Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Verdi on the Turntable and in the Car

I’m a mood-driven listener to music. Sometimes I get into moods when only rock music cranked up to sonic boom level, will do, or 80s new wave or synthpop.  Sometimes I want to listen to types of classical music, or to a cross-section of a composer‘s works.  Other times, I want to hear a lot of the same composer.  I liked Haydn’s music so I bought a 33-CD set of his symphonies. Messiaen intrigued me so I purchased his complete organ works. I loved Mozart’s 15th piano concerto so I bought an 11-CD set of all of them!

I used to collect opera LPs, especially Wagner, but also some Mozart, Verdi, Britten, and others. My first opera purchase was Böhm recording of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” with Sherrill Milnes in the title role. I recall buying it at the Chapel Square Mall in New Haven, Connecticut. My fondest set was “Le Nozze di Figaro,” also conducted by Böhm, with a wonderful cast including Prey, Mathis, Janowitz, Fischer-Dieskau, and Troyanos. At one point I loved Wagner and owned at least one set of his famous operas, even the early “Rienzi.”

I also found several classic Verdi recordings: Toscanini’s “Falstaff” and “Aida,” “Otello” with Jon Vickers in the title role, and also “Rigoletto” (with Sutherland, Pavarotti, and Milnes), Guilini’s 1958 “Don Carlos” (the five act version but in Italian), and the “Messa da Requiem.” I purchased “La traviata,“ donated it to a library book fair during a spring cleaning, then wished I had it back. (Fortunately there’s always Ebay.) I think I owned a used set of “Macbeth” at some point but don’t remember what happened to it.

I couldn’t quite get into Verdi. His operas lacked the chromatic interest and visceral force of Wagner’s. Benjamin Britten once said, “I am an arrogant and impatient listener; but in the case of a few composers, a very few, when I hear a work I do not like I am convinced it is my own fault. Verdi is one of these composers.” [1] I’m not an arrogant listener but--especially since I know almost no musicology--I respond to music on a purely emotional level and know that, sometimes, I’m still growing in musical taste. I was heartened by an article by Walter Clemons who also wasn’t touched by Verdi’s music at first.[2]

Sorting through my old LPs after our recent move, I brought my Verdi operas into my office and gave them a new listen. This time I was smart, however. I'd been looking for an emotional entry into Verdi's music and had never quite find it listening to whole operas. So I found a good collection of Verdi arias to help me, “Essential Verdi, 40 of His Masterpieces” on the Decca label.

What a wonderful set! As I listened to the two CDs (in my car), I kept grabbing the liner notes when I came to stop lights to see which opera aria I’d just heard. I finally appreciated Verdi’s gift for writing melodies. You hear it among old favorites like “La donna è mobile” and the “Aida” grand march but you also hear it in the lesser known dramas like “I masnadieri.” Clemons writes that he was convinced of Verdi’s greatness during a live performance of Othello’s aria “Ora e per sempre additio;” Othello despairs, yet “Verdi gives him back, in memory, the martial music of his days of glory” (p. 88). I found a similar moment in the “Ave Maria” from that same opera, sung on this set by Renee Fleming.

Famously, Verdi returned after "Otello" with one more, remarkable opera, “Falstaff,” only his second comic opera among nearly thirty. Verdi’s views of life were pessimistic but humanistic. As Osborne puts it, “In the Requiem … gentle resignation and joyful anticipation of an after-life were no part of his thoughts…. The intensity and compassion of his tragic view of the human condition are Shakespearian in stature: the prodigality of his technique deserves … to be called Mozartian” (p. 403). In this last opera, Verdi seems to have definitively joined his tragic view with a Mozartian comic spirit.

“Falstaff” ends:

Tutto nel mondo é burla.
L'uom é nato burlone,
La fede in cor gli ciurla,
Gli ciurla la ragione.
Tutti gabbati! Irride
L'un l'altro ogni mortal.
Ma ride ben chi ride
La risata final.

As translated by Vincent Sheean in the Toscanini recording: “The whole world is a jest; man was born a great jester, pushed this way and that by faith in his heart or by reason. All are cheated! Every mortal being laughs at every other one, but the best laugh of all is the one that comes last.”

I agree with some of that. We are all “pushed this way and that” and we’re all “cheated” of something. We're silly to think we can escape life's unfairness. Verdi suffered a terrible loss early in life, the death of his two children and first wife. Over time, he transformed his suffering and pessimism into wonderful theater and melody. Clemons writes that “Verdi’s long, fertile career can now be seen as remarkable in its steady progress and deepening insight as that of Dickens.” (p. 123) Yeats comes to mind as another artist who grew steadily and ended with depth and insight.

Here's one more quote from Clemons. “There is something clear and sunlit-square about Verdi’s music that makes it at first difficult to appreciate, if romantic mystery is what one looks for. The value of his honesty and clarity grows with acquaintance” (p. 123).

1. Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Verdi (New York: Knopf, 1979), p. 11.

2. Walter Clemons, “Viva Verdi! The Story of a Love Affair,” Vanity Fair, 46 (June 1983), 87-89, 122-123.

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