Giuseppe Verdi – A conspectus of his life and a survey of the recordings of his works
by Bob Farr
Note – this survey was published in 2006. Sadly, Bob Farr’s health is such that he is now no longer able to contribute to MWI.
3. Verdi’s Middle Period
The eight operas from Stiffelio (1850) to Un ballo in Maschera (1859)
By 1850, and following the premiere of Luisa Miller in Naples, the years that Verdi called his ‘anni di gallera’ (years in the galleys) could finally be seen to be over. However, the composer did, from time to time, put himself under pressure by leaving too little time to become familiar with the characters of the libretto plot and also compose the music. His best and most successful future operas were most often those whose subjects he had mulled over for months or even years.
Whilst in Naples for Luisa Miller, Verdi had suggested that Cammarano, the local librettist, look at Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse as a suitable subject for an opera. Verdi described the work as a beautiful play with tremendous dramatic situations. Back at Busseto he followed this up with suggestions that the librettist also look at Garcia Gutiérez’s Spanish play Il Trovador. The composeralso sent the librettist a detailed synopsis of King Lear. During this period of debating his next opera Verdi was offered the possibility of two Shakespearean subjects. The first was an offer by Benjamin Lumley, the London impresario, of an opera based on The Tempest and the second an actual libretto of Hamlet. Verdi, with contracts pressing considered that these, like King Lear, were too complex for the time available and he sought a subject that was less demanding. He had after all taken nearly a year over the composition of Macbeth, his only Shakespeare-based opera at that date.
Verdi’s contracted commitments were two. The first was an opera for Ricordi, his publisher. This was to be given in the autumn of 1850 in any Italian theatre of the publishers choosing, except, at Verdi’s continued insistence, Milan’s La Scala. The second was for La Fenice in Venice. With time pressing Verdi proposed four subjects to the compliant Piave, including Le Roi s’amuse that he had already suggested to Cammarano. Piave countered with a list including Stiffelius, based on a French play. The story concerns a protestant minister whose wife commits adultery in her husband’s absence and who forgives her from the pulpit choosing an apposite reading from the Bible. It is a melodramatic story packed with human emotions and inter-relationships as well as dramatic situations. With his success in conveying the intimate relationships involved in La battaglia di Legnano and Luisa Miller, his previous two operas, Verdi felt confident in his capacity to deal with the story. He also badgered Piave to study Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse; the subject obviously captivated him.
With the Ricordi commission pressing and placed at the Teatro Grande in Trieste, Piave produced the libretto of Stiffelio, Verdi’s 16th opera quickly. The composer spent the summer months of 1850 on the work. The two travelled to Trieste for the premiere and hit big opposition from the Catholic Church who not only objected to the concept of a priest being a married man, but also that the congregation were represented kneeling in prayer! Further, Stiffelio’s quotation from The Sermon on the Mount, as he publicly forgives his wife Lina her adultery was forbidden, as was her earlier address to her husband when she appeals Ministro, ministro confessateri (Minister, minister, hear my confession). Verdi considered that the changes demanded would emasculate the dramatic impact of the whole plot. He agreed to compromises with the censorsas long as the dramatic situation and the thrust of his music were not affected. In other circumstances and where compromise was not possible, as will be seen with Un Ballo in Maschera, he packed his bags and took his opera elsewhere. With Stiffelio having been placed by Ricordi this was not open to him despite his frustration and anger at the necessary revisions. The premiere was given on 16 November 1850 and was well received with press comments such as tender melodies follow one another in a most attractive manner. All the performances in Trieste were sold out with the church scene omitted in at least three of them. In staging in other Italian cities Stiffelio was re-titled Guglielmo Wellingrode, its principal character no longer a 19th century protestant pastor, but a Prime Minister of a German principality in the early 15th century! As the Verdi scholar Julian Budden notes (Verdi, Master Musicians Series, Dent. 1984) the composer was used to having certain subjects rejected and seeing his works bowdlerised when revived in Naples and the Papal States. This was the first time, however, that he had suffered the mutilation of a work at its premiere. He determined that he would find a way of making it censor-proof. He did so in 1856 when he had Piave alter the locale and period of the work whilst he himself made significant modifications and additions to the music. The revised opera was titled Aroldo and premiered at the Teatro Nuovo, Rimini on 16 August 1857. It is dealt with below, as Verdi’s 22nd title, in its appropriate numerical sequence.
As was Verdi’s habit when revising a scene or aria in an opera, he removed the revised or replaced pages from the manuscript autograph. To all intents and purposes, Stiffelio ceased to exist in a performance form complete with orchestration, although vocal scores were available. In the late 1960s orchestral parts for both Stiffelio and its bowdlerised version, Guglielmo Wellingrode, came to light in the Naples Conservatory; an integral performance of Stiffelio became possible after one hundred and fifteen years. This took place in a performing edition by Rubin Profeta in Parma on 26 December 1960 conducted by Peter Maag. This is the basis of the recording made by Philips in Vienna in 1979 as part of their early Verdi series under Lamberto Gardelli’s idiomatic direction (422-432-2).
At the 1850 premiere, the role of Stiffelio was sung by the tenor Gaetano Fraschini who had created the roles of Zamero (Alzira), Corrado (Il Corsaro), Arrigo (La battaglia di Legnano) and would go on to create Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera. On the Philips recording the role is taken with significant dramatic thrust by José Carreras. Sylvia Sass sings the adulterous wife with full dramatic tone and involvement in one of her rare assumptions on a mainstream label. Matteo Manuguerra is a little blustery as Stankar the avenging father. Wladimiro Ganzarolli is surprisingly firm as Stiffelio’s fellow priest as is Ezio Di Cesare as the seducer of Lina; both roles are shown as comprimario in the score. An alternative live performance from Trieste in December 2000, featuring Dimitra Theodossiou as Lina and Giorgio Casciarri in the title role, is available from Dynamic (CDS 362/1-2). I have not heard this performance but have read good reports of it.
Stiffelio was staged at Covent Garden in 1993 in the manner Verdi intended. Carreras took the eponymous role and the production, seen on British TV, showed the opera to be the dramatic and musically cohesive work that Verdi knew he had created. It was conducted by Edward Downes and featured Catherine Malfitano as Lina. In a later production at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Domingo sang the name part. I believe the New York production used a later edition with further newly discovered music. Neither of these performances has yet appeared on DVD although that from Covent Garden circulates on the pay-per-view satellite station Arts World.
Verdi and Piave had spent time together in Busseto during the summer of 1850 when the libretto of Stiffelio was finalised alongside the opera from Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse, called by them at this stage La maledizione. Verdi was greatly stimulated by La maledizione and itched to start its composition; he may have made significant sketches during his work on Stiffelio. He considered Victor Hugo’s play ‘perhaps the greatest drama of modern times’ and the jester Tribolet, later to become Rigoletto in his opera, ‘a creation ‘worthy of Shakespeare’. In Verdi’s mind there could be no greater compliment.
Piave, a native of Venice, had assured Verdi that the Austrian censors of that city would not object to the subject. On arrival in Venice Verdi found that the censors did not merely object to the subject’s immorality, but also to such detail as a King being involved, that Rigoletto was a hunchback and that the body of his stabbed daughter was on the stage, in a sack, in the finale. Verdi packed his bags and returned to Busseto. Piave tried to re-cast the libretto to satisfy the censors, but Verdi rejected his efforts outright, considering that they nullified the dramatic impetus and thrust of the story and his composition. From Busseto he wrote to the President of the La Fenice offering a re-written ending to Stiffelio, with himself being present as for a new opera, in fulfilment of his contract to provide a new composition for its upcoming Carnival Season. Verdi also informed Piave that the librettist would not be paid the final part of his fee. Verdi was not merely angry but in high dudgeon.
With the Carnival Season already underway, Piave and the secretary of the La Fenice met the General Director of Public Order who made a number of concessions. The pair then hurried to Busseto on 30 December. In a six point document Verdi in his turn offered to compromise on a Duke instead of a King, but otherwise maintaining the original characters of Victor Hugo’s drama and particularly a setting where the threat of a curse was meaningful. He also maintained the principle of Rigoletto’s deformity and the presence of the stabbed Gilda in the final scene. The points were accepted by the censor and Rigoletto, Verdi’s 17th opera opened at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice on 11 March 1851 with Felice Varesi, creator of Macbeth, in the title role.
Despite having to live with his deformity that set him apart, and which doubtless would have contributed to his sense of grievance and bitter tongue, Rigolettois one of the most profoundly human of Verdi’s creations. His character is defined in the music of the great duets with his daughter Gilda. The first, in act one, is of fatherly love and concern, the second is of fury as he discovers her defilement by the Duke and the third of despair as he opens the sack and she tells him of her sacrificing of her life to save the man who raped her yet whom she loves. The vocal and histrionic demands of the role have drawn every great high baritone since its creation. A privileged few have set down their interpretations on record for posterity. To convey the cloistered and virginal Gilda, Verdi wrote the role for a light and flexible soprano, a voice-type that is rare in his works. To the rapacious Duke he not only gave the memorable aria La donne è mobile, destined to become the most famous tenor aria of all time, Nessun Dorma notwithstanding, but also the opening phrases of the most famous quartet in opera that follows, both in the final act. The Duke is one of the most gracefully lyrical of all Verdi’s tenor roles, which might be seen in some way as compensating for the vileness of his character.
As far as recordings are concerned and for the first time in the Verdi canon, there is plenty of choice in both the audio and visual medium. With the advent of the LP each of the major recording companies issued a mono recording with their contracted artists. In the home of my youth in this period the focus was on the portrayal of Rigoletto himself. Our choice was between the superbly biting and incisive dramatic portrayal of Tito Gobbi on Columbia (later EMI) under Serafin and the equally impressive but more rounded tones of Giuseppe Taddei from the Italian Cetra company. The presence of Tagliavini as the Duke tipped our choice Cetra’s way, he being far preferable to the less elegant Di Stefano. Lina Pagliughi, very experienced in the part on stage, sounds somewhat mature for the role and is rather thin-toned. We preferred that to Callas on the Columbia issue. In a role that she only ever sang twice on stage, Callas fails to represent the virginal naivety of Gilda. Her Caro nome is lacking in spontaneity giving an impression of artifice. There is dramatic compensation in her duets with Gobbi, particularly tutte le feste in act two. At the time of writing the Gobbi recording with Callas is available from EMI although not yet at a price commensurate with its age. However, Regis have promised a bargain priced version derived from LP sources. EMI, holders of the master tapes, may follow suit in their ‘Classics Series’ in the same realistic price bracket.The Cetra performance is already available at bargain price from Warner Fonit (review).
With the advent of stereo the recording majors went on the roundabout again. An early stereo success was scored by RCA. It featured Robert Merrill as a dark-toned vocally smooth Rigoletto alongside the elegantly phrased Duke of Alfredo Krauss and with Anna Moffo’s lyrical coloratura Gilda being one of the best on record. Solti, on loan from Decca, drives the drama hard but effectively (review). Regrettably, minor cuts in the score are a drawback. In 1971 Decca recorded an absolutely complete edition. They fielded the young Pavarotti singing with open-throated ardour, excellent phrasing and characterisation as the Duke. The featured Rigoletto is again an American, Sherrill Milnes, who sings powerfully and expressively. In her second recording of Gilda for Decca, Joan Sutherland sounds rather matronly and her poor diction is a drawback to set against the security of her coloratura and florid singing. The quality of the recording is excellent as is Bonynge’s sympathetic conducting. Not to be missed is Talvela in the minor bass role of Sparafucile, the assassin; hear his low note as he leaves Rigoletto in the alleyway near the latter’s home (Decca 414 269 2). Some commentators find virtue in Giulini’s detailed conducting on the 1980 recording (DG 457 453 2). Cappuccilli, whilst singing in long-breathed phrases, doesn’t convey, to my ears, the agony that Rigoletto goes through in the course of the opera. Ileana Cotrubas as Gilda is not ideally secure at the top of her voice whilst Domingo as the Duke is strong vocally but bland in characterisation. What Cappuccilli lacks in characterisation, Renato Bruson has in abundance under Sinopoli (Philips 462 158 2). The Gilda of Edita Gruberova is vocally secure if lacking in tonal beauty and variety, as is Shicoff as the Duke.
As far as audio recordings are concerned, my greatest regret is that the most elegantly sung Duke, that by Carlo Bergonzi, is paired with the most unidiomatic Rigoletto of ones nightmares, Fischer-Dieskau, on an early 1960s recording conducted by Kempe (DG). My colleague GF in his review of the Solti set also surveys contemporaneous issues and is far more sympathetic to Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretation than I. However, Bergonzi’s singing of the Duke’s major arias from this recording, together with a brief extract from the act 2 scene where the courtiers tell the Duke of their abduction and also the quartet, are included on the two disc selection Carlo Bergonzi. The Sublime Voice (Decca 467 023-2).
On DVD there is choice to suit ones particular tastes as to production style. David McVicar’s 2002 Covent Garden production includes Marcelo Álvarez’s robust Duke alongside Paolas Gavanelli’s powerfully acted and sung Rigoletto. Edward Downes on the rostrum brings out every nuance in the music. The costumes are in period with modernistic representational sets and plenty of Rabelaisian activity in the first scene (BBC/Opus Arte OA0829D). The sparsely set Verona performance of 2001 with Nucci as Rigoletto has recently been re-issued at mid-price. (TDK DV-OPRIGM). A colleague’s original review can be found at here. Marcelo Álvarez’s Duke also features in the December 2004 Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, recording with Carlos Álvarez not ideally steady in the title role (review). Of older recordings, in the Met production of 1977 John Dexter took the paintings of the Venetian painter Giorgione as a starting point. This is a typical traditional Met production with naturalistic sets and costumes appropriate to the period that Verdi sought for his opera. The performance features a lyric-voiced young Domingo as the Duke, a vividly acted if a little dry-toned Rigoletto from then veteran American baritone Cornell MacNeil and an affecting Gilda from Ileana Cotrubas. Both the tenor and soprano far surpass their performances for Giulini on CD. The colours have come up amazingly well, but the orchestra is set rather too distantly and loses some dramatic impact, a situation not helped by Levine’s relaxed interpretation (DG 073 093 9) (review). Pavarotti fans will find his Duke on Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s film of the opera. It is in period costume and with location shots interspersed with some unusual stage scenes. The Rigoletto of the Scandinavian baritone Ingvar Wixell, with his stocky stature and chubby cheeks, fails to convince me visually. This has been reissued on DG (00440 073 4166) having previously appeared on the Decca label. Taking sound and picture quality into consideration, I find the Covent Garden performance particularly satisfying, although some may find the portrayal of various simulated sexual activities in the opening scene a bit raunchy. Marcelo Álvarez is always going to be a bit wooden in his acting, but the sound is better balanced and hasn’t the slightly hard edge of the Barcelona performance which accentuates the voices at the expense of the orchestra.
From the start Rigoletto was popular with audiences although the censors, especially in the Papal States, did their best to emasculate it. In Naples it appeared as Clara de Perth with an altered text. Despite the virtues of its immediate successor operas, Il Trovatore and La Traviata, it was a long time before Verdi surpassed Rigoletto in compositional density of invention. As to the role of Rigoletto himself, Budden (The Operas of Verdi. Vol. 1) puts it succinctly when he states The name part of Rigoletto remains the greatest part ever written for a high baritone, by requiring every emotional stop of which the voice is capable. At the age of 38, Verdi had put his own stamp and a new face on Italian opera. The period of the ottocento was finished. Verdi’s Rigoletto did for Italian opera what Beethoven’s Eroica had done for the symphony fifty years earlier; it moved the genre along a significantly new path. There would be regressions along the way, but the new direction was clear.
After the third performance of Rigoletto, Verdi left Venice for Busseto and Giuseppina. The notoriety of the subjects of his last two operas, Stiffelio and Rigoletto, followed him into the rather puritanical provincial countryside. The pair moved into the property at Sant’Agata. This involved Verdi moving his parents into another property, his father having been a poor manager of the farm. To compound matters Verdi’s mother died in the June. The questioning among the locals grew as to why Verdi had brought Giuseppina to Busseto without the benefit of marriage. To Verdi’s disgust they considered her a loose woman and ostracised her at church. Shortly after the couple had retreated to Paris for the winter of 1851-52 Verdi received a letter from Barezzi, the father of his deceased wife and whose beneficence had been essential in the composer’s early studies and life. The letter questioned Verdi as to his relationship with Giuseppina. Verdi revered Barezzi and was hurt to the core. He replied at length without answering the points raised. It says much about the relationship between the pair that Barezzi accepted it and was soon on excellent terms with Giuseppina as well as Verdi himself. As to why the pair did not marry is not known. They had been living together for four years and she was his wife in all but name.
These domestic matters in Busseto took Verdi’s mind off his next operatic project for some months. He had written to Cammarano from Venice, shortly before the premiere of Rigoletto in March 1851, proposing the subject of Garcia Gutiérez’s Spanish play Il Trovador. The idea of two female roles in the play appealed to Verdi, particularly the character of the gypsy woman who he described as a strange woman after whom I want to name the opera, Back at Busseto he followed this up with suggestions that the librettist also look at Garcia Gutiérez’s Spanish play Il Trovador. Thecomposerperhaps saw her as the female counterpart of Rigoletto. Cammarano was dilatory in replying and was full of objections when he did so. Verdi’s response was that the drama offered fine theatrical effects and above all something original and out of the ordinary. He further urged his librettist to be free and innovative in form, strictures really beyond Cammarano’s capabilities. In the end Verdi was forced to send his own synopsis of the action and this is in large measure the form in which we know the opera Il Trovatore. When Naples found Verdi’s fee too steep for their cash-strapped situation, he proposed the opera be premiered in Rome if the censors accepted Cammarano’s libretto. At that point Verdi learned, through a friend, of Cammarano’s death. The Young poet Emmanuele Bardare, who had converted Rigoletto into Clara di Perth for Naples, undertook the completion of the libretto. Verdi paid Cammarano’s widow the full fee, plus a premium, as she was poorly provided for.
The various additions to the libretto of Il Trovatore required of Bardare show Verdi’s intent on a two-diva opera, with the voices concerned being of distinctly different ranges and colour. Needless to say the censor quibbled about details. The ‘stake’ might be too vivid a reminder of the Inquisition and the words of the Miserere were altered, as strict Liturgical phrases were not allowed. With these relatively minor problems sorted Il Trovatore, Verdi’s 18th opera, was premiered at the Teatro Apollo, Rome, on 19 January 1853. It was a resounding triumph with the final scene being encored in its entirety. There were odd cavils about the gloomy subject and the number of deaths. The opera spread rapidly and was even parodied with baby swapping figures in two of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular works. Charles Osborne (Verdi. A life in the theatre) suggests that Il Trovatore, with its wealth of melody, dark orchestral colouring and almost brutal vigour is the height of Italian romantic opera and the apotheosis of the bel canto tradition with its concern only for vocal beauty, agility and range. Whilst those bel canto virtues are demanded in Il Trovatore, the thrust and dynamism as well as the tinta of the music call for distinctly bigger voices than Verdi’s earlier operas or the works of other composers had needed previously. The baritone singer of Rigoletto or Miller will generally encompass the role of Di Luna with ease. The same cannot be said of the tenor role of Manrico in Il Trovatore compared with the Duke in Rigoletto or Rodolfo in Luisa Miller or indeed of any of the tenor roles in the composer’s previous works. The role of Leonora, which Verdi filled out for a prima donna voice, demands flexibility in coloratura and the dynamic range and colour of a dramatic soprano. But it is the role of the gypsy Azucena that really marks out the opera. Verdi had never previously written so full and dominant a role for contralto or dramatic mezzo voice. It was to be the first of a series of memorable roles in his succeeding operas for the voice type. The vocal demands on the cast of Il Trovatore caused the great tenor Enrico Caruso to suggest that all that is needed for a performance are the four greatest singers in the world.
Caruso’s opinion of the quality of singers required for a performance of Il Trovatore might be fairly near the mark. The problem in the early years of the LP record was that the singers most capable of realising the dream recording were often under contract to different recording companies in an era when an exclusive contract meant that. Despite those limitations, later relaxed, there is plenty of choice available of good audio performances going all the way back to the early days of mono LPs to the recent digital era. RCA was in early with a Met-based cast that has some fine, even old-fashioned, Verdi spinto singing from the redoubtable Zinka Milanov as Leonora. Her colleagues are some of the best around at the time, Jussi Björling as an elegant Manrico, Leonard Warren strong-toned as Di Luna whilst Fedora Barbieri is formidable as Azucena. Regrettably the performance is subject to the severe performance cuts common at the time (review). Barbieri repeats her interpretation of Azucena under Karajan in the1957 recording from La Scala with Callas, Di Stefano and Panerai as colleagues (review). Karajan opened up many of the traditional cuts and is a dynamic conductor. This performance is now available in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series, with libretto and translation, and at bargain price with track-listing and related synopsis only (review). The early stereo era saw two outstanding versions. The first in 1962, again based on La Scala, is conducted with a touch too much affection by Tullio Serafin. Its great virtue is that it is blest with an all-Italian cast to join the vibrant La Scala chorus. Notable are Carlo Bergonzi as Manrico and the young Fiorenza Cossotto as Azucena. (DG 453 118-2). In 1969 RCA scored a triumph with Il Trovatore in a London-based recording of the full score, as was then the habit. Leontyne Price is an incomparable Leonora, the young Domingo a virile Manrico with Cossotto, again, and Sherrill Milnes completing a fine quartet of soloists. Zubin Mehta’s conducting and a clear recording leaves this performance very high on the recommended list (RCA 74321 39504-2). I was fortunate to see and hear Cossotto’s portrayal of Azucena in the theatre. Her acting matched the thrilling vitality of her singing to give me one of the greatest Verdi interpretations to come my way in fifty years of opera-going. The flip-side was seeing Leontyne Price as Leonora. Her opulent tones and ability with a Verdian phrase were a delight, but she brought her own costume and walked through the part.
Placido Domingo repeated his recorded assumption of Manrico in Giulini’s 1984 recording of Il Trovatore. With many portrayals of Otello to his credit he is in fuller voice than on the earlier RCA issue, but with some slight loss of lyrical ardour. Rosalind Plowright matches Domingo’s vocal strength whilst Zancanaro as Luna sings with fine legato and elegant phrasing. The growing dearth of Verdi voices is exemplified by the casting of Brigitte Fassbaender as Azucena. More used to singing the likes of Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus, she had never sung the role on stage and cannot match either the Verdian patina or Italianata of her colleagues or recorded rivals. I personally find Giulini’s conducting rather studied and lacking in spontaneity (DG 423 858-2). EMI recorded their then golden couple of Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu as the lovers in 2001. She is lovely to listen to, but lacks characterisation whilst his throaty emission does nothing for Manrico. Thomas Hampson sings well as Luna whilst the Russian Larissa Diadkova is a strong Azucena. (review). For Pavarotti fans the news is not good as far as audio versions are concerned. Neither of his recordings for Decca have much to recommend them. I also find too many vocal limitations in the Sony recording of 2000 under Muti (S2K 89553), whilst Andrea Bocelli’s efforts owe more to subtle engineering than his spinto abilities. His voice is reedy and lacking in variety of colour. He also lacks a sense of Verdian phrasing in this opera (Decca 475 366-2).
If Pavarotti fans really cannot do without their own favourite tenor’s interpretation of a role famous for its high C, the DVD market is their answer with the tenor singing in a traditional Met production conducted with verve by Levine. Both the production and the tenor are a bit static. His rather portly figure and wooden acting do not make for the ideal troubadour whilst Eva Marton as Leonora is a little heavy vocally and Sherrill Milnes as Luna is unusually variable. Dolores Zajick as Azucena is on a par with the great Italian mezzos who have essayed the role with distinction (DG 073 002 9). My favourite Azucena, Fiorenza Cossotto, gives a characteristically vivid portrayal on the 1985 recording from Verona. Alongside her, Rosalind Plowright is excellent as Leonora and Giorgio Zancanaro is a visually and tonally elegant Luna. Franco Bonisolli’s Manrico is from the can belto school; viscerally exciting and the audience love it, but if you have perfect pitch you might not. It was Bonisolli who sulked out of Karajan’s last recorded effort when the conductor returned to the Vienna State Opera in 1978. By the greatest good luck Domingo was available and jetted in. His thrillingly acted and sung portrayal, no unwritten notes or any held indecently long from him, is matched by Raina Kabaivanska’s Leonora and Pierro Cappuccilli’s long-breathed Italianate Luna. Fiorenza Cossotto repeats her memorable Azucena. The old maestro Karajan may have lost something of the dramatic bite of his La Scala audio recording of thirty years earlier, just re-issued by EMI, but he still has the right feel for the work and a Verdian phrase. Regrettably Karajan makes a couple of cuts and the Vienna audience applaud frequently and loudly (review).
A few years prior to the composition of Rigoletto, Verdi often complained of the pressures on him and he frequently suffered psychosomatic illness as a consequence. After Rigoletto, and his fame assured, he could, both artistically and financially have afforded to relax and Giuseppina appealed to him to do so. His artistic drive allowed no such luxury. Initially Il Trovatore had no agreed theatre or date for its production. Verdi agreed its premiere for Rome, but this was delayed by the death of Cammarano. Meanwhile, in April 1852, following a visit by Brenna, secretary of La Fenice, Verdi agreed to present an opera at that theatre in March of the following year. Also, whilst in Paris he had accepted a commission for an entirely new work for The Opéra to coincide with the Paris Exhibition of 1855. Whilst on that visit to Paris he had seen and been impressed by Alexander Dumas’s semi-autobiographical play La Dame aux caméllias based on the novel of the same name. Whilst it was agreed that Piave would be the librettist for the La Fenice opera, no choice of subject was made. Verdi put off the choice until the preceding autumn, worrying the theatre about the available singers. The theatre in their turn wanted to get the censor’s approval of the subject to satisfy their own peace of mind. Piave produced at least one libretto, which Verdi turned down, before the composer settled on the Dumas play. The opera was titled La Traviata; it was his 19th opera. After Stiffelio it was Verdi’s most contemporary subject.
At the very least the first act of La Traviata was composed contemporaneously with the later and amended portions of Il Trovatore, operas wholly different in musical mood and key register. The delay in the premiere of Il Trovatore, brought about by the death of the original librettist Cammarano, and the necessity for new verse from Emmanuele Bardare, meant that Verdi had only six weeks between the premieres of the two operas. He had spent the winter worrying about the suitability of the soprano scheduled to sing the consumptive Violetta. He was also upset that the La Fenice decided to set his contemporary subject in Louis XVI period, around 1700, thus losing the immediacy and relevance that he intended for the audience.
Verdi was correct in worrying about the singers. At the end of act 1, with its florid coloratura singing he was called to the stage. The audience was less sympathetic to the portly soprano portraying a dying consumptive in the last act and laughed loudly. The tenor singing Alfredo was poor and Varesi, who had premiered both Macbeth and Rigoletto, considered Germont below his dignity and made little effort. Verdi himself considered the premiere a fiasco. He did, however, compliment the players of the orchestra who had realised his beautifully expressive writing for strings, not least in the preludes to acts 1 and 3. Although other theatres wished to stage La Traviata, he withdrew the opera until he was satisfied that any theatre concerned would cast the three principal roles for both vocal and acting ability. The administrator of Venice’s smaller San Benedetto theatre undertook to meet Verdi’s demands. He promised as many rehearsals as the composer wanted and to present the opera with the same staging and costumes as at the La Fenice premiere. Verdi revised five numbers in the score and on 6 May 1854 La Traviata was acclaimed with wild enthusiasm in the same city where it had earlier been a fiasco. Verdi was well pleased both by the success, and particularly the circumstances and location.
La Traviata is now recognised not only as one of Verdi’s finest operas, but one of the lyric theatre’s greatest music-dramas. Its vocal demands on the eponymous heroine are considerable and diverse between the three acts. The first act demands vocal lightness and coloratura flexibility whist the second act needs a lyrical voice capable of wide expression and some power. But in act three Violetta needs not only the power of a lyrico-spinto voice, but also colour and dramatic intensity as well as a histrionic ability beyond many singers. These qualities are particularly needed as Violetta recites the poignant phrases in Teneste la promessa (You have kept your promise) as she reads Germont’s letter indicating Alfredo’s return and Addio del passato as she realises it’s all too late. Violetta has then to express her joy at seeing Alfredo before colouring her voice as she gives him a portrait of herself to pass to the virgin he will marry before finally raising herself from her bed for one vocal outburst as she collapses and dies in his arms.
From the earliest days of audio recording the role of Violetta in La Traviata has drawn the greatest sopranos of their generation to set down their interpretations. In the days of 78s Rosa Ponselle set the highest standard (Naxos 8.110 032/3) whilst in the age of LP Maria Callas’s recordings from the 1950s have induced much critical debate. Her only studio recording was made in 1953 for Cetra, now re-mastered by Naxos (review). In this performance her singing is freshly voiced, whilst her interpretation of the florid music of the first act, the lyricism of the second and the drama of the third is superbly portrayed. Her other recorded performances derive from live occasions at La Scala in 1955 with Giulini conducting (EMI CMS 6 66450-2) and Lisbon under Ghione (EMI CDS 5 56330-2). Both these recordings have Callas singing with quality colleagues, unlike on the Cetra recording, but both suffer from stage noises and inferior sound. It also has to be said that the diva shows some vocal deterioration by the time of the second of those live performances despite a highly admired histrionic interpretation.
As to stereo recordings of La Traviata, my latest count shows in excess of twenty. I personally continue to be fond of Joan Sutherland’s first recording made in 1962. She is in fresh voice although her diction could be better. A major appeal of this recording is its completeness; all cabalettas and verses are included. Another joy is Carlo Bergonzi’s wonderful tone, phrasing and legato as Alfredo (Decca 470 440-2 and as a Double Decca on 460 759-2). Fortunately for the recorded legacy Bergonzi’s quality interpretation is repeated with his presence on the 1967 RCA recording alongside Montserrat Caballé’s affecting Violetta and Sherrill Milnes as an impressive Germont. For sheer beauty of vocalisation of Verdi’s score this recording takes some beating, but it is let down by Prêtre’s conducting (review). RCA’s earlier, 1960 recording, features Anna Moffo in her signature role. It has been reissued in superbly re-mastered and hybrid SACD/CD form. The recording sounds better than it ever did on LP or on earlier CD issues. It suffers the theatre cuts common at the time and the diva lacks the vocal vitality that others convey. Richard Tucker as Alfredo is no match for Bergonzi or Domingo (review). What Prêtre lacks as a conductor both in supporting his singers and conveying the pathos in the preludes and last act, Carlos Kleiber has in profusion in his 1977 recording with Ileana Cotrubas a fragile and affecting Violetta and Domingo an ardent Alfredo; Milnes reprises his fine Germont (DG 445 469-2).
Pavarotti fans had to wait for a recording of his Alfredo until Decca’s 1980 digital recording with Sutherland by a then too matronly Violetta and Manuguerra a coarse Germont (430 491-2). He did get the opportunity to reprise the role in 1991 alongside the Violetta of Cheryl Studer under James Levine’s baton and recorded in the Manhattan Center, New York with the Met orchestra and chorus, all well caught (DG 435 797-2). Studer gives an appealing, vocally secure and distinctive rendering in all three acts. Pavarotti still has plenty of sap in his tone alongside the addition of some vocal coarseness. A sixty-five minutes’ long highlights CD had the virtue of limiting Juan Pons’ monochromic and flaccid Germont (DG 437 726-2). Three years later, reviews of Richard Eyre’s production at London’s Covent Garden, featuring Angela Gheorghiu’s debut as Violetta and Solti conducting his first ever La Traviata, caused the BBC to alter their schedules to transmit a performance. Gheorghiu looks, sings and acts wonderfully, albeit somewhat carefully in the act 1 coloratura. Her presence on stage for most of the opera vitiates Frank Lopardo’s penny-plain Alfredo and Leo Nucci’s stiff Germont. Available in both audio (Decca 448 119-2) and DVD formats (review) it is, in my view, a performance better seen than merely heard. Other favourite sopranos who are worth hearing as Violetta, and at super bargain price, include Victoria de los Angeles (review) and Mirella Freni (review).
Universal, on their DG label, have followed the earlier Decca example of issuing a live performance in both audio and video formats with the recording of the latest wonder couple, Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón, as the lovers in Willy Decker’s modern dress minimalist staging from the 2005 Salzburg Festival. Although Netrebko’s coloratura in act 1 could be better, hers is a visually attractive and vibrantly acted Violetta whilst Villazón’s Alfredo is an outstanding histrionic interpretation. Thomas Hampson’s wooden acting and inexpressive singing as Germont is a drawback. The physicality and vibrancy of the acting of the two lovers make this performance better seen than heard despite the production idiosyncrasies and sparse sets. (review). When La Gheorghiu made a temperamental withdrawal from Pier Luigi Pizzi’s 2003 production at Madrid’s Teatro Real, it gave Parisian Norah Ansellem her big chance and she has gone on to reprise her interpretation at some of the best addresses. The split-stage used by the producer raises more questions than issues it illuminates, at least as far as the DVD is concerned. Supposedly set in Second World War Paris, the odd Nazi uniform passes with barely a notice. José Bros is more than adequate as Alfredo, whilst Renato Bruson’s Germont, well past his vocal sell-by date, is a superbly acted portrayal (review).
Other recent DVD issues include that from Venice’s La Fenice of the re-opening production of 2004 after a decade of closure following a disastrous fire. Unaccountably, the theatre gave the conducting of the re-opening production to Maazel, never a sympathetic Verdian, rather than their Musical Director the late Marcello Viotti. Patricio Cioffi is an affecting Violetta although not without some signs of strain. Robert Carson’s production has a crude mime of Violetta laying on a bed as men pass by thrusting money at her. With Alfredo as a society photographer, and Germont looking like a company director, the audience voice their disapproving view at the end (review). This La Fenice version is for the ultra modernist only. Peter Hall’s 1987 Glyndebourne production presents a more traditional view of the opera in opulent sets and costumes by John Gunter. Maria McLaughlin’s emotionally searing Violetta is memorable. Walter McNeil and Brent Ellis, like her, are not international names but the end-product represents the reality of both the music and the drama of Verdi’s La Traviata. The performance was filmed without audience and with added sound effects (Arthaus Musik 100 112). When I saw the production on tour in October 1988 it featured the then 25-year-old Roberto Alagna as Alfredo. The tour was his debut in the role and his tightly-focused, carefully controlled and seamless tenor singing drew wide praise.
A few years after the glorious trio of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata, Verdi, when asked to name his own favourite among his operatic compositions, is said to have replied speaking as an amateur, La Traviata, as a professional, Rigoletto. La Traviata is the probably the best-loved opera in the Verdi canon, notwithstanding that several of his later operas surpass this great middle period trio in terms of musical inventiveness and sophistication. But only Aida has ever approached that trio in terms of popularity.
Even as Verdi was completing La Traviata, the pressure cooker of Italian politics was on the boil yet again. A badly conceived attempted coup by the republican Mazzini to overthrow the Austrian garrison in Milan was easily thwarted and harsh reprisals followed. The attempt did irreparable damage to the cause espoused by republicans such as Verdi and others for the creation of a united Italian Republic. The republicans increasingly began to look towards Piedmont and its King, Vittorio Emanuele. Based on Turin, Piedmont was the only state independent of Austria in northern Italy. As such it had its own army and could purchase arms and train troops. When Vittorio Emanuele signed a Bill in the Piedmont Parliament, supported by a certain Count Cavour, to curtail the powers of the Catholic Church in Piedmont, monarchists and republicans began to make common cause. It was the start of a sequence of events that, several years later, would impinge significantly on the continuity of Verdi’s compositional creativity.
Back in Busseto after the Traviata premiere, Verdi was in extended correspondence with Antonio Somma, an Italian lawyer and playwright, about an opera based on King Lear. Somma had never written a libretto and Verdi commissioned him to do so, based on Shakespeare’s Lear, much as he had done with Cammarano three years earlier. Again the project came to nothing as Verdi turned his mind towards his contract with the Paris Opéra for a five act grand opera including a ballet. The 1830s and 1840s were the golden age at The Opéra under the management of Veron. The musical pillars of the Paris establishment were Auber, Meyerbeer and Halévy who developed opera with greater complexity and on a scale than had not been seen before. Sooner or later every aspiring Italian composer of worth wanted to make his debut there. Verdi’s first invitation had come in 1845, shortly after the production of Giovanna d’Arco when he was fully committed in Italy; he held out for two years before accepting a definite engagement. Finally, he signed a contract to provide an opera for the autumn of 1847. Verdi followed the example of Rossini and Donizetti in modifying an earlier work, grafting onto it a new plot, composing new numbers where necessary and adding a ballet. The challenge of Paris and its musical standards keep Verdi interested in The Opéra, whilst Jérusalem, a revision of I Lombardi, was sufficiently successful to keep the theatre management interested in the composer. Jérusalem was to have been followed by a completely new work by Verdi. However, the dramatic political upheavals in France, leading to the Second Empire in 1848 made that impossible, and Verdi did not return to Paris until 1852 when, during the gestation of Il Trovatore, he returned to negotiate a new contract. The Opéra were desperate for a new grand opera to be premiered in 1855 during the Paris Exhibition of that year. Fully aware of his own value in the international market, Verdi drove a hard bargain. The full resources of the theatre were to be put at his disposal and no other new opera was to be performed at the theatre that year. Further, Verdi would choose all the cast himself and there would be forty performances guaranteed. The composer was also to enjoy the services of Eugène Scribe as librettist. Scribe had been librettist for Halévy and Meyerbeer for their ‘Grand Operas’ prepared for The Paris Opéra.
When Verdi and Strepponi travelled to Paris in October 1853, the scheduled date for the new opera was more than a year and a half away, but already there was no agreement with Scribe as to the subject. Scribe tried to palm Verdi off with a libretto that had been turned down by Halévy and later partially set to music by the then ailing Donizetti as Le Duc d’Albe. Even when the subject of Les Vêpres Siciliennes, Verdi’s 20th title, was settled, his composition was hindered by Scribe who persistently failed to provide Verdi with a dramatically taut final act. The composer demanded release from the contract, as its terms as originally stipulated by him had not been met. Eventually matters were resolved and the composer and poet reconciled their differences with the plot being set in Palermo, Sicily, in 1292 at the time of the French occupation. The five act opera, complete with ballet, was premiered on 13 June 1855 and was well received. It gained the approbation and admiration of fellow composers Adolphe Adam and Hector Berlioz; the latter’s opinion carrying particular weight. Although Les Vêpres Siciliennes received more performances in the season than the contracted number, Verdi’s first ‘Grand Opera’ had a chequered fate and was not destined to enter the charmed circle of Paris repertory Grand Opera such as Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots or Halévy’s La Juive. Although there was a revival in Paris in 1863, for which Verdi wrote several new arias, it was not heard in France in its original language after 1865.
The first Paris performances over, Verdi organised an Italian translation,I Vespri Siciliani, only to discover that the subject was not acceptable in Italian theatres. In the first productions in Italy the location of the action and the title were changed. Nonetheless the opera made an auspicious start in Italy with nine productions in different theatres during the 1855-56 carnival season. The ballet was eventually dropped in Italian performances. But it was not until the liberation and unification of Italy that either the original French title or the equivalent Italian was permitted.
In the present day, the work has never achieved great popularity in either French or Italian, a fact represented in the dearth of recordings. Until the issue by Opera Rara of the original French version of Les Vêpres Siciliennes (review) the workhad only been heard on record in its Italian manifestation, I Vespri Siciliani. The Opera Rara issue has the virtue of Francophone singers in the person of Jaqueline Brumaire as Hélène and Jean Bonhomme as Henri and a strong de Montfort from Neilson Taylor, a baritone rather surprisingly not heard elsewhere on record. In its Italian form the opera has fared little better on record than its French original. For long enough the 1974 RCA recording featuring Placido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes, Ruggero Raimondi and Martina Arroyo, replacing a seriously ill Montserrat Caballé, stood alone in the catalogue (RCA 80370). Although all the male principals sing well, with Raimondi a suitably sonorous and implacable Procida, Levine’s conducting is a little superficial and Arroyo is not always at her best. An EMI issue of a live La Scala performance under Muti features Chris Merritt, Giorgio Zancanaro and Ferruccio Furlanetto with Cheryl Studer as Elena. Of the men only Zancanaro matches his RCA rival, whilst Cheryl Studer surpasses Arroyo. Muti’s conducting of the ballet music, the nearest Verdi ever came to symphonic composition, is amongst the maestro’s best efforts (EMI CDS 7 54043-2).
The La Scala performance under Muti is available on DVD (Opus Arte OA LS 3008 D). Giorgio Zancanaro’s tall elegance as the French Governor, and ruler of Sicily in Pier Luigi Pizzi’s sparse sets, is impressive. The visual aspects improve the impression of Ferruccio Furlanetto’s vocally lightweight impact as Procida; a substitute late in the day for Paata Burchuladze, who was sent packing by Muti. His tonal colour, vocal weight and sonority have since increased significantly. An alternative DVD conducted by Chailly, of a performance at Bologna in 1986, is available from Warner (review). This features Susan Dunn as a vocally resplendent Elèna. Regrettably, her acting does not match her vocal skills whilst Leo Nucci is no visual or vocal match for Zancanaro on the La Scala issue. Chailly’s conducting is first rate and contributes significantly to the dramatic impetus of the performance.
Without doubt Les Vêpres Siciliennes, in whichever language, lacks the dramatic tautness and richness of concentrated melodic invention of its immediate predecessors. It is possible that Verdi could not sustain his optimum level of creativity over five acts. Equally, the battles he had to fight with the bureaucracy within The Opéra, which was noted by Berlioz, together with the lack of professionalism of Scribe, who could not even be bothered to attend rehearsals to make adjustments when required, must have had an effect on his creativity. But the best music within the opera is that from the pen of the mature Verdi. Several solo arias have his distinctive stamp, whilst the confrontations between Governor Montfort and the rebel Henri, who turns out to be his son, are of the highest quality. Whilst Verdi is renowned for his operas examining the father-daughter relationship, Les Vêpres Siciliennes is one of the few in which the composer focuses on that between father and son. Different facets of this relationship are to be found in his 6th opera, I due Foscari (1844), his 11th, I Masnadieri (1847) and 15th Luisa Miller (1847). Montforte is, however, the very first of Verdi’s lonely figures of authority who have to weigh their love of wife, grand-daughter or son alongside their duties to the state. Successors are Simon Boccanegra (1857) and King Philip in Verdi’s other Grand Opera for Paris, Don Carlos (1864).
After the premiere of Les Vêpres Siciliennes Verdi did not immediately return to Busseto in his usual way. Instead he was concerned to safeguard his interests in England and at the Paris Théâtre Italien where several of his operas had been given in pirated versions. When he did return home in December 1855 he had no firm contract for a further opera. Perhaps he was heeding Giuseppina’s earlier plea not to drive himself so hard as they had adequate resources for their needs. However, Verdi had purchased more land in Busseto to enlarge his farm at Sant’Agata and was aware that he would have to take up his compositional pen to clear his debts. He had three possible projects on the horizon. These included King Lear, and possible revisions of La battaglia di Legnano and Stiffelio; the proposed revision of the latter would involve Piave, now resident stage director of Venice’s La Fenice.
In March 1856 Verdi travelled to Venice to witness the triumph of La Traviata at the La Fenice, the very stage where its premiere had been a fiasco three years before. The following month Piave made an extended return visit to Busseto where Verdi reluctantly agreed to his suggestion to exchange the Protestant Minister in Stiffelio into an English crusader and add an entirely new act. The premiere of the revision was at first envisaged for the autumn of 1856 in Bologna. This was not to be as Verdi signed a contract with the La Fenice to compose an entirely new work for the 1857 Carnival Season to a libretto written by Piave. The title of the new opera was to be Simon Boccanegra, Verdi’s 21st, based like Il Trovatore on a play by Gutiérez.
The composition of Simon Boccanegra did not proceed smoothly. Verdi had to go to Paris and sue over pirated editions of his works at the Théâtre Italien. He lost the case, but was more than adequately compensated by a production of a French translation of Il Trovatore at The Opéra. For Il Trouvère, as it became, Verdi added the statutory ballet music and made a number of alterations to suit local tastes and conditions. Meanwhile, even the ever-compliant and uncomplaining Piave was getting desperate over the composer’s constant delaying of his return to Italy and Venice to complete the orchestration of Simon Boccanegra and supervise rehearsals.Given the circumstances it is hardly surprising that at the delayed premiere of the work on 12 March 1857,Simon Boccanegra was deemed a failure. Some blamed the dark nature of the plot, others the experimental nature of the music. It was also a failure in Florence and Milan and ten years after its composition its fortunes reached such a low ebb that Giulio Ricordi, the new power in the publishing family, suggested Verdi revise it. He did so in 1881 at the age of 68 when he considered his composition days over. The time between the original and the revision was even greater than that between the versions of Macbeth, which had been a great success at its premiere. The revision, which is the form in which the opera is performed today, was to all intents and purposes a new opera with major alterations and additions to the dramatic situations. Its audio and video recordings are dealt with in PART 4 of this conspectus.
The lyrical music of the original, and its representation of the Genoese setting, has its own appeal. Gutiérez had been Spanish Consul in Genoa and his treatment of an episode in Genoese history struck a chord with Verdi who made the city his winter quarters for nearly fifty years and bought property there. The city streets and piazzas bear the names made familiar by the opera, whilst the sea setting is invoked in the introductory music of both the prologue and act 1. Once again Verdi enthusiasts are indebted to the BBC performances of the composer’s original thoughts and Opera Rara’s issue of them on CD (review). First broadcast on New Year’s Day 1976 this performance of the original Simon Boccanegra features Sesto Bruscantini in the title role, André Turp as Adorno, Josella Ligi as Maria and the Welsh bass Gwynne Howell as Fiesco. It is a pity that the BBC did not cast the Yorkshire baritone Peter Glossop as Boccanegra as they did in the title role of their Macbeth and as Don Carlo in the original version of La Forza del Destino. Bruscantini, justifiably well known for his buffa interpretations, has not the ideal heft or colour for the more dramatic scenes in Simon Boccanegra. John Matheson is a lyrical and idiomatic conductor.
With Boccanegra and the Parisian lawsuits out of the way, Verdi and Piave turned their minds again to the revision of Stiffelio. The premiere was scheduled for 16 August 1857 to open the new opera house in Rimini, the Teatro Nuovo. As well as having Verdi to direct the production, and Piave to stage it, the performances were to have the benefit of a professional conductor in the person of Angelo Mariani who was rapidly establishing himself as primo in this newly emerging profession. Mariani’s presence enabled Verdi to write three sophisticated choruses, with elaborate part-writing, for new last act. This act, set on the shores of Loch Lomond in Scotland, is entirely new and bears no relationship with the equivalent scene in Stiffelio. Well used to crusaders and the like in the operas of Rossini and Donizetti, and without the complications of a married clergyman, Aroldo Verdi’s 22nd opera was a success. Much of the writing is Verdi 1857 vintage. With five other operas behind him since the composition of Stiffelio, at every comparable point between the two works, except perhaps for the opening scene of Stiffelio, the later Aroldo is superior.
Aroldo reached Vienna, Lisbon, Buenos Aires and New York and survived in Italy until the turn of the century. It has since become, together with Alzira, the least performed of all Verdi’s operas. The rediscovery of the more dramatically vibrant and cohesive Stiffelio, although musically inferior, will do nothing to change this situation. For over twenty years Aroldo was represented in the catalogue by an April 1979 live performance given in New York’s Carnegie Hall with Eve Queler conducting. This features Montserrat Caballé as an impressive Mina. The role is more dramatic than Lina in Stiffelio and her entry is electric. A particular vocal highlight from Caballé is the opening scene of act 2, which she had included on her 1967 LP titled Verdi Rarities, a particular favourite of mine and since issued on CD. The male cast are adequate but not as impressive as the diva herself whilst the sound has its rough patches (M2K 79328).
To mark the centenary of the composer’s death in 2001, and presumably to bring their early Verdi opera series to a conclusion, Philips issued studio recordings of both Alzira and Aroldo. Fabio Luisi conducts both with an ease of Verdian style that matches Lamberto Gardelli on the original early Verdi series from the label, with perhaps a touch more dramatic bite that is wholly appropriate in Aroldo. What is also appropriate in view of the choruses that Verdi added to the final act is the use of Italian choral forces, those from Florence’s Maggio Musicale. Recorded in December 1997 the principal soloists, Carol Vaness as Mina, Neil Shicoff as Aroldo, Anthony Michaels-Moore as Egberto and Roberto Scandiuzzi as the hermit Briano are of uniformly good standard. Vaness might not have the vocal élan or mezza voce steadiness of Caballé, but her fuller tone and colour are used to good effect. If the male soloists do not erase memories of Bergonzi, Cappuccilli and Raimondi that is to hearken back to Verdi singers who bestrode the fach a generation before this recording was made. Sufficient that the singers do justice to Verdi’s neglected music as does the recording, which is far superior to the earlier issue. A colleague’s review can be found here.
With all other business out of the way, Verdi turned his mind to the contract he had signed with the San Carlo in Naples. This was for an un-named opera for the 1857-1858 Carnival Season. Somma had completed the libretto of King Lear and if the right cast could be assembled this was the intended subject. Verdi considered Marietta Piccolomini ideal for Cordelia as he imagined the role, and whilst in Paris had broached the issue with the singer. She was enthusiastic, but Verdi drew back and she sought work elsewhere. The composer used her non-availability in Naples as an excuse to drop the subject of King Lear. Five years before his death, when he offered all his material on the subject to Mascagni, Verdi admitted to the younger man that the scene in which King Lear finds himself on the heath terrified me. Perhaps Verdi, even with his genius, had self-doubts as to whether he could put on paper that scene and the totality of the musical drama that was in his mind. A King Lear from Verdi, a project that occupied much of his thoughts in the 1850s, was never to be.
Verdi failed to meet his June 1857 contract date with the San Carlo to provide a synopsis of the chosen plot. He also rebuffed their blandishment that whereas he might find a better Cordelia their contracted baritone, tenor and bass were of the highest class for a King Lear. By the September the theatre management were getting restive and turned down suggestions for Verdi to personally supervise and direct a revival of Aroldo, Boccanegra or an amended La Battaglia del Legnano as an alternative. The theatre did not consider these proposals to be a fulfilment of his contract and Verdi hurriedly cast around for another subject. He considered Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas but with time pressing he settled on an adaptation of an existing five-act libretto by none other than Eugène Scribe. Auber had already set this to music five years before for the Paris Opéra with the title Gustave III, où Le Bal Masque. It was a subject that had tempted Bellini and like many of Scribe’s libretti was based on an actual historical event, the assassination in 1792 of Gustavus III of Sweden at a masked ball in the Stockholm opera house. To explain the event Scribe had added a fictitious love affair between the King and the wife of his secretary. Given contemporary events in Italy and Europe, and that Naples was part of a kingdom; Verdi was not surprised that the local censors demanded a change of locale. But they demanded much more besides, including transfer to a pre-Christain age. Verdi accepted a change of location, and the King to become a Duke, but he insisted on a period such as that of Louis XVI’s court. These accepted changes were submitted to the censor when Verdi arrived in Naples in January 1858. Any chance of their acceptance went with the news of Felice Orsini’s attempt on the life of Napoleon III of France in Paris on 13 January. The Naples Chief of Police ruled that the opera text would have to be re-written in its entirety to preclude any dancing on stage and the murder must be off-stage.
In the ensuing impasse the San Carlo management decided another poet would re-set the opera to an entirely new libretto meeting all the local legal and censorial requirements. Verdi refused to have anything to do with the new libretto and the San Carlo sued him for breach of contract. Verdi counterclaimed for damages and had much popular support in Naples. The case was settled out of court with the theatre management charges dropped on condition that Verdi returned in the autumn to present a revival of Simon Boccanegra. During the legal brouhaha Verdi cast around for an alternative theatre for his opera and noted that a play titled Gustavus III had been given in Rome. He initiated secret negotiations with impresario Jacovacci to premiere his opera Un Ballo in Maschera, his 23rd opera, in that city subject to the approval of the Papal Censor. After some prevarication the censors agreed to accept the principles of the plot and the action, provided the location was removed from Europe to North America at the time of the English domination. In this revised scenario Gustavus became Riccardo Earl of Warwick, Governor of Boston, whilst his secretary became Renato, a Creole. Un Ballo in Maschera was premiered at the Teatro Apollo, Rome, on 17 February 1859 to wide acclaim.
Of all Verdi operas Un Ballo in Maschera is the one most concerned with love and conjugal faithfulness although the theme does also run through the later Don Carlos. No love duet in all Verdi matches that of Riccardo and Amelia in act 2 of the opera as he goes to meet her at the gallows field where she has gone to pick the herb to cure her of the illicit love. The role of Riccardo is a dream for a lyric tenor with good legato, a touch of heft and capacity for vocal brio. It requires a greater degree of vocal elegance than the Duke in Rigoletto whilst also requiring the singer to express the frivolousness of the role’s character which is so clearly expressed in the music. Amelia, the object of Riccardo’s love, requires a lyrico-spinto soprano who can match the tenor for ardent phrasing in the act 2 love duet, cut through the textures and soar above the orchestra in the preceding aria. It is a role that has appealed to some admired singers of Brünnhilde. Add a baritone part with both a lyrically expressive and a dramatically vehement aria, and a low mezzo or contralto as the gypsy fortune-teller, and Caruso’s claims for Il Trovatore begin to sound tame. But Verdi was not satisfied with a quartet of principals; his vision included that for a leggiero-soprano for the role of Riccardo’s page, Oscar. Oscar has a vital part to play in the evolution of the plot. The role requires a light voice of vivacity and lilting musicality and, in a stage production, visual as well as vocal pertness.
Fortunately for the recorded legacy, Un Ballo in Maschera’s consummate melodic music so illuminates the plot that the work has appealed to conductors and singers alike, all keen to set down their interpretations for posterity. The leading opera conductors of the post-Second World War period have taken their interpretation into the studio at least once, as have the leading tenors with the notable exception of Jussi Björling. Enthusiasts who wish to hear his interpretation of a role that suited his voice have to tolerate the acoustics of live performance from the Met in 1940 which has appeared from various sources from time to time. The earliest studio recording to make waves was focused on the soprano Maria Callas rather than her tenor partner Giuseppe Di Stefano. Recorded in 1956 it was the last of five Verdi roles she recorded in the studio for the Columbia label, now part of EMI Classics. Like her recordings of Aida, and the Il Trovatore and Forza del Destino Leonoras, it shows her voice to be really a size too small and vocally inconsistent in the spinto aspect of these roles. That she could, and did, inflect insights into the facets and dilemmas of the characters she was portraying is indisputable and views of these virtues over vocal drawbacks must be personal (EMI 7243 5563200). Callas also features alongside Di Stefano as Riccardo in a live performance under Gavazenni recorded the following year. Her performance on this recording has many admirers (EMI 567918 2). Decca went into the studio to record their first stereo set in 1962 with their Wagner duo of Solti on the rostrum and Birgit Nilsson, their Ring Brünnhilde, more Wagnerian than Verdian, as Amelia. Solti drives the drama far too hard and the only virtues of the recording are the immaculate singing of Bergonzi as Riccardo and Cornell MacNeil’s Renato. Fortunately, Bergonzi recorded the role a second time in 1966 for RCA alongside Leontyne Price, the Verdi lyrico-spinto of her generation, as Amelia. Robert Merrill is strong as Renato, Shirley Verrett musical and characterful as Ulrica the gypsy and Reri Grist pert as Oscar. Although Leinsdorf isn’t the Verdian of ones dreams and the recording not of Decca’s standard, this remains my favourite audio version (RCA GD86645).
Of the three later generation tenors, all recorded the tenor lead in Un Ballo in Maschera. Pavarotti twice recorded Riccardo, a role that suits his voice and character well. His 1970 recording features Renata Tebaldi, rather past her best as Amelia, Sherrill Milnes a strong Renato with Bartoletti, a sympathetic Verdian conducting (Double Decca 460 762-2). His second, in 1982, has Margaret Price as a very graceful Amelia and Renato Bruson a characterful secretary all conducted by Solti who shows more signs of sympathy to the composer than his earlier self. The problem casting of Christa Ludwig as Ulrica and the obvious dubbing on of Bruson’s contribution are drawbacks to an otherwise well recorded and enjoyable version. Domingo’s three recordings all find the great tenor in good voice. In the first (1984) he is partnered by the excellent duo of a strong-voiced Martina Arroyo and a resonant Pierro Cappuccilli. The conductor, Ricardo Muti, then supremo of La Scala, hurries the proceedings along rather too fast at times, losing some of the lovely lyricism of the piece albeit gaining dramatic intensity (EMI CMS 5 66510 2). The recording quality of the EMI set is far superior to that found on Domingo’s more sensitively sung second version for DG, conducted by that fine Verdian Claudio Abbado. The Amelia of Ricciarelli is one of her best recordings whilst Bruson’s Renato is vocally expressive. If the occluded ill-balanced recording were not enough of a drawback, the casting of the Russian Obraztsova as Ulrica and Edita Gruberova as Oscar are serious misjudgements (DG Double 453 148 2). Domingo’s best audio interpretation and singing of the role of Riccardo is to be found on the 1989 recording under Karajan. However, neither the Amelia of Josephine Barstow nor the Renato of Leo Nucci lies easily on my ear (DG 477 5641). Whilst José Carreras is often considered the weakest of the three tenors, he is by no means over-parted as Riccardo. Montserrat Caballé, whose expressive singing is commendable, partners Carreras, although an ideal duo in bel canto she lacks the ultimate in vocal heft for a fully convincing portrayal of Verdi’s Amelia. Ingvar Wixell as Renato is rather lacking in warm Italianate tone and to cap all Colin Davis’s conducting lacks any feel for Verdi and at times borders on the turgid (Philips ‘Duo’ 456 316-2). The Teldec recording of 1995 has only the Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera, the conducting of Carlo Rizzi and the Renato of Vladimir Chernov to commend it. For those who heard Rizzi when he conducted the Welsh National Opera production in 1992, and who want an example of his work, the highlights issue of the Teldec recording has been issued on Warner Apex2564 61504-2 (review)
As to DVD, at the time of writing two early 1990s recordings have dominated the market. The first features John Schlesinger’s 1990 Salzburg production. This was to have been conducted by Karajan as on the audio recording from DG featured above but he died during rehearsals. Solti, who had been persona non grata during Karajan’s reign at Salzburg, very benevolently took over and saved the day. Thesets by William Dudley are evocative and sumptuous and move the action back to Sweden. Solti was a more sympathetic Verdian by this date than his earlier self and with Barstow giving a well-acted performance and singing far better than on the audio recording this is a version worth considering (review).
A 1991 recording from the Metropolitan Opera, New York features Piero Faggioni’s traditional production. Again set in Sweden it matches that at Salzburg for opulence. Brian Large directs both performances for video. The Met cast of Pavarotti as an elegantly phrased Gustavus, Aprile Millo as a strong-voiced and well characterised Amelia and Harolyn Blackwell a pert Oscar are good Verdian portrayals. As at Salzburg, Florence Quivar is a firm Ulrica and Nucci a not very impressive secretary vocally or visually. Levine is a little heavy-handed with the orchestra at times and often misses out the joy of the lilting melodies (review). Both the above detailed reviews are by colleagues. A more recent, and less traditional production from Leipzig in 2005 has idiomatic conducting from Riccardo Chailly. Although the singing is never less than adequate it is not of the standard of that at Salzburg or the Met (review). As yet I have seen no sign of either of two earlier Pavarotti performances that exist in video form appearing on DVD. The first, from 1980 and recorded by Unitel from the Met, has the tenor alongside Ricciarelli in Elijah Moshinsky’s production with sets by Peter Wexler. He is in lighter, more flexible and elegant voice than the 1991 recording whilst Giuseppe Patané on the rostrum is more sympathetic to his singers than Levine in 1991. Pavarotti appears again in Abbado’s 1986 performance from Vienna that marked his taking on the Music Directorship of the Vienna State Orchestra. The production by Gianfranco De Bosio has Pavarotti alongside Gabriele Lechner as Amelia and other members of the Vienna Company with Cappuccilli guesting as Renato.
After the premiere of Un Ballo in Maschera with no contracts pressing and with their accommodation booked until the end of the Carnival Season, Verdi and Giuseppina did not immediately return to Busseto. Verdi was made an honorary member of the Accademia Filharmonica Romana and the Rome impresario, Jacovacci, attempted to persuade him to sign a contract for a new opera. Verdi was 46 years old and had composed twenty-three operas in the previous twenty years. Although engaged in litigation in Naples he had not really composed for nearly a year. He announced to a small circle of friends, including Jacovacci, that he had given up composing and intended to return to his farm and enjoy the fruits of his labours in a more relaxed manner. But Italian politics, which had not languished during Verdi’s Naples fiasco, were to make demands on his time and also to help, inadvertently, to tempt him to compose opera once more.
Piedmont and its King were seen in England and elsewhere as the only realistic hope for a united Italy. Cavour, playing a longer game than many appreciated visited Napoleon in France. Some wondered as to Cavour’s strategy, after all France had supported the return of the Pope to Rome when Italian hopes of unification had been on the agenda ten years before. His visit resulted in a treaty by which France would go to the aid of Piedmont in the event of Austrian aggression. Napoleon did not give the assurance out of altruism. There would be a pay back in the future. In the meantime Piedmont rapidly rearmed as hundreds of volunteers entered the Kingdom and Cavour sought to provoke Austria to attack. Austria issued an ultimatum that France considered an aggressive act and French troops were despatched. War technically started on 26 April 1859. Gounod’s Faust had been premiered in Paris a month before. The battle of Magenta was followed by that of Solferino on 24 June, involving three hundred and ten thousand men. Neither battle was decisive but there were popular demonstrations in favour of Napoleon and Vittorio Emmanuele in many towns and states. An armistice and then a treaty between France and Austria, that Cavour considered half a loaf, was signed. Piedmont had little say in the matter and Cavour resigned. Whether concerned about the dangers from war, the political uncertainties or for other reasons, Verdi and Giuseppina were married secretly on 29 August in the Piedmontese village of Collonges-sous-Saléve, near the Swiss border of the province of Savoy.
In August, Verdi’s home state, The Duchy of Parma, had voted first to join with neighbouring Modena and then Piedmont. Verdi was elected to the Assembly in Parma that ratified the vote on 15 September and he went to Turin, as part of a delegation, to meet Vittorio Emmanuele with the petition. He also visited Cavour, in retirement on his estate. The statesman was recalled by Vittorio Emmanuele and manoeuvred Napoleon’s non-intervention while Piedmont merged Northern and Central Italy into one state. The pay back to Napoleon was the ceding to France of the provinces of French-speaking Savoy and Nice. Garibaldi, although an ardent Republican, determined that Italy would be wholly united and with a small body of men began fighting in Sicily before marching, with an ever-increasing army, to Naples whilst proclaiming he would go on to Rome and make it the capital of a united Italy. Afraid of Garibaldi’s republicanism Piedmont, with French approval, annexed some Papal States. Garibaldi, in an act of altruism, although not without rancour, ceded his conquests to the unification refusing any honour or reward. Although still without Papal Rome and occupied Venice Cavour called for elections to a National Parliament. At Cavour’s personal insistence that his presence, as a pre-eminent Italian, would bring lustre to the Parliament’s proceedings, Verdi stood and was elected as a Deputy. With his estate to manage and Parliamentary duties in Turin, opera composition was, in the immediate future, very much on the back-burner. But Verdi was to live for another forty years and if circumstances, situation and not least the fee were to his liking, he would be tempted to the theatre again. The resultant five new operas, two major revisions and the great Requiem are covered in part four of this survey of Verdi’s life and operatic works.