Arguably no operatic composer evolved more in his compositional style than Giuseppe Verdi, his works comprising four distinct periods. Scholar Julian Budden refers to Verdi’s early period (Nabucco, Ernani) as using “Code Rossini,” the conventions and templates for form familiar to us also in the operas of Donizetti and Bellini. This is often referred to as “Italian number opera” and offers labels such as aria, duet, trio, finale, etc. In Verdi’s middle period (Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Il Trovatore) and late period (Simon Boccanegra, Don Carlos), we see him continue to develop these conventions in a larger scale structure, while honing his attention to detail. Verdi’s late period ended in 1871 with Aida, and for more than 15 years he lived in retirement at Sant’Agata, his beloved country estate. (“Retired” is a stretch, as Verdi was still heartily at work composing his Messa di Requiem and revising Simon Boccanegra and Don Carlos.) What came next could not have been predicted by anyone, with Otello and Falstaff, through-composed and full of a fresh, young energy, carving out his final period. Georges Bizet touched on a familiar reaction to these two operas with his well-known comment, “Verdi is no longer Italian. He is following Wagner.” This is a common preliminary thought, but what is not often discussed is Verdi’s lifelong desire to see Italian opera evolve for dramatic reasons. (It is noteworthy that Verdi’s first known exposure to Richard Wagner’s music was the overture to Tannhäuser at a concert in Paris in 1865, and then in 1871 when he attended Lohengrin in Bologna with a score in hand.) Thanks to the preservation of much of his correspondence with librettists, conductors, and colleagues, we are able to glimpse behind the scenes and see some of what the Italian master was thinking long before this.
One of the earliest instances was in an 1848 letter to librettist Salvatore Cammarano. Cammarano (Lucia di Lammermoor, Luisa Miller, and much of Il Trovatore), involved in casting a production of Macbeth, received this note from Verdi: “I understand you are rehearsing Macbeth...(Eugenia) Tadolini, I believe, is to sing Lady Macbeth...You know how highly I regard Tadolini, and she herself knows it, but for the sake of us all I feel I must say this to you: Tadolini’s qualities are far too fine for this role... Tadolini has a beautiful and attractive figure, and I want Lady Macbeth to be ugly and evil. Tadolini sings to perfection, and I don’t want Lady Macbeth to sing at all. Tadolini has a wonderful voice, clear, flexible, strong, while Lady Macbeth’s voice should be hard, stifled and dark. Tadolini’s voice is angelic; I want Lady Macbeth’s to be diabolic.”
Here we see Verdi obsessively concerned with the dramatic elements of a character: the physical stature of this singer in regards to her being suited to the role, then with the abstract: absence (or the intimation of absence) of singing. In this same vein, Verdi also allowed vocal parts to be transposed if he desired a singer for dramatic purposes but they were not able to sing an aria in the original key. For a composer so greatly recognized by his construction of melody and retention of Italian tradition, these ideas are provocative and intriguing.
In 1851, the year Rigoletto was complete, Verdi wrote, “If in opera there were neither cavatinas, duets, trios, choruses, finales, et cetera, and the whole work consisted, let’s say, of a single number I should find that all the more right and proper.”
To this unusual sentiment Budden remarks, “These are the words of a Wagner or Berlioz.” Yet Rigoletto was far from having “a single number,” as Act I alone has ten of them.
In 1854, between La Traviata (1853) and Les vêpres siciliennes (1855), Verdi wrote, “When will the poet come who will give Italy a vast and powerful opera, free of every convention, various, uniting all its elements, and above all, new!!” Verdi’s letters to his librettists are ripe with frustrations, many times seeing the composer taking the reigns to the point of nearly becoming Schumann’s poet and composer in one, that role which Wagner successfully undertook. Here we see that Verdi saw, in his desire to be free of the constraints of convention, that the answer would be found in a librettist.
Verdi saw many young Italians following Wagner’s lead and, in an 1884 correspondence about this dreadful trend, he wrote of Giacomo Puccini, “The symphonic element, however, tends to be predominant in him. Nothing wrong with that, but one needs to tread cautiously here. Opera is opera, and the symphony is the symphony and I do not believe it’s a good thing to insert a piece of symphony into an opera, simply for the pleasure of making the orchestra perform.” An 1889 letter to conductor Franco Faccio states, “If the Germans, stemming from Bach, arrive at Wagner, they are doing as good Germans should, and that is fine. But for us, descendents of Palestrina, to imitate Wagner is to commit a musical crime, and we are doing something useless, even harmful.”
Through these correspondences, we see a complex man, one deeply committed to the Italian tradition, but also deeply committed to seeing growth and evolution, especially in order for the drama to flourish. The move from theory to practice with this element came from an unlikely partnership.
Giulio Ricordi, Verdi’s publisher, believed the post-Aida retirement to be a tragedy, a waste of talent (as well as a loss of profit for the publisher), so he set out on a strategic venture to bring Verdi out of retirement with a new opera. As early as 1868, Ricordi had urged Verdi to revise Simon Boccanegra, but the composer refused. Believing this to be an important and worthwhile endeavor, Ricordi again approached Verdi in 1879 with the idea of this revision, at the same time dropping the idea of composing a new opera based on William Shakespeare’s Othello. Fully realizing Verdi’s obsession with the dramatic quality of a work, Ricordi knew that if Verdi were to agree to a new undertaking it would need to be flawless, appealing particularly to Verdi, both in the subject matter as well as the librettist that would be presenting Verdi with verse.
In a letter to one of Puccini’s librettists, Giuseppe Adami, Ricordi recounted a particular evening in Paris: “The idea of a new opera arose during a dinner among friends, when I turned the conversation, by chance, on Shakespeare and on Boito. At the mention of Othello I saw Verdi fix his eyes on me, with suspicion, but with interest. He had certainly understood; he had certainly reacted. I believed the time was ripe.”
What followed was unusual for many reasons. Arrigo Boito had, as a young man, created an adversary in Verdi when he criticized the established Italian composers for relying more on formula that form. These many years later, however, Verdi moved past old pains and revised Simon Boccanegra with Boito, a seeming trial run for the possibility of a collaboration on Otello. Boito was not like other librettists: Boito had theater craft convictions, Boito had achieved a modest degree of success as an opera composer, and was an admirer of composers outside the Italian realm, particularly Wagner and Meyerbeer. These traits would come to play an important role.
In the first letter from Verdi to Boito concerning the draft verse for Otello, Verdi addressed the moment immediately following Otello’s public striking of Desdemona. He wanted to break with the Shakespeare here, and have Otello rally the troops-- introducing a foreign element to perpetuate the action-- but Boito offered a differing view. According to Roger Parker, “Boito strongly disagreed: for him Otello was above all a modern, claustrophobic, psychological drama, one that took place essentially within the psyche, in the realm Wagner liked to call that of the ‘inner drama’, a place of dense symbolic meaning in which characters are trapped, deprived of autonomy. To have Otello heroically rally his troops would have shattered the spell. But what is most striking about the difference of opinion is that Verdi – earlier a veritable tyrant in his dealings with librettists – gave way to Boito, trusting the younger man’s perception of what modern drama needed.”
While many hear vestiges of the Italian number opera in Otello, the departure from those conventions in Falstaff is undeniable. Here we see a major change for Verdi (musically and personally), one that allowed him to realize the dramatic evolution he had desired for over three decades. For the first time, he trusted a librettist in the truest sense of collaboration, a collaboration that became a partnership, and, in the end, a friendship that ushered in a grand finale to an already incomparable legacy.
Julian Budden, Verdi
Charles Osborne, The Letters of Giuseppe Verdi
Roger Parker, The New Grove Guide to Verdi and His Operas
Other fun readings:
Philip Gossett, “Verdi, Ghislanzoni, and ‘Aida’: The Uses of Convention,” Critical Inquiry 1, no. 2. 1974
Mary Ann Smart, “In Praise of Convention: Formula and Experiment in Bellini’s Self- Borrowings,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, 53, no.1, 2000
Gary Tomlinson, “Learning to Curse at Sixty-Seven.” Cambridge Opera Journal 14,
no. 1/2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002
Jeremy Little was born on a farm in the middle of nowhere in the South and began piano lessons at age 3. Though distracted by football, farming, fence-mending, and occasional fishing, he eventually found his way to the Big Apple. He is a graduate of Louisiana State University, the Juilliard School, and Stony Brook University with vocal performance degrees, but often wonders if he would have made a good Forester. Before joining the Met Opera Chorus in 2008, Jeremy fondly remembers singing Roméo (Anchorage Opera), Nemorino and Fenton (Des Moines), Miss Lonelyhearts and Lysander (Juilliard Opera Center), Mosca and King Ouf (Wolf Trap; Volpone was Grammy-nominated), Edgardo (Aspen Opera Theater), Male Chorus (Stony Brook Opera), and multiple recitals with Steven Blier and NYFOS. In the rare moments spent outside the opera house, Jeremy enjoys doing pretty much anything with his beautiful wife, (Met Opera Actress) Anne, and his strapping son, Myles.