The Opera in Italy
In no nation on earth is opera so revered as in Italy, and among those throughout the world of Italian descent. In other locales, and among other peoples, classical music in general – and opera in particular – are often considered pastimes of the ‘elite’. Among Italians, however, it is part of the cultural soul. No matter about one’s financial or social standing, love of opera and operatic singing is a common thread that binds many, many Italians together. Artists of the highest rank become cultural icons who outshine heroes in most other fields. The average Italian is as likely to know the names of the current top stars at La Scala as the top players on the world champion soccer team. Italian-Americans in Philadelphia hold Mario Lanza and Luciano Pavarotti in equally high esteem as any players on the local professional sports teams.
Opera is important as a genre among classical composers of most other European nations, but nowhere does it dominate the music scene as it does in Italy. The great composers of other nations are better known for their symphonies, their tone poems, their ballets and their chamber music. Even in the vocal sphere, the art-song, the cantata, the dramatic works for chorus and orchestra balance (and even exceed) the opera as a vehicle for expression. But in Italy, opera is both King and Queen of the Arts.
Small wonder that few Italian composers turned their talents towards symphonic music. Ever since the Baroque period, if one wanted to compose, one had to compose opera. The proportion of Italian composers who made their mark in opera is staggering. If an Italian composer is famous for only one work (e.g. Leoncavallo), it is undoubtedly an opera. If an Italian composer is famous for thirty major works, probably twenty of them are operas. And a whole host of Italians who have written for other mediums as well are identified as ‘opera composers’ who – by the way – wrote a few other works.
No composers fit this last description so well as Verdi and Puccini, whose selections grace our program this evening.
The Music of Giuseppe Verdi – (1813 – 1901)
Giuseppe Verdi is clearly the most performed Italian operatist, and probably the most revered by audiences. He composed twenty-eight major operas, of which at least twenty are still performed regularly. His significant symphonic output includes only four major works, one of which – the Requiem for chorus and orchestra – is almost operatic in its dramatic intensity. Only Wagner and Mozart (who, by the way wrote most of his operas in Italian) have composed operas that have been accepted into the permanent repertoire as Verdi. Yet, strangely, it is only in the last half of the twentieth century that musical scholars have accorded him the same esteem as audiences have from the beginning. For a long while, his music was dismissed by critics. The influential Alfred Noyes once reviewed a singer, making the doubly-disparaging remark that the performance he had witnessed had been shallow but that it was, after all, “only Verdi”.
p>Verdi liked to portray himself as a peasant who had risen from nothing, but he was actually descended from middle class tradesmen, innkeepers and small landowners. Like many musical geniuses, his talents showed immediately. He began to play piano at age three, and immediately came under the tutelage of the local organist. His local fame as a budding prodigy rose quickly, and a local craftsman built a spinet piano and donated it to his family free of charge, that the local genius might develop his skills. (Even when he became a wealthy man, Verdi kept this spinet in his possession all his life.)
At age eighteen he had his first setback, when he was refused admission to the Milan Conservatory. In the fragmented country that Italy was at the time, Verdi was a ‘foreigner’ from the point of view of Milan. So Verdi studied privately with Vicenzo Lavigna, a minor opera composer. He eventually was appointed maestro di musica in his adopted home town of Busetto, at age 23. Although he served in this post for a time, he chafed under the claims the position put upon his time. He wanted to compose – opera, of course. He spent three years composing while carrying out his public duties, producing an opera. Oberto was enough of a hit that he was able to sell its rights and obtain a commission for three more works. The first of these was a failure, and Verdi suffered a crisis of confidence. His patron kept after him, though, and the result was his first true success: Nabucco (a shortened name representing Nebuchadnezzar, from the Old Testament).
Two selections from this early work appear on our program this evening. The overture, which displays a contrast between episodes of lush lyricism and driving intensity, introduces some of the musical elements of the opera. Probably the most famous section of the opera is the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves (known by the title Va Pensiero, its opening words.) In this famous chorus, the slaves of Nebuchadnezzar yearn for a homeland that can be truly their own. This sentiment struck such a popular chord among the Italians of the time that it became practically an unofficial national anthem, and remains such even today.
Verdi was not initially a polished composer, and spent his life developing and improving his craft. From the very beginning, however, he wrote melodies that delineated the characters and could stir emotion in his listeners. As he progressed, he developed an increasing command of instrumentation and orchestration to support these melodies, and then the musical and dramatic form to maximize their impact. His operas fall into three periods, of which Nabucco represents the first. During the second period, he strove to produce grand opera – something on the scale of the great German and French operas of the time – but with a lofty philosophical content. The story lines frequently focused on the psychological interplays between the major characters
This period produced such masterpieces as La Traviata, La Forza del Destino, Il Trovatore, Rigolletto and Aida (all represented by arias on this evening’s program). Several of the most famous individual opera arias of all times came from these operas, as well as the one purely orchestral Verdi excerpt (besides the overtures) to have made it into the concert hall repertoire: the Grand March from Aida.
Verdi had just entered a new artistic period a few years before his death. Now a master of dramatic form and operatic expression, he became intrigued by the new harmonic directions that music was taking elsewhere in the classical sphere. His final two operas, Otello and Falstaff, begin to explore this new direction. The two arias from Otello presented tonight, Gia nella notte and Credo, show that Verdi was about to embark on a new direction, employing a wider range of musical language to enhance his expressiveness. In the latter aria, the character Iago (who has been described as perhaps the most terrifying embodiment of pure evil in all of opera – quite an accomplishment, when one considers how often the Devil himself appears in various operas) sings of his belief in a God of cruelty, supported by powerful dissonance in the orchestra. In these two works alone, Verdi proves himself worthy of critical attention as a serious musician capable of not merely exploiting the existing musical language, but of advancing it.
The Music of Giacomo Puccini – (1858 – 1924)
As a composer, Puccini’s origins are the direct opposite of Verdi’s. Whereas the earlier master had come from a middle class background with no particular musical connections, Puccini descended directly from a family where music was the main focus. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all musicians and composers. It was natural that his own early interests in music would be immediately supported and fostered. Even though his father had died at age five, the tradition had been established within the family. He received early tutelage through the music programs of the local church, and when he reached his teens he was already the officially appointed organist not only of his own parish, but in several nearby towns as well. Strangely, he waited until age seventeen before he began composing. Without formal training, he completed a purely orchestral piece (the opera bug had not yet bitten him), titled Preludio Sinfonico.
Again unlike Verdi, he was able to gain admission to the Milan Conservatory. For his graduation piece, he composed the Capriccio Sinfonico. This early work reveals both his intuitive command of dramatic effect and the fluid, supple instrumentation through which to express it. Though it is a minor masterpiece, Puccini distrusted it and never published it. Or, perhaps, he was crafty enough to know that it contained musical materials that were so valuable that he wanted to preserve them for more important uses later. Indeed, after a slow and dramatic introduction, the Capriccio breaks out into a fast waltz passage that is virtually identical to the opening of La Bohème.
Puccini’s first opera was written to be entered into a competion. It not only lost, but it wasn’t even considered by the organizers to be worthy of mention as an ‘also ran’. However, Puccini had the opportunity to play a piano version (singing the arias himself!) for Verdi’s librettist Arrigo Boito, a significant composer in his own right. Boito was so impressed that he arranged for a staging, where it was moderate success. This got him started on an operatic career that would lead to twelve full operas, four of which have entered the repertoire and have become among the most popular of all modern Italian operas: La Bohème, Madam Butterfly, Tosca and Turandot.
Puccini’s genius was immense, but his range of subjects was extremely limited. Seven of his twelve operas are named after the heroine, all of whom have the same psychological profile. A woman, who is true in her heart and faithful to the end, is crushed by cruel fate – sometimes at the hands of a man, sometimes in the form of destiny itself. Even the operas that do not center around a tragic heroine still seem to come from the same psychological mold. There is virtually no comedic element in his works. However, none have ever exceeded him for a fusion of erotic passion, sensuality, tenderness and pathos. He wrote most of his own libretti (in contrast toVerdi, who almost always had the libretto prepared by another) and sometimes even invented the story line. The operas are almost always very uncomplicated and direct, with few subplots and diversions. Consequently, he was able to achieve a dramatic focus that is seldom matched.
His genius was not, however, merely in his ability to focus the dramatic intent. He was a superb musical craftsman who could employ whatever compositional technique was most appropriate to support his psychological intent. His melody lines are only moderately complex, but the melodies themselves are among the most memorable that one will ever encounter. It is impossible to leave one of his operas without the memory of some melody ringing in your mind. But it is not merely the melody itself. “Happy Birthday” is, after all, a memorable melody but hardly psychologically overwhelming. It was Puccini’s presentation of the melody that gives it such great impact. He often employed a technique called violinata, long known but never as well utilized by other composers, to emphasize his melody. The orchestra frequently announces the melody unobtrusively, and the soloist ‘drifts in’, singing something entirely different. The singer gradually comes around to the main subject. At this point, the true dramatic intensity begins to grow, slowly and irrepressibly towards a climax. As the tension increases, more and more instruments join the vocalist, not merely to provide a harmonic backdrop but actually doubling the melody itself.
At the moment of climax, the singer might be supported by not only the violins, but the cellos, the french horn and a few extraneous woodwinds thrown in for good measure. The effect can be overpowering – a brief moment becomes timeless. And the composer always finds a way to savor that moment! Dramatic pauses, and interminably-sustained notes abound. Listen to the growth of the melody in Nessun Dorma (from Turandot) and Che Gelida Manina (from La Bohème) as it approaches this climax. It’s guaranteed that when the moment arrives you will be wrapped up in the event, and won’t recall until later what was happening in the presentation of the music. Such was Puccini’s genius – to focus the audience on the moment. And to make that moment memorable.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly