Verdi operas: Musical magic unmatched

On the centenary of his death, a maestro's melodies still soar.

Classical Music

January 21, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Ten minutes before 3 a.m. on Jan. 27, 1901, Giuseppe Verdi died in the Milan hotel suite where he had long spent his winters. He was 87.

Verdi had suffered a stroke a few days earlier and gone into a coma; during that time, crowds milled outside waiting for bulletins, and straw was put down on the streets to soften the traffic noise. When his body was transported to the municipal cemetery, to lie beside that of his wife, his own funeral wishes were followed -- no music, no singing.

There is a wonderful but apparently apocryphal story about those wishes suddenly being ignored as the coffin was lowered into the crypt.

Someone started to sing the melody that made Verdi famous in 1842--- "Va, pensiero," the stirring, hopeful chorus of the Hebrew slaves from "Nabucco." This was music that had gone straight to the hearts of everyone in Italy who desired to be free of foreign domination. From the moment that chorus was first sung, Verdi had become more than a musician. He was a patriot, a rallying cry for the Italian unification movement.

Soon, voice after voice in the solemn crowd picked up the tune and paid a fitting tribute to the greatest opera composer Italy had ever produced -- it could be argued the greatest opera composer, period.

Well, even if that never happened, the silence of the throng would have been a tribute, too.

A month later, the remains of Verdi and his wife were moved to the Casa di Riposo, a home for aging musicians Verdi had built with his own money. This time, there definitely was music, and not spontaneous. A choir of 820 voices sang "Va, pensiero" under the direction of Arturo Toscanini, and 300,000 people lined the streets of Milan.

This week, Verdi and his music are being honored all over the world. In Florida, the Sarasota Opera is presenting a performance of his intense "Requiem" that will start exactly 100 years to the minute after his death (8:50 p.m. Friday, with the time difference). In the weeks ahead, this company will produce Verdi's first and rarely staged opera, "Oberto," as well as his last, the brilliant "Falstaff."

On Saturday evening at Constitution Hall, the Washington Opera will present the "Requiem" conducted by Placido Domingo, one of the finest Verdian singers of the last 40 years. The company, which has already staged "Il trovatore" this season, turns to "Don Carlo" in March.

Performances of the "Requiem" on Saturday can be found from New York (Dicapo Opera Theatre) to Germany (Cologne Opera). The anniversary also will be observed operatically around the globe -- "Aida" at New York's Metropolitan Opera; "Falstaff" at London's Royal Opera House, Den Norske Opera in Oslo and Deutsche Oper Berlin (which has no less than six different Verdi operas on the boards this month); "Nabucco" at London's English National Opera; "Don Carlo" at the Royal Swedish Opera and Finnish National Opera; and "Rigoletto" at Palm Beach Opera (part of its all-Verdi season).

New recognition

Virtually anywhere you look, music by Verdi is on the calendar. And while there may be an extra abundance during this centenary, Verdi is never really far out of earshot, making it easy to take him for granted today.

It wasn't always so.

That massive outpouring of respect in Milan for his two funerals may have signaled that he was the most revered composer of the day, but not necessarily the most popular at that moment, even in his native land. As music historian William Weaver points out in the latest issue of England's Opera magazine, the 1900-1901 season at Milan's La Scala was anything but Verdian.

The opera house that had launched Verdi's career and premiered his last two masterpieces, "Otello" and "Falstaff," opened that season with Puccini's "La Boheme," followed by Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde." Works by Donizetti and Mascagni and by lesser-known composers also filled the calendar.

"If you study the programs of the final years of the 19th century in Italian opera houses," Weaver writes, "you will notice a sharp diminution in the number of Verdi productions."

After topping the charts from the 1850s on through the 1880s, the old man had gone somewhat out of fashion, upstaged by whippersnappers with "verismo" on their sleeves -- the bloody realism of "Pagliacci" and that sort of thing.

Only a handful of Verdi's operas were regularly performed in his country and elsewhere at the turn of the last century. It wasn't until the 1920s -- in Germany, not Italy -- that the full extent of Verdi's genius began to be appreciated again, with revivals of such neglected treasures as "La forza del destino" and "Simon Boccanegra."

Verdi's gift

Slowly, opera by opera, the Verdi canon was reintroduced to the international repertoire. In our day, it's possible to encounter a performance of almost everything he wrote for the stage, including such minor gems as "I Lombardi" and "Stiffelio."

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