The Magazine

Bravo!

The living art of Giuseppe Verdi.

Oct 22, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 06 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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THIS YEAR MARKS THE CENTENARY of Giuseppe Verdi's death, and you can hardly move without meeting some sign of it. Companies with short schedules, such as the Atlanta Opera and the Palm Beach Opera, have devoted the entire season to Verdi; the rather grander San Francisco Opera conducted a Verdi festival this summer; the Kirov Opera of St. Petersburg went to London to perform six Verdi operas and the "Requiem" in ten days at Covent Garden; the Metropolitan Opera has put on a pair of nationally televised Verdi evenings and issued a three-CD set with fifty of its most famous singers since Caruso singing Verdi; the Sarasota Opera inaugurated a Verdi cycle that will run through 2013 and present all of his operas with "traditional, romantic staging"--a commodity that, in an era of operatic stage directors with big new ideas, is getting harder to come by with each passing year.

Perhaps the highlight of the current Verdi celebration is EMI's issue of the digitally remastered set "Les introuvables du chant verdien," a collection on eight CDs of the composer's greatest hits in hard-to-find performances from 1903 to 1954. Even the most fanatical collectors are bound to find unfamiliar gems here--although the accompanying notes do not trouble to point out just what riches are included. Some digging is required to find out that the tenor, Francesco Tamagno, singing Otello's "Niun mi tema" in 1903, happened to be the first Otello in 1887; that the baritone Victor Maurel tossing off Falstaff's patter song "Quand'ero paggio" (with two encores, one in French) in 1907 was the first Falstaff in 1893 (and caused Verdi endless headaches with his maniacal egotism); that the bass Francesco Navarini intoning "Il lacerato spirito" from "Simon Boccanegra" in 1907 was the Grand Inquisitor in the debut of the Italian version of "Don Carlo" in 1884. Giuseppe Borgatti in 1928 gets perfect the unbearable weight that his ruinous folly has become for the broken Otello. Alexander Kipnis in 1931 outshines Navarini by portraying Fiesco's despair at his daughter's death with burnished obsidian tone, beauty of line, and a low F-sharp of preternatural potency.

WHEN YOU ADD IN ALL THE OTHERS--Mattia Battistini, Fedora Barbieri, Jussi Bjorling, Eva Turner, Beniamino Gigli, Tito Gobbi, Boris Christoff, Enrico Caruso, Titta Ruffo, Antonina Neshdanova, Luisa Tetrazzini, Nellie Melba, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Helge Roswaenge, Lilli Lehmann, Ezio Pinza--you have as fine a collection as has ever been assembled. Unfortunately, the package fails to provide texts for the music, so that unless the listener is intimate with some seventeen operas he will be pretty much at sea. The words matter, because Verdi was one of the supreme musical dramatists and perhaps the greatest of musical moralists--that is, a thinker of the utmost seriousness whose natural medium was music for the stage.

Born in 1813, Verdi was the son of a tavern keeper in Roncole, a village in Parma. He was fortunate in his choice of father, who bought the boy a broken spinet, and had a neighbor fix it. (Verdi kept it the rest of his life.) The village organist taught him to play, well enough that at the age of twelve he replaced his teacher in the organ loft.

But there were things he would never learn in Roncole, and so his father sent him up the road to Busseto, which offered music instruction in its school, as well as a military band and an amateur philharmonic society. The stripling Verdi took musical Busseto by storm, learning to play several instruments, composing hundreds of little works and not a few larger ones for local consumption, and wooing Margherita Barezzi, whose father was a well-to-do merchant.

AT EIGHTEEN VERDI APPLIED FOR ADMISSION to the Milan Conservatory, but the examiners were put off by his advanced age--fourteen was the usual cutoff--and by certain yokel mannerisms of his at the keyboard. Their rejection daunted him, but Barezzi's financial assistance enabled Verdi to study privately in Milan with Vincenzo Lavigna, an operatic composer and a conductor at La Scala. After three years of city living, he returned to Busseto, where he married Margherita and settled into the position of maestro di musica for the town--but only after a protracted controversy that pitted the forces of respectable Christendom, who opposed the self-proclaimed atheist Verdi, against the secular types of the philharmonic.