1975 recording the role is taken by Gian-Piero Mastromei. He sings strongly without erasing thoughts of what Cappuccilli would have brought to the role. Montserrat Caballé sings the role of the slave Gulnara whom Corrado, the eponymous corsair, determines to rescue from Pasha Seid. She does so with fine tone and dramatic conviction. Her vocal colour is nicely contrasted with the lower-centred soprano of Jessye Norman, then a Philips contracted artist, who takes the lesser role of Medora, the woman left alone at home by the restless Corrado. The title role is sung with virile lyric tone by José Carreras, (Philips 426 118). Whether or not influenced by the limited chorus content, Gardelli’s normally thrusting conducting is unusually placid. A staged performance from the June 2004 Parma Verdi Festival at the Teatro Regio Parma under Renato Palumbo has been issued on both DVD and CD on the Dynamic label. Renato Bruson’s Seid is strongly acted but his vocal condition is no longer a match for his acting. The other roles are sung more than adequately and the whole staging is visually convincing, giving dramatic coherence to the work (see review). For those without DVD facility, and who prefer a live to a studio performance, the audio recording is in good sound although without the visual contribution of his acting Bruson’s singing is something of a trial ((Dynamic 468/1-2).
1848 was a year of revolution and political unrest in Europe. In February bloody street fighting in Paris led to the abdication of Louis Phillipe, ‘the citizen king’, and the establishment of the Second Empire. In April occupying Austrian troops in Milan fired on a crowd precipitating the building of barricades in the streets and five days of street fighting known as the ‘Cinque giornate’. The Austrians withdrew to defendable fortresses between Verona and Mantua rather than destroy Milan. The states of Parma, Modena and Tuscany drove out their rulers. Venice declared itself once more an independent republic. The Pope escaped from Rome disguised as an ordinary priest. However, it was a false dawn. Internecine squabbles, and the defeat of Alberto of Piedmont, who had supported the rebels, allowed the Austrians to pick off each state in turn. A year after the ‘Cinque giornate’ the Pope was back in Rome and the Austrians were again in control in northern Italy and would remain so for a further decade.
In April 1848 Verdi had returned to Milan from Paris and saw the gigantic barricades. To give succour to his fellow radicals he composed the hymn Suona la Tromba and expressed the hope that it would be sung amid the guns on the plain of Lombardy. In reality, by its completion the guns were already silenced. Verdi’s prime purpose in returning, and one that was to dominate his future life and actions, including compositions, was the purchase of the Villa Sant’Agata near Busseto. In due course he set up house there with Giuseppina Strepponi. After completion of this business Verdi returned again to Paris.
The political events in Italy turned Verdi’s mind back to a plea he had received, in the immediate aftermath of Macbeth, from the poet Giuseppe Giusta, a supporter of the liberal and nationalist political movement. Giusta castigated Verdi for immersing himself in subjects unrelated to contemporary political life in Italy and after the staging of Il Corsaro he began to cast around for a suitable subject. Verdi was still contracted to supply an opera for Naples and the house librettist, Salvatore Cammarano, came up with the suggestion of the 1176 Battle of Legnano when the Lombardy League defeated Frederick the Great. It was a subject, Cammarano argued, that would stir every man with an Italian soul. With the historical background not troubling the censors and with accommodation of Verdi’s suggestions, the outcome was a taut melodrama of patriotic sentiments and violent action. But the political upheavals of 1848 gave the censors of Naples second thoughts and Verdi’s contract to give the opera in that city fell by the wayside. In the event his patriotic opera La battaglia di Legnano, his 14th, was premiered in Rome on 27 January 1849 conducted by the composer.

At the time of the premiere Rome, minus the Pope, was about to declare itself a Republic. The republican leaders Mazzini and Garibaldi had arrived and the city was electric with excitement. On the night of the premiere, the Teatro Argentina was packed out. At the first words of the opening chorus Viva Italia! Sacro un patto tutti stringe I figli suoi (Long live Italy! A holy pact binds all her sons together) there were cries of Viva Verdi and Viva Italia. The fourth act, where the news of the triumph of the Lombard League soldiers was revealed with cries of Vittoria! Vittoria!, the following grand scena, trio and Hymns of Victory, had to be encored in its entirety at every performance of the season. The audience knew full well what they were cheering and it had more relevance than a battle seven hundred years before or the personal circumstances of the relationship of the Milanese leader, Rolando, his wife Lida and the Veronese warrior Arrigo!
La battaglia di Legnano received a few performances elsewhere in northern Italy but succumbed to the Austrian censorship as they once again took over the region and its states. There were some attempts at revivals with the venue and situation changed. Later the opera came to be thought of as a pièce d’occasion and passed into oblivion. What is notable in the work is that Verdi’s music takes a significant step forward in its construction in what is the last of the grandiose operas of his early period. Not only is grandiosity more focused, but Verdi also shows that he is more easily able than previously to give musical dimension to the personal relationships in the story.
My own introduction to La battaglia di Legnano came in the 1960s when, with the collapse of Manchester’s Rare Records franchise of the Cetra catalogue, many copies of that unrivalled opera rich source became available as bargain priced LPs. Just the thing for an impecunious young professional man with a wife and family to support! The Cetra recording, with Rome forces under Previtali, has been re-issued by Warner Fonit (8573 82710-2). Thrilling as the idiomatic choral singing of that recording remains in my mind’s ear, it is equalled in vibrancy, and surpassed sonically, by the ORF chorus of Vienna on Philips’ 1977 recording (422 435). With Gardelli back in fine form on the rostrum and a solo team of Carreras, Manuguerra and Ghiuselev the visceral thrill of the music is considerable. I might have preferred Caballé and Cappuccilli among the soloists but that is purely personal and should not detract from a wholesome recommendation. I know of no DVD performance.
After the launching of La battaglia di Legnano Verdi returned to Paris and to Giuseppina Strepponi. During the revolutionary upheavals of 1848 he had formally written to the San Carlo breaking off his contract. But it was not to be got rid of that easily. As the Austrians re-took control in the north, the status quo returned. The San Carlo blamed Cammarano for failing to provide a libretto and threatened to sue and imprison him. With a wife and six children to support Cammarano wrote to Verdi begging him to renew his Naples contract; for his librettist’s sake the composer did so. To Cammarano he stipulated that the new opera should be ‘a brief drama of interest, action and above all feeling’. Verdi also wanted something spectacular to suit the size of the San Carlo and proposed an opera based on ‘The Siege of Florence’. The Naples censor would have none of it. Cammarano suggested Schiller’s ‘Kabale und Liebe’, the last of his early prose plays noting there was ‘no rebellion, or the rhetoric of Die Rauber’, the source of I Masnadieri, the opera premiered in London. Cammarano took care to eliminate the political and social overtones of the play with its story of innocence destroyed by corruption and the machinations of those in power. In Cammarano’s hands, subtly manipulated by the composer, Schiller’s play became Luisa Miller, Verdi’s 15th opera. It was premiered at the San Carlo on 8 December 1849.
During the composition of Luisa Miller Verdi and Giuseppina Strepponi left Paris to live in Busseto. Their cohabitation caused difficulty with his parents and estranged him from several old friends. Later it caused a brief estrangement with Barezzi, his father-in-law and benefactor, whom Verdi revered. When the composition was finished Verdi took Barezzi to Naples for the premiere and to show him the sights of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ischia. In Naples the first part of Verdi’s fee was not forthcoming and acrimony ensued between Verdi, the impresario and the financially strapped San Carlo directors. Luisa Miller was well, but not over-enthusiastically received and Verdi returned home somewhat soured and vowing never to compose for the San Carlo again. He never did, although both sides made attempts.
Verdi might originally have wanted something spectacular for the San Carlo, what he and Cammarano hatched was an intense personal drama. In parts of La battaglia di Legnano Verdi had learned how to express intimate emotions in his music. In Luisa Miller he takes this skill a quantum leap forward together with a new concentration of lyrical elements. This is achieved with the avoidance of excessive use of brass and timpani. Instead, the plaintive woodwind tones give character to the more intimate pastoral nature of the early scenes in particular. The individual characters are filled out musically and encompass the varying emotions they have to convey and which differ significantly in the three acts. It is in the music of the last act where scholars suggest that Verdi really breaks new ground and shows himself compositionally ready for the subjects of the great operas that were subsequently to flow from his pen.
When composing Verdi always had in mind the vocal characteristics of the singers who were going to be involved. Later he was prepared to forego fees if he thought a singer or singers in a revival were not up to his vision. As early as 1850 he embargoed performances of Luisa Miller when he believed the tenor was not of the front rank. Important though the name part is, the tenor’s capacity to carry the emotional burden and convey his agonies of mind, particularly in the great act two aria Quando le sere al placido is paramount. The recorded legacy is fortunate in that three of the most significant tenors of the second half of the twentieth century recorded the role of Rodolfo, the incognito son of the local Count who woes Luisa. Of the three, Placido Domingo recorded the role twice. His first recording, under Maazel, was contiguous with 1978 performances at Covent Garden with much the same cast. Although he is in good virile and free-toned voice, Maazel’s excessive rhythmic precision seems to inhibit him (DG 459 481), whereas under Levine he is much more dramatic (Sony S2K 48073). In the very picturesque Covent Garden staging Katia Ricciarelli made a visually appealing Luisa. Although not vocally perfect she conveys Luisa’s emotions well, managing the lightness of touch needed in act one whilst also having the heft and tonal variety for the drama of the final act. Her performance is preferable to that of Aprille Millo for Levine whose voice is much too big for the lyrical and coloratura elements of act one, although she comes more into her own in act three as Luisa unwittingly takes the poison Rodolfo, in his desperation, has offered. As Luisa’s father Miller, Bruson (DG) and Chernov (Sony), both making recording debuts in significant Verdi roles, sing with full rich tone and excellent characterisation.
Luciano Pavarotti recorded Rodolfo in 1975 alongside Montserrat Caballé’s involved and vocally assured Luisa and Sherrill Milnes’ young-sounding Miller (Decca 473 365). The real strength of this performance is in Peter Maag’s sensitivity to the different moods of each act in a manner wholly beyond Maazel. That is not to ignore the contribution of Pavarotti whose lyrical tenor is in its finest condition. His open-throated lyrical passion in the rendering of Quando le sere al placido, the only piece from the opera to make it onto recitals, exhibits the fine legato, evenness of emission and sensitivity to the words and emotions that characterised his best singing in the first decade of his international career. Even if Pavarotti does not match Bergonzi’s elegance of phrase, his Rodolfo is one of his finest recorded performances. On the 1964 RCA Rome recording conducted by Fausto Cleva (GD 86646), Bergonzi’s characterisation is rather bland and whilst singing with fine tone, vocal colour and legato, he does not match Pavarotti in variety of expression and characterisation. Anna Moffo’s Luisa is at its best in act one where her light-voiced innocence, fluid trill and pin-point coloratura are among the best of all the divas on record. She doesn’t, however, have the requisite tonal weight or variety of vocal colour for the dramatic dénouement of act three. The other singers in the cast, particularly Shirley Verrett in the small but important role of Frederica, are among the strongest in their roles among their recorded coevals. Cleva’s flaccid conducting and the rough-edged recording are drawbacks.
To date, the only DVD recording of Luisa Miller from a mainline source has been of a 1979 Met performance of Nathaniel Merrill’s production. Conducted by Levine it features Domingo alongside Renata Scotto and Sherrill Milnes (DG 073 4027). I will hope to make comments about this performance in an update of this conspectus in due course. I also hope that the visually appealing Covent Garden production, referred to above, and was which seen on TV, will emerge on DVD.
Luisa Miller is a fitting conclusion to this second part of my four-part survey of Verdi’s life and his operas. It was the first opera that the composer had written against a background of comparative leisure and settled domestic circumstances. Significantly, it is also the first opera where he made extensive sketches, whilst the musical sophistication in Luisa Miller marks a significant advance in his compositional maturity. Although in future years there were times that Verdi put himself under compositional pressure to meet deadlines, as well as harkening after composing an opera based on King Lear, his ‘anni de galera’ as he called them, were over. He was recognised throughout Europe as the foremost Italian composer. As a subject of the Duchy of Parma Verdi avoided the financial penalties wrought on the supporters of Italy’s abortive fight for freedom and which enabled him to invest in property in Busseto. Although there would be personal problems in Busseto arising from his living with Strepponi, he was happy to ignore them and build up his estate there. Inevitably there would also be professional frustrations with impresarios, theatres and singers, but Verdi was on the threshold of the compositional greatness exemplified by several of his operas of the next ten years. These works include the great trio of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata as well Un Ballo in Maschera and which form the backbone of his compositions in the 1850s as well as the repertoire in contemporary opera houses. These, and his other operatic works of the decade, are considered alongside Verdi’s significant political involvements in part thee of this conspectus.
Robert J Farr

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