Giuseppe Verdi is undeniably one of the greatest composers in the history of opera with such works as “La Traviata,” “Aida,” “Rigoletto,” ubiquitous with the artform.
Verdi’s genius is often associated with his melodic vibrancy and muscularity, but the greatest strength of his art is his ability to embed his characters with deep humanity, even in the most absurd of situations. Imagine a composer whose characterizations are so rich and full of depth of feeling as to render his biggest criticism, his preference for outlandish melodramatic plots, mostly null and void. Other composers have and continue to falter because their music is unable to manage the emotional and psychological depths of the characters it must portray in more complex stories. But that is where Verdi always excelled and what keeps him (and will always keep him) at the forefront of the operatic repertory.
In honor of his birthday on Oct. 10, many of OperaWire’s writers are celebrating their personal favorite works by the famed composer.
John Carroll – La Traviata
“La Traviata” was my very first opera, and is still my favorite Verdi opera.
When I was in high school in the late 1970s, I had heard Beverly Sills’ name mentioned in choir. So I went to the local public library and checked out her recording of “La Traviata” on vinyl. It was scratchy and dog-eared, but it did its job hypnotizing me into the amazing world of opera. I’ve never looked back.
I consider myself lucky that I got introduced to opera at such a high level — 40 years later, I know that “La Travata” is Verdi at his very best. It’s a nearly perfect masterwork — a compelling story of a uniquely intriguing woman’s journey told through ingenious music. The supporting characters are a smidgen underwhelming, but from the haunting opening prelude to the final death scene, Violetta is one of the genre’s most fascinating creatures. She is a litmus test for a “leading lady” soprano because her music crosses over several traditional vocal categories.
The score calls for a glamorous lyric-coloratura in Act one, a probing lirico-spinto in Act two, and a tragic lyric soprano in Act three — all while conveying an alluring balance of confident artifice, sentimental vulnerability, and gradual spiritual enlightenment. It’s an opera of great diva moments, one after the other, as the opening scenes of the glittering Parisienne hostess (at least on the surface) crumble gradually into a series of struggles and sacrifices. It’s the Olympics of opera divadom, and I will never pass up any chance to see or hear a soprano do her best to run the vocal and emotional gauntlet of “La Traviata.”
Matt Costello – Otello
So, here’s the question: do you remember the opera that you saw — or heard — that made you realize that this art from was something truly amazing? For me, that opera and the moment clear. It was at the Met, Verdi’s “Otello,” with that Otello – Jon Vickers. And from the tumultuous, thundering opening of the Lion of Venice’s ship struggling through the storm, to the powerful pathos of Otello’s final kiss to Desdemona — “un bacio ancora” — I knew I had discovered a work that day that would be important to me for the rest of my life.
It was only later when I dived into the history of that opera, that I learned how Verdi had to be coaxed, nearly wooed by the once-upstart Boito, to compose again, have retired any years earlier. Then to see how Boito’s own great talent as librettist matched Verdi who — despite his age — was at the peak of his powers, and then some.
But here’s the thing…it would have been remarkable if that opera had been merely respectable, a “sucsés d’estime.” Instead, for me and many, it is the brightest star in the operatic sky. (And then to think…there was still another masterpiece to come!)
Freddy Dominguez – Un Ballo in Maschera
Maybe I love “Un ballo in maschera” most because it is a little experimental, sometimes a little bit of a mess. The story if simple enough: a forbidden love between a ruler and his best friend’s wife set within the context of political conspiracies (eighteenth century Sweden of seventeenth century New England, take your pick). The music, however, is far from simple. The opera shows a master composer reworking traditions (his own and those of the times) and planting the seeds of his exquisite mature compositions.
“Ballo” has it all. The first act filled with light and shadows. The controlled, stately music of Riccardo’s introduction is followed by a foray into the ghoulish Romanticism of Ulrica, a seer, who predicts of Riccardo’s ultimate fate. The ominous atmosphere is lightened by Riccardo’s gloriously nonchalant, breezy music.
Act two leaves the musical realm of bel canto for a more deeply emotive, rawer emotional terrain of love nearly realized and betrayal discovered. There is simply no other duet in Verdi’s canon (save maybe the Violetta/Germont scene in “Traviata”) that is as charged as “Teco io sto” when Riccardo and Amelia openly declare love for each other—sweet, expectant music coupled with throbbing, bursting exclamations.
Having fully established the operas various dilemmas, the final act pushes the singers’ voices into more dramatic territory with beefier, more inventive orchestrations. The final act also gives us individual character sketches in three of the most finely crafted tearjerker arias: “Morró, ma prima in grazia” for the soprano (a gut-wrenching plea to see her son once more before being killed!), “Eri tu…” for the baritone (the angry and then lachrymose lament of lost love by the betrayed Renato), and “Ma se m’è forza perderti” for the tenor ( an expression of love and sacrifice by the ultimately clement Riccardo). All this beauty excuses, or perhaps requires, a somewhat lame death scene and finale, which allows for the audience to catch its breath, even if is, from where I listen, the opera’s great flaw.
Sophia Lambton – Otello
Enshrouded in crepuscular Venetian darkness, the serially portentous incantations of Verdi’s “Otello” mark a departure from the composer’s more restrained melodic illustrations of bleak augury. Beginning with the thunderbolts of recklessly ascending thirty-second notes, the opera’s music plunges into introduction of its hero-villain’s plight before our first encounter with the Moor: heralding a heady and precarious clatter whose loose chains are emblematic of the noxious fragmentation that will gradually become Otello’s envy-stricken mind.
Despite the chronic presence of lugubrious motifs whose unrelenting nature appears almost errant in this 19th-century, Romantic opera – strings of imperfect cadences and eerie intervals foreshadowing the broken harmony scheduled to pervade orchestral music decades later – the protagonist’s paradox is equally palpable. The undercurrent of fraught themes that recklessly beleaguer the opera’s more classical, orthodox, conservative attempts at melody may constantly remind us of Otello’s greedy appetite for rage – but percolations of the gentle, almost lullaby-esque notes from the love duet “Già nella notte densa” radiantly echo the sanctuary of his tenderness. The solo cello’s surreptitious, tenuously extensive passage into the duet’s inception is a musical embodiment of the excited tension plaguing the two timid newlyweds as their enamoured awkwardness persuades them to recall their first encounter.
Of all the heroines among the Verdi repertoire, Desdemona elects to be the most subdued and most subtle in the face of her renowned, glorious husband. Precisely for this reason the entrapment of her hesitant fear – allegorically pronounced when she recites the tale of an enamoured but rejected girl, Barbara in the “Willow Song”, “La Canzone del Salice” – surfaces in scarcely shaded hues: the almost self-effacing entrance of a solo cor anglais; faint diminuendo scurries of the woodwind motifs that succeed it. In contrast to the heavily accented exclamations of impending death in other Verdi works (Violetta’s “Morrò, la mia memoria non fia ch’ei maledica” – “I shall die, but he shan’t curse my memory” comes to mind), Desdemona’s quiet realization is an ashamed one: intuitively she knows the temper of her husband; verbally she cannot have the status to profess it.
When Otello finally strangles his wife – shortly before realizing she is a martyr to his blind, unfounded envy – the obsessively haunting motif of his jealousy eerily joins with soft phrases from “Già nella notte” as he learns of his prevailing love, fusing the unequal lovers in a nefarious “Liebestod” as Otello declares: “Un altro bacio.” The blatant paradox is horrifying – and a symbol of the psychological disunions set to surface in the 20th century.
Polina Lyapustina – Don Carlo & Simon Boccanegra
I don’t find it that easy to pick a favorite opera by Verdi simply because his heritage is as multifaceted as opera itself. Like many other people, I discovered my passion for opera with Verdi’s “Don Carlo” and as such, this is the opera that occurred to me first. The anxious and disturbing prelude gives way to compelling “Io l’ho perduta.” From there you are completely in the grip of this music. But the main advantage is, of course, the emotional and musical lines that define the relationship betweenDon Carlo and his faithful Rodrigo. Even if we have similar bromance combinations in numerous operas, nothing can ever compare with this pair.
Another opera I would definitely mention is “Simon Boccanegra.” This piece is quite a challenge for conductors. Let’s be honest: it can bore, but when interpreted well, it’s a pure gem. In addition to great music, this opera has an astonishing female character. Maria (Amelia) Boccanegra shows a telling combination of mind, feelings, and power of will, which overtakes the perception of women of that time. Music-wise, this role is the most vivid in this opera, which makes this character the highlight in a work dominated by a bass and baritone.
And since we are on the subject of basses, I cannot but express admiration for Verdi’s approach to his voice type. No matter how wicked or cruel the character was in the source of the libretto, it aways sounds complex and ambiguous in the opera. No wonder that Jacopo Fiesco and Filippo II head my list of the top bass roles.
Alan Neilson – Rigoletto
Trying to choose a favorite Verdi opera is certainly no easy task. A case could be made for almost any of his mature operas. However, if forced to choose, I would probably go for “Rigoletto,” an engaging tale, well-told, which maintains a strong forward momentum and contains interesting and clearly defined characters, which Verdi’s music, with its lively and engaging tunes, flexible musical structures and its close attention to the dramatic situation, elevates to a higher level. It was Verdi’s first great work, which arguably may have been bettered in his later operas, however, it is its underlying message and its relevance to the human condition, and to today’s society which, for me, makes it so interesting.
Today our world appears to be a particularly brutal place, in which little room is left for innocence or purity, and tolerance is at a premium. Values which have sustained societies are under constant attack, anyone who puts their head above the parapet is gunned down, and woe betide the saint, for they will be brought low. Innocence is intolerable to our society, or in fact, I would argue in any society at anytime, although to a greater and lesser extents. We humans cannot tolerate the innocent for they expose our own innate failings, and so they must be corrupted or destroyed. Far better the hypocrite, for their judgments count for little.
In “Rigoletto,” Verdi created a work in which Gilda, the very paragon of purity and innocence, is first corrupted then destroyed, raped by the Duke, then murdered by Sparafucile, although she is actually a victim of the society; everyone is complicit in her death, even Count Monterone, whose curse directed against Rigoletto, finds its fulfillment in Gilda’s death. A lot is made of the father-daughter relationship between Rigoletto and Gilda, and he is prepared to do anything to protect her, even kill. However, it is Rigoletto’s vicious and cynical nature which truly defines his relationship, for no one so corrupted is able to protect innocence. Thus it is fitting he ends up being instrumental in the murder of his daughter.
All the characters are brilliantly drawn, to which Verdi’s music adds wonderful dimensions. The Duke of Mantua is not an evil person, regardless of the fact he has no respect for anyone, destroys lives on a whim, corrupts and rapes, imprisons and much more, for such an adjective assigns him too much depth. The Duke is amoral, there is no empathy here, evil and goodness do not exist for him. He is a totally superficial character, thus it is that “La donna è mobile” is so appropriate; it may be a popular song which delights audiences, but it has little substance, however, it tells us almost all we need to know about his character, not least his superficiality, and when it is reprised towards the end of Act three it creates a delicious contrast to the murderous events being acted out. Likewise, the music Verdi composed for Gilda’s aria “Caro nome” in which she sings of her (innocent) love for her unknown suitor is so pure, so sweet, and captures the beauty of her spirit, yet it is a love which destined to be brutally destroyed by the Duke who rapes her.
Then there is Rigoletto himself, whose deformity reflects his character, the Duke’s creature who ends up becoming his victim, a truly complicated, multi-layered character. It is a role that has attracted all the great baritones, and with such music as his soliloquy, “Pari siamo,” it is not surprising.
The structure of the opera is also so well-crafted, but Act three stands out as a work of a real genius, both musically and dramatically. The central quartet has so much going on, yet all is so clear, their words and music defining their respective feelings with brilliant concision. The storm motif which rumbles along throughout the act creates the perfect ambience to the scene. Its ending on the dark gloomy waters of the lake, in which Rigoletto’s gloating is suddenly interrupted by the sound of the Duke singing his favorite ditty, brings him to the horrific realization, that he has committed his own innocent daughter to the grave.
David Salazar – Falstaff
For the record, “Otello” has always been my favorite Verdi opera. But since it seems to be everyone’s I want to look at the other Verdi opera that I hold so near and dear – “Falstaff.”
For many, this work lacks the emotional power of his great melodramas and there is no denying that on some level, we might not have the same passionate investment in the Merry Wives of Windsor as we do with Violetta or Rigoletto or Aida or any of the Leonoras.
But “Falstaff” operates on a different level and with a different agenda in mind. It is not necessarily Verdi being Verdi, but Verdi trying something completely different. He is playing in the realm of Mozart, Wagner, Beethoven, even Bach. Verdi has transcended himself with a work that explores human emotion and depth in a way that supersedes anything else he had done before. It is not surprising that many of the great conductors of the 20th century, including Mahler, R. Strauss, and Bernstein, loved this Verdi opera above all the others.
“Falstaff” is a comedy, but its complexity allows us to read it today as a dark opera as well. After all, it centers on a man with a massive sexual appetite who won’t to take no for an answer and incessantly pursues not one woman, but two (or more depending on the director). At the close of the opera, he (and everyone else in the opera) proclaims “All the world’s a joke,” which we can definitely laugh about and joke about, but we can also cry a bit about it – for if everything is but a joke, then our suffering and pain should never be taken seriously.
In this light, Verdi puns on his previous work, almost sticking his finger in the wounds of so many characters and tropes of his past. We see the jealous Ford, whose music in the climactic moment of his aria, resembles the conclusion of Otello’s own “Dio mi potevi.” We see a pezzo concertato, in which a bunch of overzealous men get bent out of shape over an innocent kiss while the women laugh at them behind their backs. Verdi pokes fun at his requiem at one moment in the climax. The tenor doesn’t get to conclude his own aria with the soprano interrupting him and essentially forcing the two to end it as a duet. The love duet itself never gets a chance to fully flourish and is constantly broken up and interrupted by other characters (poorly timed love duets becoming the norm in such operas as “Don Carlo,” “Un Ballo in Maschera,” and even “La Forza del Destino”). Falstaff, who talks about his big kingdom, his massive appetite, and his outrageous desire to bed as many women as possible, gets a tiny 30-second aria (“Quando era paggio”) in the A-B-A structure. Alternatively, the main soprano, Alice Ford, doesn’t even get her own solo aria, with her big lyrical moment in Act one, being, as Julien Budden notes, a sarcastic expression of romantic melodies. Budden even suggests that the opera’s opening scene hides an overture in the classical structure. These are just but a few ways in which Verdi takes his entire body of works and just undercuts its meaning by laughing and toying with it.
But the biggest subversion of all is Verdi’s melodic invention. The composer, who was renowned for his hummable tunes throughout his career, hides them away in this opera. There are probably more melodies embedded in the fabric of “Falstaff” than any of the other operas individually, but the melodies fly by so fast that most won’t register on the first, second, or even third listen. On first encounter, you might wonder whether it is Verdi at all. But it is this very intrigue that keeps making you come back for more. It can’t really be Verdi without the melodies can it? Knowing this composer’s trademark in past works, you can’t help but search for it in this opera more and more. And with “Falstaff,” the more you give to the work, the more it gives back to you.
As the final fugue notes, “He who laughs last, laughs best.” Verdi undeniably got the last laugh with his final masterpiece.
Francisco Salazar – Don Carlo
It’s hard to choose a favorite Verdi opera. Of his 26 works, each piece is a gem and in many cases masterpieces of the operatic canon. But for me, the opera that speaks most to me is “Don Carlo.” It is an opera with rich characters that Verdi defined so powerfully through the unique vocal styles and musical moments. Each duet is packed with many emotions and is also expansive enough for audience members to really get a deep understanding of the turbulent political and emotional states of each character.
Of course, there is also the relationship between Elisabetta and Carlo which Verdi beautifully portrays throughout the work. The Fountainbleau scene beautifully defines the purity of the love between the characters. It all starts with an arousal of emotions and evolves into disappointment which Verdi creates with the brighter colors at the beginning of the duet and juxtaposes with darker and brooding timbres at its close. Then there is the second duet “Io Vengo a domandar,” a piece about torment, love, and power. It is incredible how in the middle of the duet, Elisabetta and Carlo get that moment of ecstasy before returning to reality in some of the most powerful music of the work. The final duet is filled with tenderness as both characters resign themselves to being apart.
Speaking of duets there is nothing more powerful than King Philip and the Grand Inquisitor’s duet in Act five. The power struggle between these characters couldn’t be better characterized than by two basses. King Philip’s is music motivated more by emotions and the Grand Inquisitors more metronomic and entrenched by bass sounds from the orchestra.
Verdi also wrote some of the best arias in this opera, including Rodrigo’s double aria in Act five, Elisabetta’s “Tu che la Vanita,” Eboli’s “O Don Fatale,” and of course King Philip’s “Ella Giamai m’amo.” And these are just a few of the riches that Verdi gave his soloists.
We can’t talk about Don Carlo without mentioning the French version which also has music that is unforgettable, including the “Lacrimosa,” which unites Philip and Carlo for a moment and which gives even more insight into the detached relationship.
Lois Silverstein – Otello
“Otello” is my favorite Verdi opera, “La Traviata” a second, although some days it’s reversed. Before I step into the opera house, I can’t wait for human drama that will unfold before us, and after I leave, I am drunk with its power. Its bold strokes wake me to the depths of human feeling. From the opening storm, I am riveted by the rich texture of psychology and music, and all I want is to be face front, right there – the human condition at its heart, its beat and its cessation. This is not the world, I know, but of it, and one of the best ways I can enter it and connect. I crave it.
The close and intricate weave of the score shows us how every word among the characters and every intonation locks them in their deadly embrace: Otello’s vulnerability leads him directly into Iago’s plan. He has been called a virgin in the landscape of love, and Iago knows it well; and so does Desdemona, whose belief in her power over her warrior compels her to try to pry him from his anger against Cassio. What an ingenious web Iago weaves. His mind is like a stiletto, which deeply penetrates the heart. In his “Credo,” not only does he turn all views of love and goodness on its head, but delivers a kind of foreplay to the erotic expression the story is apparently to unfold.
The music tracks the shifting emotion with precision, the rising passion of the lovers, the rising anger and confusions, the suspense, the mysterious by-play of hope and aspiration. There is no resting point. The whole is one fabric of sounds that shift just like feeling: for example, Otello burning in existential anguish when Iago whispers in his ear that Desdemona has bedded with Cassio.
Verdi’s use of refrains and repeating motifs and sets scenes against each other, using one to imply and cast shadows over the other. For instance, the ironic drinking scene which shows the apparent jollity and camaraderie of the soldiers and locals is the first rip in the fabric. The gorgeous love scene follows with the exquisite duet that rises right out of this atmosphere. Who is who is no longer a question, Otello beset with feelings of awe and vulnerability soldier, general, Desdemona, free from parental constriction, and filling moment by moment with her passion , and us, privy to an intimacy perhaps we should not be. The air is thick, hard to breathe, but we cannot escape. Poised we are before their bed, the bed that two acts later, becomes the tomb for the two of them, and it is here that we watch their complete naked hearts.
The finale envelopes us in stench and obloquy. Here we sit in near suffocation. Apart from the gorgeous, the glorious music, Otello’s lust for revenge, imbibed from Iago, takes us direct from dream to death. Desdemona’s “Ave Maria” and Willow Song echo through us like frail protest. Such dark forces are beyond us. That is the final stroke. What is worse? Verdi brings us to that shore: we cannot go beyond, for as the music breaks over us is the unbearable bearableness of the circumstance. Even a great Otello must hold both aspects of his nature in tandem, if he is to survive. In the story of this opera, it doesn’t happen, but in witnessing it, it does. Verdi makes sure we don’t live one side without the other, the bold and glorious and the dark and defiant, and the frail glory of trust. Both the music with its heart-breaking melodies and alternating zones of rebellion to the sweet and sensuous, the human duality – the boundary-less-ness and the constricted.
What “Otello” galvanizes in me is the blend of complexity of human psychology and the sensuosity of the music, the mixture of here and now passion, and our capacity for violence and rage. This is its paradigm. We are not one thing, as Otello is not, nor Desdemona, nor Iago. We might wish it could be so. But Verdi shows us, as Shakespeare before him, that immortality is in the conflict not in the triumph, the suspension not its resolution. The finale forces us to reckon with its desolation. We have no choice in that. It is the way it is. Once I thought Verdi’s “Otello” was about passion and jealousy, “mainly,” but now I see it is also about suspension and belief and our acceptance of that.
Dejan Vukosavljevic – Macbeth
It is certainly very difficult to choose as Verdi composed many great operas, but here I would go with “Macbeth.”
“Macbeth” requires much vocal mastery and dramatic expressions, and not everyone is up to the task. Also, lapses between the pit and the stage are instantly and greatly felt. I think that Verdi managed to give Shakespeare’s characters deep psychological meaning, starting with Lady Macbeth: the way she conjured her husband to act immediately upon the witches’ predictions, her ruthless actions and determination combined with fantastic music that amplifies her merciless character. Macbeth is seen as weak in his crimes, led by omnipresent hand of his wife. He realizes that he has to kill more people than originally thought, but that gets inevitable for him. His weakness even during most despicable crimes has been foretold by Lady Macbeth: “Alla grandezza aneli, ma sarai tu malvagio?”
The witches’ choruses gives the opera its necessary bizarre component, leading the spectator directly into the surreal world, and especially the fact that witches’ predictions are almost instantly fulfilled. That sends the main characters into a true tailspin.
I find another interesting moment in the scene of Banquo and his son (“Fuggi, mio figlio… Oh, tradimento!”) where psychological inversion happens: by sacrificing his own life to save his young son, Banquo confirms the predictions of the witches (“Non re, ma di monarchi genitore”). Depictions of madness and sinking into madness both by Macbeth and his wife are among the finest examples of deep psychological characterization of advanced mental illness in the operatic universe. Verdi nicely developed Shakespeare’s deep motive of filthy conscience that eats up from the inside (“Richard III” is also a nice example). Like a spider’s thread that embraces both leading characters, dragging them straight to hellish hallucinations and finally death.
It is my impression that Verdi fully and successfully gave accounts of what was originally Shakespeare’s intention, bolstered by music that nicely teetered between reality and dream, sanity and madness.