Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Cornucopia of the Maestro of Busseto: a complete Verdi bicentennial package

Next month will mark the year's second great-composer bicentennial:  Giuseppe Verdi is more widely performed than his near-contemporary, Richard Wagner. But despite the great acclaim he enjoyed in his native Italy from mid-career on, his operas struggled for the esteem that came early to Wagner, with the unprecedented boost of cultish devotion.

Verdi's late-in-life Shakespeare-inspired masterpieces, "Otello" and "Falstaff,"  had to suffer the indignity of being simultaneously admired and tagged with "Wagnerism." This despite ample evidence the Italian composer had worked for many years to extend and revise the formal conventions he had inherited on his home ground. Moreover,  the "barrel-organ" epithet formed a leech-like attachment to his tunes and their accompaniments, drawing attention from the frequent ingenuity and freshness of both, even in the early works.

But now, the cognoscenti's esteem and the public's love run thoroughly in tandem in time to celebrate 200 years since the village of La Roncole nurtured a precocious youngster, born there in October 1813, whose musical course was set through childhood lessons in the neighboring town of Busseto.

Like all great men, Verdi wasn't without flaws: ruthless with his librettists, hurt by slights and not inclined to forget them, prone to autobiographical revisionism. But in his rich old age, he poured a lot of energy into charitable work that could have gone into tending his compositional flame. He gave as good as he got in the inevitable friction with impresarios, publishers, singers and others, but never erected monuments to himself (literal or figurative), a practice so habitual to his great German rival.
Recordings of all Verdi's works are in this bicentennial box.

"Verdi: The Complete Works" (Decca/Deutsche Grammophon/EMI)  is a 75-CD compendium of everything Verdi wrote — operatically, from "Oberto" (1838) through "Falstaff" (1893), and of course including the "Manzoni" Requiem, plus the charming string quartet, extensive ballet music, and a number of other short works for voice.

What are some of the signs of Verdi's permanence that are largely upheld by the performances reissued in this collection?

To start with, his music reflects the way emotions really work in people: joy, jealousy, resentment, rage, the prickings of conscience. Emotions bubble up in Verdi, and in contexts that usually make his characters, however high-born and exotic they may seem to us, more human. Wagner, in contrast, requires you to go deep within yourself to empathize with his characters; as a good German countryman of Kant, Wagner in his mature music-dramas sets before us a Critique of Pure Emotion.

Verdi can sound comparatively "surfacy" as the music strikes the ear, but his understanding runs deep. Sometimes his pure zest for action and conflict may rob both men and women of three-dimensionality. Then suddenly he pulls out something astonishing. One case in point: the stock figure of the jealous husband in "Falstaff," saved from cuckoldry by the scheming merry wives of Windsor, blooms into a moving portrait of male anxiety in Ford's "E sogno?"

Need more proof?  As a man, I could be on thin ice here, but let's ask this question: How many women in Wagner can you take seriously?  By this, I mean, as human beings who embody more than a narrow abstract function designed to help characterize the men: I would count Senta in "The Flying Dutchman" (marginal) and (in patches) Isolde, plus, from the "Ring" operas, Sieglinde and Brunnhilde.

In Verdi, the number of well-drawn women  is legion: both Leonoras ("La Forza del Destino" and "Il Trovatore"), Abigaille ("Nabucco"), Elisabeth di Valois ("Don Carlo") and, of course, Violetta ("La Traviata").  Even the few bizarre women in Verdi tap into emotional norms: Consider the maternal pride and devotion of the gypsy witch Azucena in "Il Trovatore."  Sure, there is Beverly Sills' amusing dismissal of the ill-fated daughter of the title character in "Rigoletto": "Gilda is such a sap,"  quoth Bubbles. But who can fail to believe in Gilda after "Caro nome"? In his substantial portrayal of women through music, Verdi is Mozart's true successor.

In some of  Verdi's lesser operas, the writing for women saves the day (though only if it's sung well). Verdi soprano roles make intense demands, though Wagner has the crueler reputation because of the emphasis he puts on the orchestra. "I Lombardi alla Prima Crociatta" offers a curiously bumpy ride over good and bad Verdi (encountered here in a Metropolitan Opera performance conducted by James Levine), but Giselda's second-act aria is top-drawer stuff, substantially elevating a character caught in  the libretto's pseudo-historical mishmash. High-lying and long-phrased, it's succeeded by a tough cabaletta in which June Anderson is superb. (No wonder she sounds tired in Act 3; perhaps the recording was made at a live performance.).

More emphasis on the performances and the full range of roles will appear in a subsequent post. But let's end with a general appreciation of Verdi. To get down to particulars, these operas are full of "goose bump" moments — stirring choral finales with repeated phrases that undergo reshaping as harmonic novelties are introduced, and of course too many expressive, character-defining solo arias to name, plus heart-stopping duets (Amonasro-Aida opens up a parallel world of a defeated people's pride, for example) and trios (the one ending Act 2 of "I Lombardi" is remarkable because of the way a solo violin threads through it after having starred in an orchestral prelude worthy of a violin concerto of the time).

What fans glory in about Verdi sometimes sets other people's teeth on edge. Verdi's operas, in a word — not an attractive word, but the right one — are shot through with what Paul Robinson (in "Opera & Ideas") calls "rhetoricalness." No one would ever use that word to describe Puccini.  And Wagner, for all his fondness as a librettist declamation, was too devoted to narrative and abstract soul-states to embrace rhetoric after "Rienzi," his Meyerbeerian extravaganza.

Through consequential human drama, Verdi's characters indeed advance rhetorical arguments to justify action. Whatever their frequent lyrical finesse, the operas are also predominantly loud and full of masculine bluster. Even Verdians quail at some of the master's inspirations: In his essay on "Giovanna d'Arco," Charles Osborne has this to say about the triumphal march that opens the second act: "The broad tune of the march, sheer Verdi, is quite indefensible against the charge of banality, but it can reduce to tears anyone who deeply responds to the composer." Just so.

Verdian splendor sometimes seems the operatic equivalent of an American car dealership, its lots flooded with bright lights and bordered by a dozen or so huge flags. If "Va, pensiero"  in "Nabucco" gave him his first burst of what turned out to be the lifelong love of his countrymen, he finds his way in "I Lombardi" back to a swinging slow triple meter and unison choral line  in "O Signore, dal tetto natio."

Some commentators hold both numbers in high  esteem, but the "Lombardi" chorus is decorated as it goes along with wind frippery that evokes calliope music. Shades of the barrel-organ jibe!

No low point in Verdi ever seems to last for long, however. The heights are always there, ready for ascent under sure, inspired guidance. And the general elevation of the Complete Works rivals the Himalayas.

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