“I adore art… when I am alone with my notes, my heart pounds and the tears stream from my eyes, and my emotion and my joys are too much to bear.” – Giuseppe Verdi
When most people think of opera, they think of portly sopranos warbling at the top of their lungs about their boyfriends not returning their calls, gruff baritones growling angrily as if they just realized they’ve left the gas on, and generally over-the-top drama and vocal acrobatics. What they are in fact more specifically thinking of is the Italian tradition of bel canto (“beautiful singing”) opera, which focuses on showcasing the human voice as a virtuosic instrument in its own right. Notable exponents of the bel canto tradition include Rossini (1792-1868), Donizetti (1797-1848), and Bellini (1801-1835) – but perhaps its greatest practitioner of all was Verdi.
Overture to Rossini’s Barber of Seville, one of the best known bel canto operas, played by the Tonkünstler Orchestra, conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada:
The occasional excesses of the bel canto style captured brilliantly in a masterclass by the one and only Bugs Bunny:
Verdi was born in the village of Le Roncole in northern Italy, in what was known at the time as the Kingdom of Italy – a French puppet state in the thrall of Napoleon’s armies. That he was born under such circumstances no doubt contributed to the nationalistic pride that Verdi carried with him throughout his life, shaping the defiantly Italian nature of his music, much of which was written under strict Austrian censorship – Italy’s subsequent occupiers after the fall of Napoleon. Verdi’s love of music started as a child, when a fascination with the sound of the church organ prompted his father to buy the young composer a spinet (a small upright piano) to foster his interest. From there followed an early musical education, and by the age of nine Verdi had taken a job as an organist at his local church. Verdi then moved to nearby Busetto to attend music school, before applying to the Milan Conservatory, where he was rejected for being over the age limit. Rather than return home, Verdi stayed in Milan to pursue his studies independently, and it was there that he discovered opera, attending as many performances as he could afford and laying the foundation for his future in composition.
Returning to Busetto, Verdi took up a job as a music teacher and before long he had fallen in love and married one of his pupils (judging by recent headlines coming out of the high school I went to, this sort of behaviour is now frowned upon). It was only then at the age of 23 that Verdi composed his first opera, Oberto, which premiered at La Scala, the renowned opera house in Milan, and achieved moderate success. Tragedy struck shortly after however, as Verdi, a devoted family man, lost both his infant children and his wife in quick succession to different illnesses. To make matters worse, his second opera Un giorno di regno was a flop, prompting a deeply dispirited Verdi to vow that he would give up composition altogether. He was however coaxed into writing one more opera by the impresario at La Scala, and the result was Nabucco. Depicting the plight of the enslaved Israelites at the hands of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, the opera was a runaway success, striking a chord with the Italian people who longed for independence from Austrian rule. The opera’s famous chorus Va, Pensiero (known in English as “The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”) became an anthem of Italian nationalism, and established Verdi as an icon of nationalistic pride. Here it is played by the orchestra and choir of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia:
In the ensuing period Verdi composed some of his greatest masterpieces, including Rigoletto, La Traviata and La forza del destino. The quintessentially Italian nature of his operas made Verdi a much beloved champion of the people, who by this time filled his performances with chants of “Viva Verdi!” This chant soon became known as a secret code of sorts for voicing the discontent of the Italian populace with Austrian rule, as an acronym standing for “Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D‘Italia” (“Long Live Vittorio Emanuele, King of Italy”).
La donna è mobile (“The Woman is Fickle”) from Rigoletto, sung by The Three Tenors
Prelude from La Traviata, played by the Symphony Orchestra of Milan, conducted by Xian Zhang
Libiamo ne’ lieti calico (“Let’s Drink from the Joyful Cups”) a brindisi or drinking song from La Traviata, sung by The Three Tenors
Addio del passato (“Farewell to the Past”) from La Traviata, sung by Anna Netrebko
Overture to La forza del destino (“The Power of Fate”), played by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Chailly
In his later years Verdi continued to produce a number of celebrated masterpieces counted among the pinnacle of Italian opera music, including Aida and Otello. One of his final acts, which he described as his “most beautiful work”, was to construct a retirement home for aging musicians. When Verdi finally died just after the turn of the 20th century, the public outpouring of grief was immense; his funeral service in Milan was attended by 200,000 people, and remains the largest public congregation in Italian history. Fittingly, a choir of 800 people sang his Va, Pensiero from Nabucco, the work which first propelled him to fame.
And finally, to end this post on a lighter note, here’s a fond memory from my childhood; Rossini’s famous overture in the classic Rabbit of Seville: