• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Verdi Victorious

The Works of Giuseppe Verdi

edited by Philip Gossett
Series I, Vol. 17: pp.

Rigoletto: Melodrama in Three Acts

by Francesco Maria Piave, edited by Martin Chusid
University of Chicago Press/G. Ricordi, 347 pp., $200.00 (both score and commentary)

Until this year Giuseppe Verdi was the only major nineteenth-century composer whose works were not enshrined in a complete critical edition. Editions of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Weber, Wagner, Brahms, and Hugo Wolf were all prepared as a matter of course since German scholarship has dominated musicology. But there is also one critical edition of Berlioz with a new one under way, two of Chopin (both equally inadequate), and an unfinished one of Liszt (a new one, begun recently in Hungary, is inferior to the old in almost every respect). Most of these editions were already in existence by 1900. The greatest composer of Italian opera has had to wait until 1983 for a start to be made. This is not surprising. The monumental critical edition is an academic consecration, the ultimate guarantee of musical respectability, and nineteenth-century Italian opera is still not fully respectable.

Opera as a whole has a shabby reputation (it is also the most prestigious of musical genres, but that is the other side of the coin). It has been, and is, viewed with suspicion by most lovers of drama and of music—like the movies, it appears sometimes not to be art at all but only a pretentious variety of low entertainment. This is particularly true of Italian opera (German opera has partially escaped the stigma, perhaps because, as Lady Bracknell once remarked, German is an eminently respectable language). The editor in chief of the new Verdi edition, Philip Gossett, has amusingly attempted to caricature this common view in these pages:

Melodramatic plots, banal tunes over oom-pah-pah accompaniments, sopranos warbling in thirds with a flute, tenors bellowing high C’s…. 1

The catch is that this is not a caricature—most of the time nineteenth-century Italian opera is really like that; even a considerable part of Verdi’s finest work can be so described, except for the parallel thirds in the flute. The melodramatic plots remained with Verdi to the end of his career (Shakespeare’s Othello, as Bernard Shaw remarked, provided him with a ready-made, typical Italian opera libretto), as did the vocalizing sopranos and the bellowing tenors: only the oom-pah-pah accompaniments disappeared in the last two operas, although they can still be found in Aida.

The banality of the tunes is the heaviest charge, and this might seem to be a relative, even a subjective, matter—the banal is the over-familiar, the too-often-heard. But that was exactly what Verdi wanted, and he had the knack (picked up from Donizetti) of writing a melody that seems long familiar at first hearing. Both Donizetti and Verdi needed such tunes, at once original and instantly banal, for their dramatic structures to work: neither the Anvil Chorus nor “La donna è mobile,” to take only two examples, would have the slightest effect if they did not sound immediately as if one had known them all one’s life.

Verdi’s contemporaries understood this well enough. One of them described the effect of “La donna è mobile” at the premiere of Rigoletto, the first sustained masterpiece by Verdi:

Hardly had the first verse finished before there arose a great cry from every part of the theater, and the tenor failed to find his cue to begin the second verse. Verdi must have realized that the melody had always existed: he wished to shock the imagination with the commonplace fact that he had rediscovered it for himself.

This is quoted by Professor Roger Parker in his interesting essay on the music of Rigoletto,2 with the odd comment that “far from having ‘rediscovered’ the melody, Verdi obviously spent some time in honing it to his precise needs.” Parker quotes the sketch for “La donna è mobile,” which he calls “much simpler and more predictable.” The sketch is, in fact, less symmetrical than the final version, and the end of the first phrase, far from being predictable, is sadly unconvincing. Of course, Verdi worked hard to “rediscover” a melody that had existed since all eternity: he knew how well he had succeeded when he kept the tune secret—even the tenor was not allowed to see it until the dress rehearsal.

Parker remarks that “Verdi was perfectly aware of the potential popularity of this melody; and also that its tunefulness could conceivably undermine its dramatic effect.” This is again wide of the mark, and suggests absurdly that the dramatic effect is undermined once the tune is known, and therefore ceased to work after the premiere. On the contrary, the dramatic effect depends on the tunefulness at this point. In a recent production of Rigoletto which transferred the scene to New York in the 1950s, the Duke starts the tune by putting his coins in a jukebox: the director, Jonathan Miller, had the right instinct. It was understandable that Verdi should wish to reserve the shock of his rediscovery for the first performance, but that has nothing to do with its absolute dramatic adequacy, its aptness in the structure of the third act of the opera.

Verdi’s genius lay as much in the dramatic use he made of such tunes as in their creation, but neither he nor Donizetti had the ability to write the long aristocratic melodies of Bellini. These melodies were the object of Verdi’s admiration and envy, but he would have had no use for them in his own operas. Serious opera had changed radically in Italy and France during the 1830s and 1840s, as Verdi reached his maturity as a composer; it lost what was left of its aristocratic character, and became a form of popular art. Verdi was its greatest master.

Popular art” is a loaded term: it has a number of different meanings, impossible to define with any precision, that range from folklore to junk. The two poles are clear enough, but the meanings tend to blur. The Hollywood Western of the 1930s and 1940s, for example, has elements of folklore but is better understood as popular trash: this did not, of course, prevent masterpieces from being produced in that genre. Like the Western—and the Elizabethan revenge tragedy, as well, of Kyd, Marlowe, Tourneur, and Shakespeare—nineteenth-century opera in France and Italy is closer to junk than to high art or folk art. We cannot escape the normative connotation of these terms, but it should be evident from these examples that there can be great trash, just as there is bad high art (and, of course, the special category of trash pretending to the status of high art, for which the only existing term is the German edel Kitsch or “noble trash”: the movies of Ken Russell, the plays of Maxwell Anderson, the operas of Erich Wolfgang Korngold—everyone can make up his own tendentious list).

The relation of high art to popular art is always complex—partly because, as we have seen, the concept of “popular art” is ambiguous and slippery. The operettas of Jacques Offenbach, the musicals of George Gershwin and of Harold Arlen, the waltzes of Johann Strauss, Jr., are great popular art; none of them claims to be high art. Schubert and Brahms, however, often used popular Hungarian gypsy themes as material for works which are clearly intended to be sublime: the slow movements of Schubert’s last symphony and of his Piano Trio in E-flat Major; the finale of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G Minor. In a similar fashion, Berlioz uses a ballroom waltz in the Symphonie Fantastique.

The case of Verdi is a very different one: he took a popular genre—bourgeois melodrama set to music, a genre that had already found a master in Donizetti—and without changing much of its fundamental nature, transmuted it into high art. We need to use terms like “trash” for this genre, nevertheless, as the plots and the librettos of the operas of Donizetti, Verdi, Mercadante, Halévy, and Meyerbeer are, with almost no exceptions, as coarse and as absurd as the scripts for the films of Greta Garbo and the epics of Cecil B. De Mille—and the music reflects that coarseness.

I take it for granted that the drama of the nineteenth century must also be considered with some sympathy, a suspension of distaste as well as disbelief, and few music lovers today have any difficulty in surrendering to the finest moments in Donizetti, or even in Meyerbeer (on the few occasions when the latter is performed with some musical intelligence). Nevertheless until the essential trashiness of the genre is faced, the achievement of Verdi, one of the greatest in music, will remain incomprehensible.

The change of serious opera from a courtly art into popular trash was, in reality, part of a long political development that starts slowly in the eighteenth century before the French Revolution. At the end the changes were rapid, and confirmed by the revolution of 1830, after which the Paris Opera was rented out for commercial exploitation. Serious opera is almost always political in nature, and a political interpretation of the stylistic changes is not a modern critical luxury; it was explicitly made at the time. Doctor Véron, a rich amateur who leased the Paris Opera in the early 1830s and quickly made a fortune running it, wrote that since the revolution of 1830 had brought the bourgeoisie to power, he decided to make the Paris Opera the Versailles of the bourgeoisie, the symbolic manifestation of its new status.

One must not imagine, however, that by becoming representative of the new middle-class taste, serious opera became commercially profitable in any real sense. Véron was frank: when asked how he had been able to make a fortune out of the Paris Opera in a few years, he always replied that he got out before the government subsidy was reduced. Serious opera has almost always been subsidized by the state from its inception, sometimes by indirect means as well as by direct grants. Aristocratic support for the opera continued throughout Europe, indirectly for the most part—it was a status symbol to have a ballerina as a mistress. This aristocratic patronage should not fool us into thinking that the music reflects aristocratic taste. There is no aristocratic taste in France and Italy after Napoleon. Just as the paintings of Paul Delaroche appealed to a wide range of middle-class taste, although they were acquired largely by aristocrats rich enough to pay the high prices they brought at the time, grand opera after 1830 embodied the artistic and political ideals of the middle class, although a government subsidy then as now made it possible for the bourgeois music lover to afford a ticket.3

The political message of many of these operas is simple enough: they represent the hero or heroine—who is rarely seen as tied to his class but only as an individual—caught between the immoral corruption of the aristocracy and the doctrinaire rigidity or the secret greed of the leaders of the proletariat. This naive and pleasant scheme is sometimes varied by turning the vicious aristocrats into a foreign army of occupation; the revolutionary leaders, in this case, become more idealized while generally remaining no less doctrinaire; the hero (or heroine, as in Bellini’s Norma) is still trapped between the two forces.4 The scheme is always displaced in time and space, and generally by metaphor as well. In Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, the Catholics play the role of the corrupt aristocrats, the Protestants the stiff-necked proletariat; the lovers, one from each camp, are trapped like Romeo and Juliet between both sides. Variations are possible: in Ballo in Maschera the hero is the corrupt aristocrat (king of Sweden, or governor of Boston, as the censors forced Verdi to amend it), who almost succeeds in having an adulterous liaison, while the rebels, Samuel and Tom, are as wicked as ever (like the Anabaptists in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète).

  1. 1

    NYR, March 31, p. 30, review of Donizetti and His Operas, by William Ashbrook.

  2. 2

    In Rigoletto, Opera Guide Series, edited by Nicholas John.

  3. 3

    An eighteenth-century composer like Handel was, if anything, more commercially minded than Verdi; he also went bankrupt running an opera company without sufficient subsidy.

  4. 4

    The scheme holds well for Norma: the captain of the occupying Roman army is immoral (he is about to go off with another priestess after fathering Norma’s two children) and the native priest, Oroveso, applies Druid law in its full rigidity by condemning his daughter reluctantly to death.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print