Saturday, July 11, 2009

Inventing the Truth: Verdi in (mostly) his own words

Amy and I are preparing to spend a week with the Washington and Lee University Alumni College singing and talking about Verdi. I have collected too many excerpts from the letters to possibly share in the five lectures I will give daily next Monday-Friday, so I thought I'd share them here.

My first talk will be on Verdi's "sound and style as revealed in the early operas." My colleague Tim Gaylard, a wonderful pianist and Columbia trained musicologist, will be setting the tenor of each day with an introductory talk.

I mused last month about our trip to Aix-en-Provence and the riveting Picasso-Cézanne exhibit. I find Verdi in a similar symbiotic relationship to the great bel canto composers as Picasso is to Cézanne. And if Verdi was not the revolutionary Picasso was, it is fair to say he not only reshaped & invigorated the tradition he inherited but he refashioned it into the greatest single body of work in Italian opera. His 60-year, 28-opera career contributed more works to the cannon than anyone ever has. Puccini and Wagner have a higher percentage of their works in the repertoire, and Mozart a remarkable record in such a truncated span, but Verdi, the "Attila of the Lungs" is the operatic king.

In addition to Verdi's trademark iron will and biting wit, the letters offer insight into the creative process and every aspect of opera production, and are indispensable references for performers, scholars, and amateur alike.

Advice to any cast of singers:
“study the situation and the words scrupulously; the music will then follow entirely of its own accord”

Verdi worked throughout his career to raise standards, to improve conditions for producing opera, and to elevate the opera score to the near-sacrosanct level the symphony attained from Beethoven forward. His letters are full of scathing attacks on the whims of singers, the indiscretions of conductors, directors, and impresarios. They offer an insider's look at the struggles facing an Italian opera composer in the wake of the Bel Canto period, before Wagner & his successors helped complete the mission to establish opera as the "high art" form it deserved to be.

One can easily infer some of those very issues of interpretation and the inconsistent standards, and thus better locate Verdi within the primo ottocento (first half of the 19th century) in the following excerpts:

[On Ernani] "if you pay attention to the dramatic situation and to the words, you could hardly make a mistake with a tempo. I only point out that I do not like slow tempos; it is better to sin on the side of liveliness than to drag…I ask that you see that the roles are entrusted to singers that the audience likes the most and that the performance be accurate…I beg you not to allow cuts."

[On Rigoletto]: "Good secondary singers, and not taken from the chorus—see that the old Castiglione [Monterone] is a beautiful, strong baritone voice: not a second-rate singer—"

(The premiere of La Traviata was a famous fiasco, largely because of miscast singers).

[On the opening night fiasco of Traviata]: "Is it my fault or the singers? Time will tell."

[On the prima donna Basseggio – in Aroldo] "I hope she won’t ruin any other opera in the future! She has absolutely no voice nor talent nor style of singing! Imagine delicate, heartfelt, sentimental music such as that of Traviata meowed by a voice that is neither sop nor mezzo-soprano nor contralto..."

It was common practice, from the dawn of the "diva" before the Bel Canto period to the twilight of Verdi's career for singers to request changes in their music and be obliged. It was just as common for leads to simply disregard the composer and insert a personal favorite aria where desired. From another of the composer's operas, or from another composer altogether. Verdi would have none of it (though he did write for specific singers, and did tailor to their strengths & needs, if not their whims).

[On a request by the soprano Barbieri to change Leonora’s music]: "…tell her that I believe that the cavatina of Trovatore is good…I cannot and must not change it. It would be suicide!...Why is Barbieri singing that role, if it does not suit her? And, if she wishes to do Trovatore, there is another role, that of the Gypsy. Put tradition aside: they say it is a secondary role: No, truly: it is a leading role—even the very most important role, more beautiful, more dramatic, more original than the other one [Leonora]. If I were a prima donna (fine thing!) I would want to sing the role of the Gypsy in Trovatore"

One needn't read that excerpt to know that Azucena has show-stealing power in Trovatore, a trait that her niece, Eboli, would inherit in Don Carlo. Because we are so familiar with them, it is easy to forget the "Verdi Mezzo" and Verdi Baritone" did not exist before him!

Verdi expanded the dramatic range and musical scope of the baritones & mezzos (nieces of the dramatic lyrc soprano like Abigaille in Nabucco and Bellini's Norma, among others) AND from Nabucco on, wrote fully lyric, "tenore di forza" roles for his heroes. The Rossinian "tenore di grazia" was gradually phased out for the Italian version of the Heldentenor. Rossini was none too pleased with the changing techniques and styles as tenors began to sing the note which would crown Pavarotti as the "king of the high c's." On hearing the first exponent of the "do di petto" (high c in the chest voice), Gilbert Duprez, Rossini complained he sounded like the shriek of a "capon with it's throat slit." Nevertheless, the high c was there to stay for the tenor.

Verdi eventually swapped dramatic weight and color for brilliance & the stratosphere, and after his middle period, the tenors rarely venture above b-flat. This is yet another example of how Verdi inherited and then reinvented the tradition.

Gaetano Fraschini was one of the first of these tenors, whose voice was described as "a giant silver platter being struck with a giant silver hammer." Fraschini was one of the composer's early favorites, and the creator of Stiffelio and Riccardo (Ballo). One of the next tenors in this vein was Enrico Tamberlik, who created Alvaro in La Forza del Destino. He was also responsible for the ossia high c’s in “Di quella pira," the most famous appearance of that note in Verdi's operas. Asked whether or not the Maestro approved of his interpolation, Verdi replied to the tenor:

"sing as many of them as you like, as long as they are all good high c’s!"

I will sign off with a quote from one of Verdi's esteemed colleagues, and a fellow devotee of Shakespeare. The title of my essay today refers to Verdi's observation that it is better to invent the truth than copy it. Verdi cites Shakespeare as the "Papa" of this principal, using Iago & Desdemona as characters that could only be invented and yet appear so true. Hector Berlioz' words on the Paris premiere of Les Vêpres Siciliennes in June, 1855, also appear so true, and apply to any number of Verdi's operas:

" …the penetrating intensity of the melodic expression, the sumptuous variety and wisdom of the instrumentation, the vastness, the poetic sonority of the ensemble pieces, the colorful warmth that shines everywhere, and that passionate but deliberate force...the characteristic traits of Verdi’s genius give the entire opera a greatness, a kind of sovereign majesty…"

(most quotations courtesy of the excellent monograph of Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, Verdi: A Biography. Oxford. 1993)

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