Giuseppe Verdi at 200: An appreciation

October 4, 2013

My husband and I are fighting over “Un ballo in maschera.” Not about whether it’s good, or what cast is better, or whether it’s Verdi’s best opera, or what key a certain passage is in. We’re fighting, in a good-natured way, over the actual physical disc. Sony has issued a box set of classic Verdi performances from the Metropolitan Opera as part of its commemoration of the composer’s 200th birthday. But I’m having trouble keeping track of the discs because my husband keeps making off with them.

“Did you listen to the ‘Ballo’ yet?” he asked over breakfast, in part because he wanted me to share his excitement — Jussi Bjorling! Zinka Milanov! — and in part because he wanted it back.

No, I hadn’t listened to the “Ballo” yet. I was too busy listening to “Simon Boccanegra,” with Leonard Warren as Boccanegra and Astrid Varnay blowing the top off (in a good way) the role of Amelia. And then there’s the complete box set from Universal, all 30 of Verdi’s operas plus assorted vocal works and the Requiem in a single package. The individual recordings here are not as uniformly exciting, but getting to hear all of the pieces in order? There’s no better way to get to know a composer. Don’t let them tell you that “Oberto,” Verdi’s first opera, written when he was 26, is a student work. The kid had talent. The opera had legs. That’s why he got a second chance to begin with.

Verdi, in short, has a way of taking over my life.

Here’s where I’m supposed to sit down and write some big expository paragraph in sober-sounding prose explaining all the facts and why Verdi is amazing and why you should care. And I can’t do it. Verdi is way too personal for me. Verdi is the composer I argue about with my husband. Verdi is the first opera composer to whom I lost my heart, when I was a teenager deciding to apply myself to opera and went off one afternoon to see the Zeffirelli film of “La traviata,” which aficionados will tell you is seriously flawed (all those cuts!), and found myself sobbing at the end. From that moment on I was intoxicated, obsessed, driving around with a portable cassette player in the front seat of my car flipping through “Rigoletto” and “Traviata” and “Trovatore” (my birthday haul that first summer of my infatuation), studying in my dorm room with homemade tapes of “Ernani” and “La forza del destino” and my roommates’ amused teasing in the background. And there was the thrill of knowing that there was an entire repertoire of operas out there that I didn’t know, by Verdi and by others, promising a lifetime of immersion, which was both right and wrong, because the immersion came but none of the others ever found quite, exactly the same place in my heart that Verdi did.


An undated portrait of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. (AP)

I can’t explain to you why you should like Verdi, because I can’t believe you won’t hear it for yourself. It’s hardest for us to teach, or explain, the things that come most naturally to us, and for me Verdi has always made perfect sense. Something about his work accords with my sense of how life works, and how stories can be told and experienced. People stereotype opera as overblown and larger than life, but I’ve never bought it; anyone who’s loved or lost or exulted or raged has at least briefly felt emotions that are best expressed at the top of one’s lungs, in a controlled mighty flow of sound. In fact, words alone seem paltry by comparison — an idea that disturbed me, as a young writer, trying to understand how there could be an art form in which language was not enough, in which words served as a springboard for a whole different kind of expression.

Captivating dialogues

The opera guides will tell you the plot synopses, which I find almost impossible to understand, and the principal arias. When I was starting out, however, I stubbornly avoided opera guides, and I was drawn to the dialogues. I was fascinated by the way that Verdi would take a short, even banal argument between two people and make it into a unified whole that simultaneously expressed the different sides of the argument and showed you what the relationship of the people involved was really like. Take Alfredo and Violetta at Flora’s party in Act II of “Traviata,” hurt and loving and passionate, or the injured dignity and appeals to reason between Amelia and her husband at the start of Act III in “Ballo,” or even the exchanges between Carlo and Alvaro in “La forza del destino” (which is opening at the Washington National Operanext weekend), reflecting the torturous, convoluted stages of their contentious relationship, with fleeting snatches of sweet melody draped over tongue-twisting lyrics, borne along by a growing antagonism. No guide will list most of these dialogues as highlights, but for me they were the way into the operatic repertoire.

Then you come to the voices, which, as my listening progressed, I started to view as more than simply vehicles for delivering to my ear the opera it craved. At first my encounters were half-chance: Mario Del Monaco’s snarl in “Aida,” the limpid darkness of Maria Callas wrenching a prayer to God from her soul in “Forza,” Carlo Bergonzi’s slight lisp and unquenchable ardor in “Ballo,” Rosa Ponselle cascading out long chains of even notes in “Ernani,” and clenching a long trill in the cabaletta with a flourish that still represents, to me, a miraculous vocal sleight of hand.

No place for restraint

Verdi created some of the most distinctive voice types — the Verdi mezzo is a species almost unto herself, with big full roles like Azucena (“Trovatore”) and Amneris (“Aida”) — but they’re also among the most nuanced, in part because his style evolved significantly through his career, from the bel-canto-style fireworks of the early works (Abigaille in “Nabucco,” Odabella in “Attila”) to the large-scale majesty of some of the later ones: “Aida,” Leonora in “Forza,” Elisabetta in “Don Carlo.” There are homes for many different kinds of soprano in the Verdi canon: Light soubrettes can sing the page Oscar in “Ballo”; lyric sopranos can try “Luisa Miller”; and Violetta in “Traviata” is said to require three different kinds of voice, one for each act. But even his largest, most powerful roles require a freshness and ease. Zinka Milanov, the Croatian soprano who reigned at the Met in the 1940s and 1950s, may have looked matronly onstage, but her voice — in, for instance, the “Ballo” and mercilessly chopped-up “Forza” on the Sony set — has a fresh, even girlish quality, for all its heft. It certainly never sounds as if it required any effort — an illusion less often encountered in Verdi singing today.

But the real key to singing Verdi is emotion: You have to let go a bit. There’s nothing put-on about Verdi. You can arguably strike a pose when you’re caught up in the pathos of “Madame Butterfly,” but Verdi requires a kind of naked honesty; you have to throw yourself into it wholeheartedly if you want to make it work.

This, I think, is why I so often find Verdi performances unsatisfying; singers today tend to be very careful about approaching him, and that kind of caution, and emotional restraint, doesn’t work well with Verdi. I have this problem with some of the highest-profile new releases during this Verdi year. I have yet to warm to the tenor Jonas Kaufmann, whom many consider the finest singer around today, and who undeniably has ability in spades. Of his Verdi releases this year, I enjoyed the Requiem more than his solo album of arias. Similarly, Anna Netrebko, the star soprano who has been specializing in lighter repertoire, has made a serious bid for a new status as a Verdi soprano, but it still sounds like a work in progress. Placido Domingo, by contrast, knows exactly how it should go, even though his new Verdi album takes him into new terrain: baritone arias. There are plenty of splices pasting this recording together, and it doesn’t sound quite like a baritone, but in terms of style and feeling, it’s a respectable venture.

Hard to reinterpret

And I haven’t even touched on the productions. Verdi is hard to stage for the same reason he’s hard to sing: The stories and emotions in his operas have a kind of emotional solidity that’s hard to reinterpret. Not that there haven’t been attempts. Jonathan Miller updated “Rigoletto” to the 1950s Mafia underworld, more or less successfully, and I’ve seen “Aida” staged in the British Museum, with the Egyptian relics in their cases coming to life. The Washington National Opera has tried a couple of light deconstructions — Falstaff even removed his fat suit at the end of the company’s 2009 production — but it’s striking how particularly uncomfortable this seems to make audiences. I thought that last year’s “Nabucco” was a relatively straight production, but at one point the action whirled around to reveal the play-within-a-play, and I heard from a lot of people who found this profoundly distracting. Now, Francesca Zambello is taking on the big, sprawling, wonderful and ungainly mess of “Forza,” with its battles and camps and gypsies and hermits in rocky caves, offering her the big scale in which she revels; let’s see where she takes us.

Even those who don’t know Verdi feel strongly about it. And for those of us who do, it can take over a week of marital discourse. I finally managed to listen to the “Ballo,” and it was worth every bit of the excitement: Milanov is about a vocal size larger than Bjorling, and the whole approach to singing and conducting is not as supposedly naturalistic as it is today, but the whole thing sizzles, driven along by Ettore Panizza, a conductor of no great distinction, but who knows how it goes. I’d cite you a passage as an example, but I can’t. My husband got the recording back.

La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny)

runs at the Washington National Opera from Saturday to Oct. 26.

Sony’s box set “Verdi at the Met,” Decca’s compendium “Verdi: Opera omnia,” solo Verdi CDs from Anna Netrebko, Jonas Kaufmann and Placido Domingo, and Daniel Barenboim’s new recording of the Verdi Requiem are all available for purchase.

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