Thursday, July 16, 2009

"Is it my fault or the singers? Time will tell."

My title refers to a comment Verdi made about the infamous opening night fiasco of La Traviata at La Fenice in 1853.

As would happen throughout his storied career, time proved Verdi right.

I have been musing about Verdi's letters in conjunction with a week of seminars on the operas at Washington & Lee University. And if some of what follows finds me repeating myself, I hope you'll agree that Verdi's letters bear as many readings as we have time and attention to give.

As I've already mentioned, his letters are a gold mine of insight & wit, and genuine wisdom from one who knew the craft of opera better than anyone. His characters have rightly been described as Shakespearean, and this is as true of the non-Bard characters-- like Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, Philippo & Don Carlos--as it is of the Macbeths, Otello and Falstaff. It is worth recalling an oft-cited observation on his thoughts on "Papa" Shakespeare:

"To copy the truth can be a good thing, but to invent the truth is better, much better. It seems there is a contradiction in these three words: invent the truth; but ask Papa [Shakespeare] about it. Maybe he encountered some Falstaff, but he would have had a hard time finding a villain as villainous as Iago, and never, absolutely never, angels like Cordelia, Imogen, Desdemona, and yet they are so true! To copy the truth is a beautiful thing; but it is a photograph, not a painting."

And how grateful are we to have the canvasses of such richly drawn characters. Writing of the tenor who would become the successful creator of Otello, Verdi expressed his misgivings and spelled out exactly how the final scene should be sung AND played. It is not just singers & conductors who do well to plumb these letters, but directors, producers, patrons and amateurs alike:

"In many respects Tamagno would be well suited to the part, but in many others not! There are broad, long legato phrases to be sung mezza voce, which is impossible for him…when he realizes that Desdemona has died guiltless, Otello can no longer breathe; he is exhausted, physically and morally at the end of his tether; he can and may still sing with only a half-extinguished, muffled voice…Of this last quality Tamagno is surely incapable. He must always sing out in full voice, otherwise his tone becomes ugly and the pitch uncertain."

Throughout his near 60-year career in the theatre, Verdi continued to work to raise the bar in every aspect of operatic production. An area of particular attention was the power and clout given to singers and impresarios, often at the expense of the composers & their operas. Even as late as the 1870's, Verdi was railing against singers who re-wrote their parts, omitting difficult passages or inserting alternate arias to suit their whims or cast themselves in a better light. The following excerpt is one such rant from the composer who did more to change this trend and elevate the status of the score to the respected status it deserves:

"Alboni too sang La Gazza Ladra, and I think La Sonnambula, and even the part of Carlo in Ernani! But what of it? All this means is that singers and managements have no scruples about tampering with or allowing others to tamper with an author’s creations."

Intimately involved in casting, Verdi wanted not only singers, but actors. And while music is the driving force in opera--with melody the "prima donna" of Italian opera--Verdi's priority was the authenticity of the dramatic situation, and if it required subordinating the music to the action on stage, so be it. Of the baritone and bass leads for the La Scala premiere of Don Carlo, Verdi wrote to his publisher, Ricordi:

"As far as Squarcia and Colini 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…"

One could make the same observation about the remaining 4 principal characters, such is the importance of every one of the 6 complex individuals that shape the chiaroscuro drama that make Don Carlo(s) the grandest of Verdi's operas.

As is so often the case, the simplest statement can be the best. I'll end with advice anyone involved in opera or music-making would do well to follow:

"Study the situation and the words scrupulously; the music will then follow entirely of its own accord.”


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