The Works of Giuseppe Verdi
Rigoletto: Melodrama in Three Acts
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….
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 …
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