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2004: Il corsaro


Program notes by George W. Martin


Any opera based on a literary work will pose the question: Does the music add something to the poem or play? And if it does not, then the opera likely will not survive. Verdi’s twelfth opera, Il corsaro (1848), based on Byron’s poem The Corsair, soon dropped from the repertory, but not on this account. For it had injected drama and confrontation into a narrative poem, substituted musical color for many purely descriptive stanzas, and, through pitch, harmony and orchestration, rounded somewhat the story’s flat characters. It disappeared chiefly because: the year of its premiere, 1848, was a year of political upheaval in Europe; its music often was not in the form audiences expected; it had bad luck in its initial production and reviews; and, most important, within five years it was pushed aside by Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La traviata.


Byron’s poem, first published in 1814, was for forty years immensely popular throughout Europe. Not only did it inspire Berlioz to compose his overture Le Corsaire, but in Italy both Giovanni Pacini and Alessandro Nini wrote operas on it, and more to the point, a choreographer, Giovanni Galzerani, made a five-act ballet of it (1826) for La Scala, which stayed in the repertory there for twenty years. Revived in 1842, when Nabucco had its premiere in the house, the ballet surely was seen by Verdi.


The poem presents a Byronic hero – “There was a laughing devil in his sneer” – a type much loved in the Romantic Age. As retold in the opera (with few changes from the poem), a young man, Corrado, who has committed some terrible, unspecified crimes and become a social outcast, lives with a pirate band on an island in the Aegean. He moans of his lot, loves a girl, Medora, whom he leaves to attack a Muslim Pasha (an unhistorical event), is captured, and then rescued by the leading lady of the harem, Gulnara. She hates the Pasha, for “Love can flower only in freedom,” falls in love with Corrado, and in order to free him from prison murders the Pasha. Corrado declares that he cannot love her, he loves Medora, but he will help her to escape from the Pasha’s castle. Returning with Gulnara to his island, he discovers that Medora, thinking he has died, has taken poison; and in a final, beautiful, extended trio for tenor and two sopranos, she dies. Whereupon Corrado throws himself off a cliff. Curtain.


Byron describes his hero:


That man of loneliness and mystery, –
Scarce seen to smile and seldom heard to sigh . . .
His soul was changed, before his deeds had driven
Him forth to war with man and forfeit heaven.
Warp’d by the world in Disappointment’s school . . .
Fear’d, shunn’d, belied, ere youth had lost her force,
He hated man too much to feel remorse . . .
He knew himself a villain, but he deem’d
The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.


Yet, Byron declares, “None are all evil,” and grants his hero extraordinary courage and a great capacity for love.


To modern ears, the poem may sound monotonous, as the narrator’s voice runs on for fifty-seven long stanzas. The opera conversely gains by turning the scenes described – he said, she said – into confrontations, articulated by contrasting voices. Even so, the opera, like the poem, tells a story less than it depicts an attitude much favored in Romantic literature: the social misfit, the misunderstood hero who yet has courage and a heart.


In both poem and opera, the story is only lightly sketched, with many details left unexplained: Corrado’s former crimes, the whereabouts of the Aegean islands, the gist of the news that starts the expedition against the Muslims, or any reason for Corrado to appear in disguise before the Pasha.


In 1848 Verdi was criticized because the opera was short (ninety-five minutes of music), but today, its concision seems a virtue, for in musically depicting attitude rather than plot it is less an opera than “a tone-poem.” For although with voices, in its portrayal of Corrado and his two ladies, it is more akin in spirit, say, to Richard Strauss’ orchestral tone-poem Don Juan (1888), than to the operas Verdi fashioned from the carefully plotted French plays that underlay Rigoletto or La traviata. Verdi particularly liked the opera’s prison duet and its final trio, a judgment with which most later critics have agreed while also praising many other passages for their expressive melody and spontaneity. Listen closely. A reward awaits you.


George W. Martin has written several books on Verdi, including his often reissued biography, Verdi, His Music, Life and Times.


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