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Blog entries tagged with Verdi

Verdi: Pater Familias (by James Conlon)

1813: The birth year of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner

1913: The birth year of Benjamin Britten

2013: The year LA Opera and the classical music world will mark these three anniversaries. Actually, 2013 will serve as the center line for observing these birthdates. We have already begun this process, and it will extend into 2014.

One could barely think of three composers who were personally and artistically so different. And yet, aside from their centenary celebrations, they have one enormous attribute in common. All three unquestionably stand at the zenith of their respective operatic cultures. In presenting The Two Foscari (I Due Foscari), in its first production in a major American opera house in 40 years, LA Opera brings to light an essential work from Verdi’s early period, which will be especially appreciated by Verdi lovers. This opera represents an important step in the development of Verdi’s style and musical vocabulary, in which he gradually transforms the inherited culture of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini into a language of his own, quintessentially defining and personifying the Italian 19th century.

Composer Giuseppe Verdi

I Due Foscari is the sixth opera of Verdi’s 26 theatrical works (not counting several revised versions). Between his first opera, Oberto (1839), and Falstaff (1893) are 54 years. Foscari (1844) was written five years into that trajectory—in terms of works written, not yet a quarter of his ultimate output and in terms of years, less than ten percent of the way. It may be, by our standards, an “old-fashioned” opera. It certainly would have been considered as such by the composer himself. But we have come to measure the sophistication of Italian opera precisely by the yardstick Verdi has provided us through his extraordinary life’s productivity.

What it is easy for us to miss, in a first hearing, is actually how much there is that was new and significant at the time, starting with Verdi’s choice of subject. He recounts the story of the forced abdication of a great Venetian statesman (Francesco Foscari) resulting from an unseemly, clandestine intrigue by other Venetian nobles. (The Doge of the Venetian Republic was the head of state, and the word Doge is the Venetian form of the Latin word Dux, whence the English word duke and Mussolini’s self-appellation Duce). Considering that the work was intended to be premiered in Venice, this constituted an unacceptable affront to the nobility at large and to the still-prominent Foscari family. It was rejected as unsuitable, and Verdi later substituted it for a commission in Rome, where it was premiered.

After dispensing raw energy and occasional bombast in his early operas, he took a decisive step toward elegance and refinement. His third opera, Nabucco (1842), catapulted him to prominence as a daring young composer and, almost simultaneously, into a political hero.

Nabucco is to Verdi what Idomeneo is to Mozart, the “Eroica” Symphony to Beethoven, The Flying Dutchman to Wagner, and The Rite of Spring to Stravinsky: a quantum leap into the future. Verdi would continue a pattern of pushing his vocabulary forward with new forms and compositional procedures, followed by a work of consolidation. Foscari is a determined step towards intimate drama following larger-scaled works. It demonstrates a pattern he was to repeat nine years later, following the medieval and stormy Il Trovatore with the elegant Parisian “drawing room” romance of La Traviata.

Verdi concentrates the action of Foscari within a tight family unit: the aging Doge Francesco, his son Jacopo, persecuted by the intriguing nobles, and Jacopo’s devoted and courageous wife, Lucrezia Contarini (herself of noble blood). Venice is an alternatingly colorful and lugubrious background, one of the first examples of Verdi’s fascination with the political world and the ambiance of power. The first two words of the opera, an example of Verdi’s famous “parola scenica” (“the scenic word”), are “silenzio …mistero” (silence and mystery), which are said to reign over and to have protected Venice since its infancy. In contrast, the populace sings to Venice, the daughter, wife and mistress of the sea, as a mirror; the blue lagoon reflects the brightness of day, and the moon transforms its night into silver.

Verdi uses identifying motifs for his principal characters in a more consistent way than in his previous operas. His characteristic devotion to concision produces one of his shortest operas.

But by far the most important aspect of Foscari is the subject and the primacy of the father-son relationship. There is no question that the plight of the father is the single most central theme spanning Verdi’s entire output. Its absence in an opera is the exception rather than the rule. Psychobiography is a highly unreliable, if not an entirely unworthy, approach to analyzing works of art, but it is tempting to state the obvious. Verdi’s loss of his first wife and two infant children within 22 months between 1838 and 1840 clearly left its mark on the composer as well as the man.

His fathers are complex and multi-dimensional; few are stick figures of good or bad. Many of the fathers are unsympathetic by their actions, but win our compassion through their own sufferings, or incapacity to prevent their own tragic fates and/or those of their children: Nabucco, Count Walter (Luisa Miller), Rigoletto, Germont (La Traviata), Monfort (I Vespri Siciliani) King Phillip II (Don Carlo) and even the comic and blustering Mr. Ford, outdone along with Falstaff by his clearly superior-witted wife.

One might consider Miller, father of Luisa, and Simon Boccanegra to be the most enlightened and evolved fathers in the Verdian pantheon. Conversely, Amonasro (father of Aida) is the least sympathetic father, perhaps because he puts his role as king ahead of his role as father. He shares this dilemma with the father Foscari. In fact, one can see in Foscari the kernel of the future tragedies: the conflict between love and duty. Whether it is opposing national loyalties, as in Aida or I Vespri Siciliani, duties of state as in Un Ballo in Maschera, or Violetta’s choice between the dictates of her heart and the demands of the father of her beloved to conform to provincial bourgeois values, the polar forces of love and duty will be omnipresent throughout most of the Verdi corpus.

The Two Foscari is the first of the series of complex father-son relations, passing through I Masnadieri (with a good and bad son) and Luisa Miller (which will present a clear contrast between the “good” and the “bad” father­) on through Monfort and his son Henri until it finds its apotheosis in the portrayal of the monumentality failed relationship between King Philip II of Spain and his son Don Carlo.

Rare is the Italian opera that lacks the triangular love stories that provided the stuff of generations of competing sopranos, bleating tenors and vindictive, thwarted baritones. But Foscari foreshadows Macbeth in its total absence of love conflicts. It is significant that in Macbeth, a tale of regicide, the good King Duncan and the good father Banquo are murdered, but the story of their sons takes on great significance. The role of Macduff is essentially reduced to one aria, devoted to mourning his murdered children. Leonora’s father in La Forza del Destino appears only for several moments at the beginning of the opera, but his accidental death sets the entire drama that follows in motion.

Verdi’s lifelong preoccupation with and failed attempts to set King Lear may have many explanations, but it is noteworthy that the greatest of all tragic fathers in Shakespeare plays intimidated even the genius who had placed so many fathers on the stage. Of the tantalizing “what ifs” of operatic history, Verdi’s unwritten King Lear is the most frustrating.

The Foscari family trio is a unified and tragic entity, bound together by their implacable enemies’ thirst for vengeance. The conflict between paternal love and the demands of the crown break the will of the aging father; the death (murder) of his son breaks his heart. Only the commanding presence of Lucrezia remains alive at the end of the Foscari reign to face the victorious enemies of her family. Brought to its end by the silent and mysterious forces that ruled “la Serenissima,” the “Most Serene Republic of Venice,” the demise of the Foscari family shows that the “daughter, wife and mistress of the sea” was all but serene.

James Conlon is the Richard Seaver Music Director of LA Opera.




James Conlon: "Falstaff," A Cosmic Scherzo

Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera Falstaff is a paradox. Together with Otello, it represents the zenith of Italian opera. It a highly innovative culminating achievement of more than a half-century’s artistic output. It is a Janus Head, showing a way towards the future, while integrating and partially repudiating the tradition and style Verdi himself had forged. The disappearance of arias, cabalettas, set numbers, vocal display and high notes has often perplexed traditional opera lovers. But it has also won over countless devotees and connoisseurs of so-called “absolute music,” affording them some access to the Italian opera. Many musicians and musicologists who are restrained—if not downright dismissive—in their appreciation of Italian opera cite Otello and Falstaff, along with the three Mozart/Da Ponte operas and Wozzeck, Pelléas et Mélisande, Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal as absolute musical masterpieces. Falstaff completes the cycle, begun in Florence with Claudio Monteverdi, of lyrical works blending text, voice and orchestra, dramatic narrative and reflective prose and poetry, libretto and music. Whether or not in tandem with, or under the influence of, German music (Wagner and Beethoven in particular), the polyphonic intricacy and glorification of the orchestral texture of Falstaff has no precedent or equivalent in the Italian tradition.

Verdi’s 80 years afforded him the privilege of writing for his own pleasure without taking theaters, impresarios and singers into consideration. With detachment, he created a multi-layered work to suit his fancy. First and foremost, with the brilliant collaboration of librettist Arrigo Boito, he transformed a Shakespearean character drawn from two plays into a successful comedy, an accomplishment that had eluded him up until that time.

It is a work of paradoxes, ironies and contradictions. A raucous comedy with profound undertones, it reflects both the philosophical wisdom and resignation of old age. And yet it is infused with astonishing youthful vigor. It demonstrates a total mastery of wedding text and music. Dramatic wit, melodic and contrapuntal invention (the final fugue a culminating accomplishment) cohabit a musical text replete with self-deprecating humor and irony. The use of musical gestures from the long shadow of his past triumphs at times suggests ironic devaluation of the musical and theatrical language that he had built over his lifetime.

And yet it is equally the logical conclusion of the development of the musical language of the entire corpus of his more than two dozen operas. From Nabucco on, one sees a progressive and inevitable metamorphosis from the strict bel canto traditional forms to through-composed music, from set numbers to seamless dramatic constructions. Step by step, Verdi developed the orchestra from its previous subsidiary role to that of equal partner and in the end to that of the center spoke of the wheel. One sees the same wealth of deep humanity that informs all of Verdi’s works, now with a maturity and depth unimaginable at the beginning of his compositional career.

No other operatic work employs numerous subtle self-citations (Verdi connoisseurs will recognize many of them) which fills the work with ironic and self-satirizing humor. With a distanced eye and ear, he winks at the entire melodramatic tradition to which he had devoted his life. It is a perfect combination of the skepticism (even cynicism) of an octogenarian genius and an extraordinary life-affirming joie de vivre.

His three Shakespearean operas have special reverberance in the Anglo-Saxon world, which at times has been a two-edged sword. In the first century after their composition, these works were constantly compared to their literary originals disappointing some while convincing others. The majority view emerged that, in writing Macbeth, Verdi had made a giant leap in the development of his own style but fell short of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. With Otello, he produced the perfect operatic equivalent of the original tragedy, drawing the Italian operatic tradition to its climax. And with Falstaff he surpassed the original Merry Wives of Windsor, already considered to be one of Shakespeare’s weaker works (if written by him at all). Although this viewpoint is somewhat oversimplified, it bears up under serious scrutiny. One of Verdi and Boito’s great accomplishments was to blend in the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor with the Falstaff of Henry IV, Part 2. Both men had so digested the essence of Shakespearean theater, through their life-long study of his works, that their rotund knight achieves a depth and breadth latent in Shakespeare, but only achieved in this musical reincarnation.

Falstaff has been with me for my entire lifetime of music making. I was in my early teens when I first saw it at the old Metropolitan Opera in the now legendary Zeffirelli/Bernstein production. Fewer than ten years later, I conducted it in my first professional engagement, literally a month after my graduation from conservatory. In the Verdian pantheon, Falstaff is to the conductor what Aida, Otello and Rigoletto are to those who sing their title roles. The musical structure, the demands of a perfect ensemble of singers, and the orchestra have become the “protagonist” and hence fully in the domain of the musical direction. The challenge and the joy of steering this ship, while the music goes by at the speed of light, is amongst the greatest that I have experienced.

Fifty years separate this production of Falstaff—my sixth—from my first acquaintance with this work, and the same span of time separated Verdi’s creations of Nabucco and Falstaff. There may be Verdi operas that I love as much, but none that I love more. The entire musical world celebrates Giuseppe Verdi this year, the bicentenary of his birth. I dedicate these performances to him, with the gratitude that we all owe him, for what he has bequeathed to us and to the entire world.

James Conlon is the Richard Seaver Music Director of LA Opera.





Tito Gobbi: Centenary Exhibit

(Tito Gobbi with his book, "My Life")

October 2013 marked two important anniversaries in the world of Italian opera: the bicentennial of Giuseppe Verdi, and the 100th anniversary of the birth of Tito Gobbi, one of the greatest baritones of the 20th century.

Gobbi had retired before LA Opera was founded, but opera lovers in Los Angeles enjoyed several opportunities to experience him in his prime. He performed at the Shrine Auditorium on tour with the San Francisco Opera in several of his greatest roles: Belcore in L’Elisir d’Amore in 1948; the title role of Simon Boccanegra, Jack Rance in La Fanciulla del West and Scarpia in Tosca in 1960; Iago in Otello and Scarpia in 1962; and Iago as well as the title roles of Nabucco and Gianni Schicchi in 1964.

An exhibit in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion lobby throughout the run of LA Opera’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff  presents a wealth of iconographic materials documenting Tito Gobbi as an interpreter of Verdi. His artistry comes to life in a fascinating series of photographs, drawings and set and costume designs showing the full complexity of Verdi's characters and the baritone’s rigorous and imaginative approach to his roles.

(Don Carlo, 1951)                            (Macbeth, 1960)                              (Nabucco, 1965)

about tito gobbi

Tito Gobbi was born in Bassano del Grappa on 24th October, 1913. When he was 19 years old a musician friend of the family, Baron Agostino Zanchetta, noticed that he had a good voice and advised him to study singing. That same year Tito moved to Rome to study with the famous Sicilian tenor, Giulio Crimi, at whose home he met the young pianist, Tilde De Rensis, who was to become his life partner.

His first appearance on stage was in Gubbio, in 1935, where he played Count Rodolfo in Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Immediately afterwards, thanks to an audition with Maestro Gino Marinuzzi, he won a scholarship to the La Scala theatre where, between 1935 and 1936, he understudied for many parts.  In 1942, Maestro Serafin invited him to sing the title role in the Italian première of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and from that time on Gobbi’s name was inscribed in the history of opera.  His career didn't suffer any hindrances during the war and the post-war period: he sang not only in many great Italian opera houses, but also in small provincial theatres and halls, experiencing all the difficulties of those times but with important achievements.

The year 1947, with Rigoletto in Stockholm, marked the beginning of a great international career that brought Tito to all the major opera houses in the world and earned him the nickname of "the flying singer".

In 1964 he performed with Maria Callas in the unsurpassed edition of Tosca directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by Carlo Felice Cillario, which was repeated in Paris the following year and circulated throughout the world on DVD (the second act only).  His U.S. debut dates back to 1948 with The Barber of Seville in San Francisco; in 1954 he was in Chicago for the re-opening of the Lyric Opera, a theatre to which he returned often during more than 10 years,  initially as a performer and then also as director.

In the 70's Tito gradually gave up singing, and stopped completely in 1977 to dedicate himself fully to stage direction and teaching, an activity for which he realized he had a natural proclivity.  He never left theatre and music that accompanied him throughout his life: his last direction is dated 1982, while his last master class was held in 1983.  Tito Gobbi died in Rome on 5th March 1984.

(Biography courtesy Associazione Musicale Tito Gobbi)


View more images from the Tito Gobi Centenary Exhibit

The centenary exhibit is presented courtesy of
Cecilia Gobbi and the Associazione Musicale Tito Gobbi.