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Verdi’s Hit Parade

The Operas of Verdi, Vol. 3: From Don Carlos to Falstaff

by Julian Budden
Oxford University Press, 546 pp., $39.95

This third volume of Julian Budden’s monumental work will present no surprises to those who, knowing the earlier volumes, have already recognized The Operas of Verdi as the major scholarly and critical study written to date on this composer. The operas covered in the latest book “offer no special problems of treatment which have not already been touched upon in the Preface to Volume 2.” What this means is that the basic organization of the first volume—chapters on each of the operas in chronological order discussing their genesis and early stage history, their musical and dramatic content scene by scene and number by number, and (more briefly) their reception by critics and public—has been kept and expanded to reflect the much more copious documentation available for the later works and, of course, their much greater artistic density. Volume 1 covers the seventeen earliest Verdi operas, devoting an average of twenty-five pages to each. Volume 2 gets through only seven, requiring an average of seventy pages for the six important ones from Il Trovatore to La Forza del destino. Volume 3 contains four essays of from 100 to 150 pages long, on Don Carlos, Aïda, Otello, and Falstaff.

Some reviewers have criticized this format as too closely beholden to a genre much favored by British writers on music, the amateurs’ vade mecum exemplified most venerably by George Grove’s hundred-year-old Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies, Ernest Newman’s The Wagner Operas, and such Verdi books of the late 1960s as Charles Osborne’s The Complete Operas of Verdi and Spike Hughes’s Famous Verdi Operas. The criticism has some substance, particularly, perhaps, with reference to this very volume. By presenting a major scholarly study as though it were a much expanded “analytical guide for the opera-goer and armchair listener,” in the words of Spike Hughes, Budden confuses us and sometimes confuses himself about the audience he thinks he is addressing. It is hard to know, however, what other format he could have used for such a comprehensive work—and especially what other format he could have used without distracting and even alienating many readers. You can call the organization that Budden decided on (or settled for) many things—safe, traditional, unimaginative, unlovely. But there is room for a serious study of this traditional kind dealing with the Verdi operas, I believe: not because it will or should ever be regarded as “standard,” but because it provides a solid, broadly accepted frame for the works of amplification and revision that will follow.

What has always stunned people about Budden is how much he knows not only about Verdi’s operas but also those of his contemporaries, from Donizetti, Meyerbeer, and Ponchielli on down to Mercadante, the Riccis, Cagnoni, Marchetti, and a host of even lesser maestri. There are two sources for this seemingly inexhaustible fund of information. First, in his career at the BBC, especially when he was chief producer of opera from 1970 to 1976, he put on dozens of little-known operas and must have read carefully through dozens more; the BBC also put on Verdi operas such as Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra in their earlier, unrevised versions. In Britain it may be that people’s sense of opera owes as much to him as to the directorship of Covent Garden or the National Opera; even in this country, pirate discs spread his anonymous influence. Budden is the model of a modern practical musicologist, in fact—a calling that is not all that common but not so rare as is commonly thought, either.

Second, as far as Verdi is concerned, he has been able to draw on a body of research that has been growing as prodigiously, in its own way, as has the prestige and presence of Verdi’s operas themselves in the international repertory. Verdi scholarship—itself notably international in range—is something of a phenomenon in contemporary musicology. Much though not all of it has been channeled through the Institute of Verdi Studies founded at Parma (the capital of Verdi’s home province) in 1959, joined after 1976 by an American institute at New York University. There have been Verdi congresses and congress reports, reconstructions of historical Verdi performances, newsletters, bolletini, PhD dissertations, even an incipient Verdi variorum.

Budden himself has written some Verdi articles that are now required reading, and has tucked away much unobtrusive original research within the covers of his three volumes. Equally impressive is his control over the sprawling, uneven Verdi literature of the last twenty years and his ability to distill the best out of it. With his third volume he was triply fortunate, for major bodies of directly relevant source material have become available just recently: the correspondence between Verdi and his librettists for Don Carlos (edited by Ursula Günther); an enormous collection of documents of various kinds concerning Aida (edited by Hans Busch); and most important of all the Carteggio Verdi/Boito, the correspondence between the composer and librettist of Otello and Falstaff (edited by Mario Medici and Marcello Conati).

Consequently Budden’s account of the genesis and stage history of the late operas is especially fine. The composite story he tells of the way Verdi and his poets hammered out plot lines, situations, verse structures, and actual details of wording—and then came back to revise and refine after the rehearsals or the premiere—will make luminous reading for anyone interested in the stage. I know of nothing to match it as a record of practical dramaturgy in the musical theater except the Strauss-Hofmannsthal correspondence and, in a more antic vein, the post-Catskill section of Moss Hart’s classic Act One, with its unforgettable odor of limp ham sandwiches consumed with George S. Kaufman in New Haven and other such dreary tryout stations. Verdi’s tremendous dramatic intelligence is everywhere in evidence; what changes is his relationship with the librettists, his dominant role in the collaborations with du Locle and Ghizlanzoni giving way to the heartwarming intellectual (and personal) symbiosis with Boito. We should have the whole Carteggio Verdi/Boito in English.

Special interest attached to Budden’s earlier volumes because of the fresh interpretations and appraisals offered for many of the operas treated. Such was not to be expected from the present volume, dealing as it does with established works which have been thoroughly hashed over by critics. When Budden says that Don Carlos “is now considered by many as Verdi’s masterpiece” he surely exaggerates (how many is many?), but he speaks the cold sober truth when he says that “no other work of his explores such a variety of human relationships” and that “each of the principals has a rounded individuality, that is nowhere surpassed in the Verdian canon.” (In Otello, for example, Desdemona is too repressed and Iago too satanical to have a “rounded individuality,” and Otello’s main soliloquy, “Dio! mi potevi scagliar,” though Budden likes it well enough, is not the score’s strongest number.) The prestige of Don Carlos has been growing steadily since Rudolf Bing’s memorable debut production of it at the Metropolitan Opera in 1950; the Verdi specialists have added to the opera’s panache by their enthusiastic dissemination of the very many discarded bits left over from Verdi’s cutting and revising in 1866, 1867, 1872, 1884, and 1886. Budden threading his way through all these different versions does not make for an easy read—the Don Carlos chapter is his longest—but those who persevere and follow him may come to feel they are almost inside the mind of Verdi the dramatist.

On the various notorious problems posed by Don Carlos, Budden is judicious, not to say generous, not to say generous, not to say bland. The four-act version (used by Rudolf Bing) makes a good, taut design, but if there is enough time the five-act version “will doubtless be preferred” despite its longueurs. He allows as how the splendid opening pages cut out by Verdi during the original Paris dress rehearsals might well be reinstated (as by Levine in the current Metropolitan version); in a footnote he even grants some merit to the opening of another cut, the great threnody sung by Philip and Carlo over the dead Rodrigo, whose tune became the “Lacrimosa” of the Verdi Requiem. (Abbado opens it at La Scala.) Yes, the music fits the original French words much better than the Italian we always hear—but Verdi never expected the piece to be sung outside Paris in any language other than Italian, and anyway Italian singers seldom do well by French. The unsatisfactory ending coup de théâtre—unsatisfactory in all versions—we must just live with, though “it may be felt…that the quiet ending of 1867 has more to recommend it than that of 1884 with its pealing brass….”

By contrast with Don Carlos, Aida has indeed turned “just a little sour.” For the taste of our time, everything about Aida seems depressingly straightforward: the definitive text of the opera, the poster-color tinte of most of the principals, and (as Budden points out) their unquestioning attitude toward state authority as formulated by the warrior priests of Ptah. (Aida has even been issued in Italy as a comic book. In this eye-catching redaction, the two women do not seem to be distinguished in tinta, but Aida’s breasts are always rounded, Amneris’s pointed.) To some listeners, it may be added, a good deal of the chromatic writing in this opera seems less problematic in an interesting way than uncontrolled. Nor does the curiously mechanistic system of recurring motives associated with Aida, the priestly hierarchy, and Amneris please.

Otello and Falstaff, the two late Shakespeare operas, have long been admired almost universally down to the last acciaccatura, even by those who do not otherwise warm to Verdi. In fact Budden’s chapters on these great operas call forth so many superlatives as to tax even his considerable skill as a writer. His one reservation corresponds to Verdi’s own, expressed in both words and deeds, concerning the big Act III ensembles in each work—in Otello, the Venetian embassy scene leading to Otello’s fit, and the laundry-basket scene in Falstaff. The music of the latter scene, Verdi wrote to Ricordi after the Milan premiere, “is too long and is too obviously a pezzo concertato,” and he cut ten bars out of it for the definitive score he had Ricordi publish. The former he shortened even more at Otello‘s Paris premiere, seven years after La Scala; and Budden, wondering why this cut was not formalized as in the case of Falstaff, would clearly like to stage the Paris version and see how well it works in a practical performance situation.

Verdi’s remark leads us to the heart of Budden’s critical methodology in the previous volumes of his study. The pezzo concertato or concerted piece is just one of a whole catalogue of musico-dramatic formulas or “convenienze” that young Verdi inherited from Rossini, Donizetti, and Mercadante in the 1840s. What we find so difficult about his early work is understanding and accepting these convenienze. In key historical chapters, Budden explains them with great authority, and in his actual run-throughs of the operas the best thing he does is show again and again how Verdi is turning standard conventions to his own dramatic ends. This is the musicologists’ standard way of tracing this composer’s artistic development, and it is a good way. Step by step Verdi, staying just close enough to the convenienze in order to keep his audience, evolved an entirely individual operatic style by blurring and ultimately exploding their edges.

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