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 …

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