“ . . . have a soul, and understand the word and express it . . .”
So, that’s all Giuseppe Verdi wanted from a singer! It’s what I want too. As a committed Francophile, I was uneasy with the extravagant emotions of Verdi’s operas, so I decided to do some exposure therapy, starting with one of the quintessential middle-period works “La Forza del Destino” (The Force [Strength, or Power] of Destiny).
Verdi’s operas represent the power of music over “plot believability.” I often ask Verdi objectors when was the last time they attended an opera for plausibility? Perhaps one problem with many contemporary operas is that they’ve lost that alchemy with “ordinary” words in their search for sophisticated literature to set to music.
Some belief systems maintain that man’s life is “destined,” that every event is predetermined. Others say that a Creator endowed man with free will and a moral sense, each choice leads to the next. Others, a combination of the two: man may influence his own “destiny.” In this, as in so may Verdi operas, passions dictate lives, and death exerts a near-erotic pull. As Verdi said: “But after all, in life isn’t everything death? What else exists?” Monks, gypsies, soldiers, pilgrimage, battle, and honor, to name a few of his stock ingredients.
In Verdi, the music tells us directly of the larger-than-life nobility of the protagonists, even the ones we don’t empathize with. It even represents when the characters are lying (subtext). They really do take themselves seriously, sometimes insufferably so. In “Forza,” everything results from the initial forbidden romance between Leonora and Alvaro. If your boyfriend kills your father, are you stuck with him? Does your own brother have to swear revenge and kill both him and you? Does all this constitute destiny?
Verdi balances the heaviness with deft comic touches, including a saucy gypsy (Preziosilla) and a tart-tongued monk (Melitone), in scenes that leaven the tragic mood for a while, and that were criticized for that very reason. This serious/comic polarity is a Verdi signature, as is the “devout heroine in peril.” The body count by opera’s end is high. Is it a subconscious reference to the deaths of his two children and first wife within an 18-month period early in his life?
The portrayal of the monk Melitone as an irreverent, corrupt figure may reflect Verdi’s lifelong atheism. The successful composer did major philanthropic works with some of his earnings, yet managed to remarry happily and still flirt with his female lead singers, even to the point of inviting one of them to live with him and his wife in a 19th century ménage a trois. Complication would be the rule with artists!
Verdi creates memorable melodies and a dramatic arch that marks him as a progressive, developing beyond the conventions of Italian opera that preceded him. The orchestral color and stage action are always original, even if the staging is ignored nine times out of ten by contemporary directors. Verdi left hundreds of specific instructions about movement, showing how concerned he was with the total theatrical effect.
Trendy updating is a risk with Verdi, because the emotions are so direct and of primary importance that commenting on the material, as postmodern directors often do, actually weakens the impact. Casting is also a snare, for the true Verdi singer (in any vocal range) is a rarity: a large, warm voice, with infinite color variety and a keen emotional intelligence, whose vocalism won’t overpower the words.
Above all, Verdi wanted to avoid the “stand still, face forward and sing” style that was prevalent in opera, what is today called “park and bark” and that Rossini, with much more wit, called “the row of artichokes.”
Famed baritone Leonard Warren (1911-1960) died onstage during a production of “Forza,” another link in the chain of Verdi “curses” that may have started in Verdi’s schooldays, when an irate priest kicked Verdi down a flight of stairs, causing the teen to curse him with a “may God strike you dead!” A couple of months later, lightning struck the small country chapel, killing that very priest (and several others).
Verdi advised Debussy to write “more simply” so that his works would stand a better chance of being performed. They met during Debussy’s unhappy stay in Rome as youthful winner of the “Prix de Rome” in 1884. Debussy would go on to treat destiny in quite a different way in his opera “Pelléas et Mélisande.”
For Verdi, success meant large box-office receipts. He was all about the accessibility. “Both poet and musician must sometimes have the talent and the courage to make neither poetry nor music . . . Horror! Horror!”
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs