Viva Verdi! 100 years later

From 'Aida' to 'Otello,' composer Giuseppe Verdi's music still inspires

When asked why the composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) should be celebrated 100 years after his death, British critic and scholar Andrew Porter pauses for a moment, then quotes the Italian poet Gabriele d'Annunzio on Verdi: "He wept and loved for all of us."

Anyone who cares for opera, and many who don't, find Verdi's music of life-changing importance. A proud nationalist at a time when Italy was divided into different states governed by France or Austria, Verdi wrote noble music that summed up his compatriots' aspirations. The chorus "Va, Pensiero," from the biblical opera "Nabucco," transcended its stage subject of Jewish slaves languishing in Babylonia, to signify the longing for liberation of all enslaved people.

No classical composer in Italy, and few elsewhere, have spoken for the soul of a people as Verdi did. In operas like "Aida," "La Traviata," "Otello," "Falstaff," "Un Ballo in Maschera," and "Don Carlos," he created a precious (and to date unmatched) musical legacy.

With such a list of hits, the Parma-born Verdi attracts unexpected fans, like the early music conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who ranks him with Mozart and Monteverdi among the top three composers "who fully and totally understood opera." Deeply romantic, but without any murky mysticism, Verdi's works have the immediate enthusiasm of a passionate cry. They do not keep you waiting for thrills.

Tenor Placido Domingo, who has succeeded in as many Verdi roles as anyone now performing, told the British Press: "Verdi gets to the point. He has a phenomenal duet in 'Un Ballo in Maschera;' it is divine and it lasts six or seven minutes and that's it. Or in 'Otello,' seven or eight minutes, bang, that's it."

Moreover, the thrills come not just at stagy or melodramatic moments: a group of guests leaving a Parisian party in "La Traviata" is whipped into a demonic frenzy that expresses a profound truth about the frantic horror of social life.

This and countless other details of genius made conductor Arturo Toscanini, who knew Verdi personally, state that in the operas, he admired "not only the melodic richness, but also the effective and sure musical and dramatic power."

Once found, this power is not easily abandoned. Toscanini made most of his unforgettable series of Verdi recordings (now available on CDs from BMG) when he was in his 80s. Last year, 75-year-old tenor Carlo Bergonzi made an ill-fated but noble effort to sing the killer role of Otello in a New York concert, while 76-year-old baritone Rolando Panerai succeeded in the role of Germont in a televised film, "La Traviata in Paris."

Whereas most music fans would admit that the era of supreme Wagner singers is over, there are still remarkable Verdi interpreters around, as a batch of new CDs indicates.

The Romanian-born soprano Angela Gheorghiu is featured in a disc of Verdi heroines (on Decca), with the wiry intelligence of a sweeter-sounding Maria Callas; and Argentinean tenor Jose Cura, touted by some as Domingo's successor, sings and conducts a program of Verdi arias on Erato. Verdi worship is very much a thing of the present.

From February to June, possibly today's greatest Verdi conductor, Antonio Pappano, will be performing the composer's "Requiem," "Otello," and "Macbeth" at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels (see "Verdi Events" at left).

Despite the numbers of people strenuously seeking Verdi on this anniversary year, there is an inescapable feeling that we really still have him, after all.

Asked to compile a wish-list for the occasion, Mr. Porter declares in a telephone interview: "What matters to the public is great operas in great performances, and we have that. Antonio Pappano's "Don Carlos" (EMI) was marvelous, a newly created vision of the opera for the new century." No wonder audiences around the world are still yelling, as others did a century and more ago, "Viva Verdi!"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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