On the Music of Giuseppe Verdi

Originally published in The Yale Review, 2013

The English composer Thomas Adès, in his book Full of Noises, confesses – after incisive appraisals of composers ranging from Mahler to Janáček to Britten – that Verdi ‘‘is very difficult for me.’’ At first, he seems merely dismissive: he mentions Verdi while discussing composers whose music just doesn’t work 99 percent of the time. But the 1 percent of Verdi’s music that does work evidently bothers him:

“For some reason this music [in this case Simon Boccanegra] won’t lie down and die . . . it still somehow has a kind of wriggling existence. . . . Everything about it is wrong. It could hardly be worse. Yet it has this strangely powerful effect if it’s done well. . . . I look at it in fascination, and I think: why is it that, despite everything, [Verdi] can make a single moment that is so incredibly strong? Because those moments are stronger than they would be if someone had planned it properly. These things suddenly leap out, like a knife out of the canvas.”


...Verdi’s psychological portraits are uniquely single-minded. He paints with a deep-burning penetration, so that we are never unsure about what his characters are ‘‘really’’ feeling – which is not to say that their feelings are static or predictable. Verdi’s major characters express emotions that they can’t help feeling; they are not self-conscious ‘‘performers,’’ as some of Mozart’s or Puccini’s or Wagner’s characters are.


The penultimate sentence is the crucial one. Great moments in Verdi emerge not in spite but because of the absence of a structural agenda other than maximum moment-by-moment expression and communication. Unlike any other composer of his eminence (and there aren’t many), Verdi looks like a genius only from the one perspective that matters – the middle distance, the human scale, the scale of the theater. Put him under the microscope, and you probably won’t find any astounding hidden patterns. Zoom way out, and you don’t see a meticulously crafted total architecture. But stand on his level, meet him eye to eye, listen moment by moment, and you will practically never hear a misstep in dramatic expression.

In art as in science, that middle level – neither micro nor macro, the realm of the visible world and its familiar objects – remains the most unpredictable and unknowable to us. To quote Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, the past century’s advancements in science ‘‘only explained the very big and the very small. . . . The ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about – clouds – daffodils – waterfalls – what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in – these things are full of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks.’’ We don’t quite know the equations that make those things live – and it is at that mysterious, visible human level that Verdi operates with total confidence. His works are not huge genetically engineered supercreatures, as Wagner’s operas are, nor are they snowflake-rich miniatures like Schubert’s songs. Verdi’s music has the openness and gestural weight of a handshake or a slap in the face. (By contrast, Adès is a kind of atomic scientist capable of forging cosmic structures from microscopic musical molecules; it’s obvious he has little in common with Verdi’s sensibility, but it is nonetheless revealing that a musical thinker of Adès’s brilliance has trouble getting an aerial perspective on what Verdi is up to.)

Verdi’s music – again, not in spite of but because of its simplicity – is harder to sing than it sounds. American conservatories try to prepare singers for everything: diction classes in Italian, French, German, (British) English, Czech, and Russian! Alexander technique! stage-combat training! But breadth of study does not inculcate the naked, honest simplicity Verdi’s music demands. If you didn’t grow up steeped in Verdi’s music and the music of his bel canto predecessors, taking a graduate seminar on the Verdi style is unlikely to help you: Verdi’s music doesn’t work if it sounds studied or cautious – or effortful, even though it demands a Herculean effort to get right.

In recent decades, it has become a go-to water-cooler complaint in the opera world that we are sadly bereft of true Verdi singers. ‘‘Where are all the great Verdi [tenors, baritones, sopranos, mezzos]?’’ runs the usual lament. ‘‘Where have they gone?’’ Everyone has a different idea of just when the ‘‘golden age’’ of Verdi singing was, but no one seems to think it’s the present day. (Depending whom you ask, the range is anywhere from 1850 to 1980.) And it is perhaps no coincidence that the general decline in vocalists and conductors capable of reliably, idiomatically delivering Verdian warmth and power roughly corresponds to the emergence of Regietheater, ‘‘director’s theater,’’ the system whereby the stage director, rather than the conductor or singers, is the opera production’s driving creative force. The Regie tenet that the standard repertory is there to be deconstructed or ironized is best suited to operas whose dramatic structure is openly, playfully imperfect and whose characters express some psychological ambiguity. Many directors prefer operas with chinks in their armor, chinks they can tear open into gaping holes, as if each opera’s real subject were the instability lurking beneath its glittering surface. In the past thirty years, directors have glutted themselves on Mozart operas, which ache with emotional ambiguity, and whose sweetness thrillingly threatens to sour at every turn, as well as on a newly-excavated treasure trove of Baroque and classical works. Handel’s operas in particular, which feature pinpoint psychological acuity within an overtly stylized dramatic structure, have seemed easy fodder for exercises in metatheater. To some contemporary eyes, Handel simply can’t have been serious. That breathtaking disregard for plausible dramatic resolution! The sheer silliness and exuberance of those extended da capo arias! The very constructedness of the dramaturgy must be the work’s secret subject – right? Such, at least, is the basis of operatic postmodernism’s tangled love affair with pre-modernism.

Verdi resists such revisionary tactics more fiercely than any other major opera composer. The plots of some Verdi operas are hard to take, but Verdi is not playful about their implausibility. There is no hint, in the splendid solemnity of the fourth act of Il Trovatore, that the composer is stifling giggles at the plot’s incoherence. And it is hard to claim that, say, Aida is secretly an opera about the making of opera. Verdi’s complete non-acknowledgement of the constructedness of the circumstance prevents stage directors from convincing us that he’s in league with them. In Verdi, the reality of emotion is indestructible and inescapable.

When a Verdi protagonist is forced to perform, to consciously suppress his or her genuine emotions, the effort is doomed to fail and devastating to watch, as in Rigoletto’s desperate nonchalance before the courtiers who have abducted his daughter, or Otello’s address to the visiting Venetian ambassadors. The earnestness is all.

This is hardly a restriction. Rather, the openness and internal consistency Verdi achieves in each of his major characters allows him to depict the same person convincingly in many different lights: Riccardo, in Un Ballo in Maschera, manifests the same open-hearted naïveté in his boisterous first scena, his effortfully lighthearted reaction to the fortune-teller’s prophecy, his two languorous arias, and his death scene; Violetta, in La Traviata, betrays traces of nostalgia even in her sparkling Act 1 music, and on her deathbed she still has some of her old radiance. (It is worth noting that Puccini, ostensibly the all-time standard-bearer of Italianate emotionalism, paints with a quasi-Gallic gaieté that sometimes results in emotional flightiness. He is willing, as Verdi almost never is, to introduce a psychological inconsistency late in a given opera; Musetta in La Bohème, for instance, is a coquette for the ages in the opera’s second and third acts, then hurls herself abruptly into the tragic melodrama at the conclusion. No Verdian character would behave this way.) The baritone Simon Keenlyside, who has been singing more and more Verdi in recent years, describes Verdi’s characterization in terms that resemble Verdi’s own concept of the tinta, the basic dramatic color of any given scene: ‘‘There’s a big distinction I notice between many of the Verdi characters and many of the Mozart ones. . . . Mozart will give you, he’ll throw a whole pencil case of colors and say ‘Go on, color it in as you want to.’ Verdi will say [he licks his thumb and streaks the air in one sweeping gesture] ‘that’s your color. Ford [in Falstaff], that’s your color, red. You’re a cuckold, you’re furious.’’’

None of this has kept some directors from running wild with Verdi’s operas. But unlike Baroque and classical performance, the recent evolution in directorial style has found no musical corollary in Verdi performance practice. Yes, a vast and welcome wave of scholarly research has produced critical editions of many of Verdi’s operas, from the best to the least known, and – often relatedly – in recent years many previously underperformed Verdi works have been revived. But no movement has fundamentally called into question the basic stylistic rightness of Verdi singing circa 1940, as the period-instrument movement has done for Baroque and classical performance. If you listen to a century’s worth of recordings of Don Giovanni, you will find authentic discoveries in recent recordings by the likes of John Eliot Gardiner and René Jacobs – fresh orchestral timbres, logical innovations in pacing and tempo relationships, convincing emotional variability in the vocal performances. This is not the case with Verdi recordings. In too many cases, one gets the sense that Verdi’s deep-burned images have merely faded, or gone a little out of focus. In this anniversary year, I want to point listeners to a couple of Verdi recordings that have stood the test of time.

The love duet from Otello is an aficionado’s favorite. ‘‘La donna è mobile’’ it ain’t: it clocks in at nearly ten minutes and consists of a succession of miniatures, each with a distinct melodic profile and harmonic atmosphere; the text, by Arrigo Boito, is a rich Romanticization of Shakespeare. This, the conclusion of Act I, is the only moment in the opera when we see Otello and Desdemona alone and happy; the sneering gesture that opens Act 2 instantly and permanently obliterates the love duet’s atmosphere. In his earlier years, Verdi would surely have brought back much of the melodic material presented here later on in the opera, but within Otello’s taut dramaturgy, almost none of it is allowed to return. The blissful ‘‘E tu m’amavi . . . ’’ (And you loved me . . . ) sounds like it ought to be the first appearance of a recurring leitmotif – but we never hear it again. This sound-world is abandoned as soon as the duet ends.

Listen to Giovanni Martinelli and Elisabeth Rethberg in a Met broadcast from 1938 (Naxos 8111018-19). Certain ‘‘period’’ details are undesirable: Rethberg’s German accent might put you in mind of Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles. But the general impression is of unforced loveliness and expressive freedom, even if Rethberg was past her peak at the time. Martinelli sings with warmth and ease from top to bottom, and his legato’s honeyed beauty does not interfere with his excellent diction. Most important, he is a model of a mode of expression whose source is an immaculate technique. At the duet’s most passionate moments, Martinelli, unlike most of even the best Otellos, does not resort to histrionics, but finds darker or sweeter colors that remain on the map of secure vocalization. This basic consistency – not unlike the consistency, Keenlyside’s ‘‘color,’’ that Verdi brings to every major character – makes Martinelli’s every decision of characterization burn brighter and deeper. Here’s one example: Otello sings a climactic phrase in the love duet in which a shadow falls over the lovers’ one joyful hour. There is the sense, after the lovers’ blissful mutual expression of love (‘‘E tu m’amavi . . . ’’), that we have reached that Dickinsonian condition of erotic noon, of ecstasy verging on oblivion. Then the clock hand strains forward, and a tiny particle of darkness creeps into the frame – the threat of D minor hovers at the apex of a rising F-major string line. Otello notices it: ‘‘Venga la morte! e mi colga nell’estasi di quest’amplesso il momento supremo. . . . Tale è il gaudio dell’anima che temo che più non mi sarà concesso, quest’attimo divino nell’ignoto avvenir del mio destino.’’ That is an approximation of the following lines in Shakespeare:

                               …If it were now to die,
’Twere now to be most happy, for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.

Martinelli’s phrasing startled me. At ‘‘tale è il gaudio dell’anima che temo’’ (such is my soul’s joy now that I fear), he palpably trembles, as if unsure whether he should articulate the half-formed thought hovering before him. The first ‘‘temo’’ (I fear) is tense and burnished, the second wild, open, and ringing, with a chilling portamento down to the next note: pure fear. I realized, studying this recording, that I had never heard any Otello show real fear at that moment. Most tenors are just happy to revel in the glory of a sustained high G-sharp. Martinelli then retreats into a supremely delicate piano for the phrase ‘‘quest’attimo divino’’ (this divine moment): he has become aware of the fragility and transience of his experience, and he has returned to the present moment with new reverence. It’s an astonishing gesture, a subtle enactment of a huge psychological journey.

Not every Verdi set piece demands the constant, subtle shifts in intention that the Otello duet does, however. And the simpler the music, the more nakedly a singer’s strengths and weaknesses are laid bare. In earlier Verdi operas, a single aria is likely either to express one sentiment, start to finish (for example, ‘‘Quando le sere al placido,’’ from Luisa Miller) or to build to an emotional crux, then change course and express a second, contrasting sentiment (as in ‘‘Eri tu,’’ from Un Ballo in Maschera). It’s worth remembering that changing course mid-aria was a novel formal feature for Italian opera at the time, a move Verdi himself pioneered. And it is typical of Verdi that this breaking of the old form arises out of dramatic necessity. The clearest break is Rigoletto’s ‘‘Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,’’ in which the tormented title character, a court jester, rages at the courtesans who have kidnapped his daughter. At its outset, it promises to be a standard, fullblooded aria of rage. But a couple of minutes in, Rigoletto stops in his tracks and realizes he’s never going to get what he wants by screaming. In hushed tones, he says to himself ‘‘You’re all against me . . .’’ and we can hear him thinking: ‘‘This isn’t working. I have to try something new. . . .’’ At that moment, both Verdi and Rigoletto do try something new. The aria performs a 180-degree turn and becomes an adagio lament; Rigoletto, the professional clown, openly weeps for the first time.

Tito Gobbi’s Rigoletto, which may be heard in various recordings including a classic EMI recording (747469) featuring Maria Callas as his daughter Gilda, demonstrates that the basic quality necessary for great Verdi singing is neither sheer vocal horsepower nor exceptional vocal beauty – it is legato. That is the one feature that binds his portrayal together, start to finish. Within the basic parameter that everything – even the most violent, guttural utterances – is sung with a sense of legato in the breathing, Gobbi forges a vast psychological spectrum. The about-face that he performs midway through the aria, when he sings ‘‘Ebben, io piango’’ (‘‘All right, I’ll weep’’), gives the effect that he has drained the blood out of his voice. Before the ‘‘turn,’’ the voice sounds bitter, twisted, even ugly; Gobbi’s is not the richest or roundest voice, but it couldn’t matter less. At the adagio, he dares to sing with a pale, even feeble tone, a sound blanched with fear. The contrast is all the starker because of the underlying consistency of phrasing, which functions as the aria’s beating heart and keeps him from ever lapsing into caricature.

I don’t mean to put the spotlight on old recordings in order to sentimentalize some imagined past in which every little town in Italy had world-class Verdi singers to burn and every regional theater performed his music in impeccable style. In fact, in this backward-looking 200th anniversary year, Verdians have much to be grateful for today. Internationally, Verdi is more widely considered one of the inescapable composers than he was, say, at his centenary. More of us believe he’s great not just as a tunesmith or tearjerker, but as a craftsman of indelible intensity and a dramatist of Shakespearean scope. We have dozens of Verdi critical editions, hundreds of anniversary performances, and thousands of recordings at our fingertips. But what we musicians must not lose – and what listeners should know to demand – is the expressive freedom that simplicity and technical security yield, and as I hunted for recordings to recommend, I found that  had to dig deeper into recording history than I’d hoped. With Verdi, the intensity must be concentrated within that mysterious middle perspective, the level of human drama: the embrace, the curse, the steady gaze, and the poised, potent voice.