Saturday, July 11, 2009

I love art when it is presented in a dignified way...

Since I ended my last entry with a reference to Shakespeare, vis-a-vis the two greatest operatic Bardolators, Berlioz and Verdi, it seems natural to pick up the exploration of Verdi "in his own words" with some of his thoughts on his first Shakespearean masterpiece, Macbeth. The first excerpt offers insight into everything from academic practice to the difference in trumpet timbres in 19th century Europe. The fine points of National schools of musical interpretation are both too broad and too specialized for my aims here; nevertheless, this a classic example of why Verdi's letters are indispensable.

[on the 1865 revision of Macbeth, for Paris] "I beg you, keep my instrumentation exactly as it is…You will laugh when you hear I did a fugue for the battle scene!!! A fugue? I, who hate everything that stinks of school, and it is almost thirty years since I last wrote one!!! But I will tell you that in this case, even that musical form can be just right. The themes & counterthemes that rush after each other, the shock of the dissonances, the racket, etc. etc. can express a battle rather well. Ah, if you only had our trumpets that are so full and brilliant!!! Those piston trumpets of yours [in Paris] are neither fish nor fowl…"

One of Verdi's defining characteristics as a musical dramatist is his knack for adapting the form to suit the content. Macbeth is a classic case in point. If we were to ascribe to primo ottocento norms (1st 1/2 of the 19th c), then we would need to cast a Prima Donna soprano, a Primo Uomo Tenore, etc, etc. If Verdi did not entirely dispense with these norms, again, he expanded, enlarged, and revitalized them. Thus we can marvel, in Verdi scholar Roger Parker's words: "as ever with Verdi, the alterations make the model change before our very ears." Macbeth is one of the first great "Verdi baritone" roles. An operatic hero replete with the Shakespearean "tragic flaw." But wait! is manifestation of said tragic flaw--ie: ambition--really that of Lady MacBeth?

[insert deconstructionalist/Derridaen/feminist/post-modern/new-musicology papers here]. In addition to the great baritone title role, Verdi creates a dramatic soprano role in Lady M that has defied category and stretched the boundaries of leading operatic ladies since its inception. But let's hear what Verdi had to say about his Macbeth:

"Take it as a rule there are three roles in this opera, and there can only be three: Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, the Chorus of Witches…No matter what you do, you will never create anything very important out of the role of Macduff [the Primo Tenore]. On the contrary, the more one emphasizes him, the more obvious one makes his vacuousness. He only becomes a hero when the opera is over. However, he has enough music to make his mark if he has a beautiful voice, but there is no need to give him one extra note."

Interesting to note Verdi settled on Macbeth and tabled (the much less enduring) I Masnadieri when he learned his tenor, Fraschini (see previous entry) was not available. Thus another example of how a creative genius attended to the practical of the everyday, made aesthetic decisions based on prosaic realities, and adapted to his environment without compromising his standards and ideals.

Yet, as is always the case, the standards of taste, popularity, and thus critical approval are subject to compromise and any such change in the proverbial weather. Verdi found himself caught in the shifting currents of the 19th century, as the Bel Canto style receded into obsolescence while the rising tide of Wagner and the new Gesanftkunstwerk spread to all corners of the European musical globe. As Verdi's career progressed, so did he: while never a revolutionary, he continued to work within the tradition of 19th c. Italian opera, constantly expanding and exploding its borders to create an original and enduring body of work.

[on the critic’s dismissal of the “passé” cabalettas]: "It’s merely that it’s now become the fashion to shout that we don’t want to listen to cabalettas. That’s just as much a mistake as when people wanted only cabalettas. They cry out against conventionality only to give up one sort for another. Oh, what utter sheep!"

[on the Don Carlos reviews] "So I am an almost perfect Wagnerite! But if the reviewers had paid a bit of attention, they would have recognized that the same intent was there in the Ernani trio, the sleepwalking scene of Macbeth, and in many other pieces. But the question is not whether Don Carlos belongs to the same system, but whether the music is good or bad. That question is neat, simple, and above all, just."

Yet to the end, he was micromanaging details, vigilant on the practical details and decisions he rarely entrusted to others, and always trenchant and insightful where the creation & production of opera was concerned:

[to Ricordi, on the La Scala premiere of Don Carlo]: "As far as Squarcia and Colini [bass & baritone principals] are concerned, people tell me not very favourable things about them; do you really think they will be able to sing Filippo and Posa? Set aside all your interests, sympathies, your desire (if indeed you have any) to see this opera now, and give me your whole opinion. Tell me about the quality and strength of their voices, intonation, style of singing, pronunciation, and above all, how they act. Be careful, because a stupid Filippo is impossible…Add to this the fact that if Mefistofele [Boito’s opera in rehearsal for an imminent premiere] is so difficult to learn, that means it is badly written for voices (that does not detract in any way from the gifts of the composer: Beethoven wrote extremely poorly for voices…)"

Why not end with a diatribe. To every artist who has been exasperated by producers, directors, audiences, the government, the economy, the Pope, (& so on & so forth), who has wanted to write the pithy "mot juste" and verbally eviscerate the ignoramuses responsible for the ubiquitous frustrations said ambitious artist faces in the midst of realizing the dream (& so on & so forth), why not let Verdi speak for us:

"The time is right?!! Imbeciles! What? Am I made to gloat over other people’s ruin? I am one of those men who walk straight along the road, never looking to the right or to the left, who do as much as they can, when they think they can, who don’t want either the right time or support, or protection, or claques, or publicity, or cliques. I love art when it is presented in a dignified way, not the scandals that have just gone on at La Scala."

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