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The Verdi Concert


Program notes by George W. Martin


Five days after the death of Giuseppe Verdi, La Scala performed a concert in his honor. On March 24, 2001 Sarasota Opera re-created that concert to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death. Just as the librettist Giuseppe Giacosa did at the La Scala concert, noted Verdi biographer George W. Martin spoke on Verdi and his importance to our community.


Signore e Signori,


I stand here in place of Giuseppe Giacosa – in his day a distinguished playwright, but to us probably better known as one of Puccini’s librettists for Boheme, Tosca, and Butterfly. 


Verdi died on 27 January 1901, and five days later La Scala presented in his honor a Commemorative Concert, the same concert that Maestro DeRenzi, for the same purpose, is recreating for you here, tonight. And at this point in the La Scala program, the music stopped, and Giacosa gave a speech, “Parole Commemorative,” on the greatness of Verdi. He began modestly, “What can I say that you do not already have in mind?”


Then, after making the attempt, he summarized his feelings about Verdi: “Il grande Maedstro e morto, ma… but… we can still appreciate him because his art continually renews itself through its integrity.” And he closed with the cry: “Gloria al nome di Giuseppe Verdi.”


As Giacosa’s substitute, I, too, fear the difficulty of finding anything new to say about Verdi. But like Giacosa I will try, taking as my theme Giacosa’s thought that though Verdi is dead, his art survives because of his integrity. By “integrità” I think Giacosa meant both honesty of point of view and consistency in presenting it. Verdi’s work, like his personality, is all of a piece. 

But first, to bridge the century between us, the living, and our long-dead counterparts at La Scala, let me compress for you, into a single paragraph, a hundred years of operatic history. In 1901, the year of Verdi’s death, outside of Italy at least, he was not much admired. The cognoscenti might pay lip service to the merits of Otello and Falstaff, but they dismissed Aida as “Flashy” or “empty,” and Trovatore as “absurd”. Traviata and Rigoletto were said to be spoiled by a “guitar-like orchestra,” and La Forza and Don Carloswere merely titles in a catalog of works. Then, after the shock of World War I, a renaissance began, sparked in Italy chiefly by Toscanini, and in Germany chiefly by Franz Werfel – he of the Song of Bernadette – and by the late 1930s Macbeth, Boccanegra, and La forza were re-entering the repertories of companies around the world. After World War II, Don Carlos became one of the most performed of Verdi’s operas, and Nabucco and other “early Verdi” operas returned to the stage and were found to be exciting. Today, in London, New York, and Sarasota, companies are embarked on cycles of his complete works, and in January of this year, to mark the centennial of his death, round the world opera companies and orchestras performed his Requiem. All this happened. Why?


I leave the demonstration of the musical reasons for the renaissance – Verdi’s melodies, rhythms, and orchestration – to Maestro DeRenzi and his colleagues. And I will offer you, as a non-musical reason for the renaissance, a brief speculation on another aspect of Verdi’s integrity, his view of life. 

Notice first: All twenty-eight of his operas concern human beings. Granted, in some of the early operas the characters are cardboard, but Verdi thought of them as real, tried to present them as real, and failed for lack of experience and art. But in all his operas, to the best of his abilities, he presents real people in real situations. 


Unlike his great contemporary to the north of the Alps, Wagner, Verdi, to express his ideas on life, love, and death, never turned to myths, or Gods, or heroes, or animals. He never saw evil, for example, as some nameless fear, lurking in the dark woods, such as the monsters in the Scandinavian saga Beowulf, or the dragon Fafner, whom Wagner created for his Ring, along with talking birds, mermaids, and magic potions. For Verdi, evil always was personal and human. My distress is caused by your greed, your ambition, your betrayal. Thus, in setting Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Verdi grasped marvelously well the personalities of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but no so well of the witches. They were in the story, so he had to include them, but their ambiguous humanity kept them confusing. Just how real were they? – could they fly through the air? Materialize and disappear? Did they eat, sleep, die? And in his musical realization of them Verdi is less sure, less convincing than in what he composed for the wholly human characters. 


Notice second: In all of Verdi’s operas his principals act, rather than are acted upon. True, the scope of their action maybe limited by events or other people, but within their limited scope, the principals chose their actions and take responsibility for them. Consider, for example, Trovatore. Manrico, leading his bride to the altar, hears that his mother is about to be burned at the stake. So, he chooses to leave his bride to save his mother, a choice that leads directly to his death. Later, to save Manrico, the abandoned bride offers herself to the opera’s villain while secretly taking poison to prevent the hated man’s embrace. Her rescue effort fails. She dies, and Manrico is executed. 


Unquestionably, Verdi had a gloomy view of life, and it permeates most of his operas. Life is hard, he says – but he had reasons to think so, both private and public. His first wife and only children died young, and he had lost many friends in the Italian wars for independence. When told one time there were too many deaths in Trovatore, he exclaimed: “But surely, death is all there is in life. What else is there?”


Well, there is the manner in which a person faces life and, ultimately, death. One can live selfishly, seeking to avoid life’s perils, or one can meet them head-on, with nobility. And in many of his operas Verdi offers as the best, the only worthwhile response to the miseries of life and inevitable death, the noble act. That, at least, is something. 


In his way, Verdi is a preacher. He tells us a story, colors it with his sympathy for those who suffer, and celebrates those who, in difficult circumstances, attempt to do right – in effect, telling us to go and do likewise. But he does not sermonize. He does not go on a length, didactically, dogmatically. Think how swiftly he drops the curtain on his stories. Nor does he promise any salvation or reward for the noble act. In all but a few of his operas, it ends in early death. 


A gloomy point of view? Most decidedly. Yet the very nakedness of the noble act blazed like a sword against the harshness of life. And many people find it thrilling, even comforting, that a major artist can be so exciting and honest. 

Even in his comedy Falstaff, Verdi, though smiling throughout, is a preacher. The opera is comedy, not farce. That is, like Mozart’s Figaro, beneath the laughter there is a view of life intended to leave the audience thinking. In Falstaff the action takes place within a day, and it’s a bad day for adultery. In a mixture of lust and greed the elderly knight, Sir John Falstaff, undertakes to seduce the two Merry Wives of Windsor, and they, disapproving, hold him up to public ridicule. They also befuddle and mock a jealous husband while arranging for a young girl to be married to an appropriate young man rather than to an old, dried-up prune. And if that were all, the opera might be farce, not comedy. But there is more. 


In all the finger-pointing in the final scene, a principle of life is put forward. That is, wrong-doers, shamed by exposure and laughter, after admission of guilt should be readmitted to the community, and life, go on. Ford, the jealous husband, who is also a father defeated in his choice of a son-in-law, invites Falstaff, the would-be seducer of Mrs. Ford, to join the family and friends at his daughter’s wedding feast. And in the fugue that follows, Falstaff is reintegrated into the Windsor community. 


Surely, there is much wisdom and health in such thinking.


But most people, when they think of Verdi, probably think first of an artist who wept for those having to make hard decisions and who could stir audiences to weep with him for others, even unlikely others. Consider, for instance, Traviata, probably the world’s most frequently performed opera. Violetta, who lives by selling her favors to rich men, has a chance for true love with a young man, Alfredo. She takes it, but then Alfredo’s father tells her the liaison, however true the love, is preventing the marriage of Alfredo’s younger sister. The family of the girl’s fiancée won’t allow the marriage until Violetta’s liaison with Alfredo is ended. So Violetta, taking responsibility for her past life and breaking with Alfredo, gives up her one chance at true love so that a young girl, entirely blameless, will not lose hers. And Violetta’s act leads directly to her death. Clearly, Verdi thought Violetta made the right choice, and he celebrates her. 


Small wonder he finds an audience for his stories! Listen to him now as Violetta – her choice made, her death approaching – enters her last half-hour of her life. Hear him. 


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


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