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.
Don Carlos and Aida mark the end of this process. Since he was less at home with the traditions of Parisian grand opéra than with those of Italian melodramma, Verdi had more trouble with Don Carlos in this regard; in too many spots Meyerbeer has not been sufficiently exploded. With Aida, on the other hand, he achieved what Budden calls a “classical” solution. As such, Aida was not and could not be a forward-looking work:
Though the drama is continuous the structure is basically that of formal numbers embedded within a continuous texture; and though for a decade at least composers such as Ponchielli and Gomes would continue along this path…, future progress was to be towards a freer, more orchestrally based continuity….
But mention artistic progress to Verdi and he was sure to go into a tirade running down the whole notion, meanwhile proclaiming the sanctity of Italian musical traditions. After Aida in 1871 he simply decided to give up composing operas.
So Budden’s book falls into two halves. When Verdi returned—Otello was mooted in 1879 but not staged until 1887—the “progress” had been miraculously accomplished, as though it had been incubating all the while under his continual growls and grumbles about the current decline of Italian opera. In Otello operatic conventions are completely transformed and in Falstaff completely transcended. Neither work has anything much to do with anyone else’s operas.
Hence the rationale is really lost for the interchapter on Italian opera from 1870 to 1890, in which Budden sketches with a masterly hand the political, economic, and artistic background for that decline, and with a nod to the veristi of the 1890s, pinpoints the failure of Ponchielli, Gomes, and Catalani to resolve “A Problem of Identity.” And lost along with it is the strategy used so powerfully in the previous parts of this study to place Verdi in high relief against the background of contemporary opera.
It is mainly by reason of this loss, I believe, that Budden’s analyticaldescriptive sections on Otello and Falstaff are ultimately of less value than those on earlier, lesser operas. This may seem a paradoxical, even a mean judgment, for he has clearly lavished more space, love, and ingenuity on these works than on any others. But he really has no guiding critical methodology for dealing with them. All he has left is a rather airy style of musical analysis coupled with a sharp sense of local dramatic effect and an overflow of subjective response.
With the two late masterpieces Budden is up against it because we all bring our own extensive, truculent preconceptions with us. We have so much less to learn here, we feel, than with Nabucco and I Due Foscari, Attila and Il Corsaro (to mention some early works not entirely at random). Budden allows himself a good deal of space for the Otello and Falstaff run-throughs, as has already been observed: but still not enough, given his “analytical guide for the opera-goer and armchair listener” method. Does it seem ungrateful (or ludicrous) to complain that 18,000 words are inadequate for a serious analysis of Otello? Not, I think, when the author commits himself to telling the story in gruesome detail and working his way systematically through the music of every single number in the score. This is like trying to tell it all about Shakespeare’s Othello (a work of comparable richness and complexity) scene by scene, speech by speech, line by line, in a like compass.
Inevitably with such a method, the greatest proportion of illuminating points are of a local kind that can be made briefly: points about orchestration, for example, or the effect of Italian verse meters on Verdi’s musical phraseology. Budden is especially sensitive to musico-dramatic nuance—to the way musical details convey psychological states, tones of voice, or dramatic beats—and inventive in the prose that characterizes it:
Desdemona is more child-like and impulsive; and her twelve bars of melody (“Mio superbo guerrier!”) wander more freely [than Otello’s previous melody]. Her subdominant cadence at the words “soavi abbracciamenti” suggests a happiness almost too great to be believed. Inconsequentially she wanders off on a pattern of sixths….
As sung by Desdemona [the Act III duet melody] is all innocence and charm; when taken over by Otello (“Grazie, madonna…”) and edged by the oboe it assumes a bitter sarcasm that sets the listener’s teeth on edge.
Desdemona [being murdered] screams over a diminished seventh outburst “con tutta forza,” in which the sense of shock is immeasurably increased by the sudden switch into triplet motion.
On the other hand, a passage that is as important (at least to sopranos) as Desdemona’s dying speech is hurried past in half a sentence. Other prominent passages are unaccountably skimped in the run-through.
On a technical level, too, Budden the musician promises more than he delivers—more than he could possibly deliver in 18,000 words, too many of which are telling the story (” ‘A sail, a sail!’ they cry…”). There is so much talk about keys, motives, harmony, and thematic connections that one is constantly challenged to check one’s own image of the music against Budden’s often maddeningly (if necessarily) elliptical descriptions. Why does the Act I Love Duet veer off to D-flat after all that F major and E major beforehand, and sound so good when it does so? Why is the main vocal theme of Iago’s “Credo” not mentioned while its orchestral themes are illustrated in two of the book’s 350-odd music examples? Why does Budden never respond to Verdi’s always sensational passages involving parallel fifths and octaves? Why does he not associate the doom-laden ostinato of hollow chalumeau chords in the Act IV Introduction with the filled-out chords preceding “Emilia, addio” and “Niun mi tema,” later?
It is not likely that this general line of objection to Volume 3 will come as any great shock to Budden. He must have seen it coming only too clearly back when he started work on the earliest operas for Volume 1. Unless I am mistaken, there is a sense of dutiful slog about many passages in his present round of run-throughs—along with many passages high enthusiasm and insight. An author, too, who spends fewer pages on Act IV of Otello than on the additions to and subtractions from Act III in the Paris version is making his priorities plain. It is for its authoritative account of the genesis, stage history, and revision of the late operas that Volume 3 of The Operas of Verdi will be most gratefully read.
Finally there is the whole question of the broader view. Always alert to local dramatic effects in individual scenes and numbers, Budden is less interested in the global issues that some critics see raised by Verdi’s operas when they are considered as total artistic structures. Do these works not deal with great themes of human action and feeling, and if so what are they, why are they shaded, interpreted and balanced as they are, and how are Verdi’s values projected by dramatic form on the highest level? Budden does not have much to say about any of this. He devotes only one or two pages on each opera to the work as a totality, in general terms, and in these pages that peculiarly British underground stream of bluff, no-nonsense, know-nothing-beyond-what’s-infront-of-my-nose criticism bubbles aggressively to the surface. Budden is at his most traditional or, rather, conventional—and unhelpful—in these pages. He is not above ex-cathedra put-downs of ideas he has not fully digested, not even above an occasional platitude. What little he says in broad terms about the operas does not always stand up to scrutiny.
Thus in defense of the unsatisfactory “happy” ending of Don Carlos, we are told that the original Schiller play is “a myth; and in myths the deus ex machina is perfectly acceptable whether he be a dead Emperor or a Voice from Heaven.” The novel on which Schiller based his play “has the making of an archetypal myth…. Freudians might see in it the classic Oedipal situation.” Indeed they might. But seeing this in Don Carlos, or in Hamlet, does not shunt these works into some sort of special genre that does not have to behave like a drama; no one has ever recommended that the Ghost might appropriately return at the end of Hamlet and pick everybody up off the floor. The lieto fine is in fact less a characteristic of myths than of classical serious operas (as John Gay’s Beggar observed). If Budden is right and the contrived happy ending was still alive or at least workable in French grand operas of Verdi’s time, then that was another convenance he failed to master fully for his own dramatic purposes in Don Carlos.
With The Merry Wives of Windsor, on the other hand, perceptions of its mythic content have proliferated ever since the fat knight was dubbed a “fertility spirit” in the 1950s by Northrop Frye. Verdi’s Falstaff has its own strong mythic elements: the exquisitely modulated transition in the last two scenes from the grubby corporeality of the Garter to the fairyland of Windsor Forest; the quiet climactic wedding music which reminds Budden of Arne or Boyce but reminds me of the dignified and commodious sacrament on a summer midnight in “East Coker,” “dauncinge, signifying matrimonie”; and especially the treatment of the young lovers.
For the first time Verdi was looking at life from a feminine perspective, in which honor, lust, fury, and old age are brushed aside for the essential business of coupling the young with the young. For practically the first time he gives us a pair of lovers who are not doomed, a tenor and a soprano who instead of being thwarted by a baritone are rescued, masterminded, and mothered by a battery of sopranos and mezzos. Though only at a price: Nannetta and Fenton live in a world apart, symbolized by physical barriers—the potted trees, the screen, the disguises—and especially by their music, so constant and so distinct from that of the other characters. Gradually they are disembodied into spirits, the true nighttime denizens of the magic forest. Young love can succeed, but only by removal from or transcendence of the Garter world of ugliness, appetite, and intrigue. For Nannetta and Fenton are also Verdi’s least passionate lovers—if, in a sense, his most physical. Foreplay is their thing, not consummation. Surprisingly, Budden finds all of their music to be “instinct with the ‘lacrymae rerum,’ that underlying melancholy that Keats associated with ‘beauty that must die….”‘
One could go on, especially about Budden’s disappointing general discussion of Otello, in which he acknowledges no Shakespeare criticism beyond Coleridge, Shaw, and the rather obscure M.T. [sic: it should be M.R.] Ridley, though in fact his talk about “rounded individuality” sounds suspiciously like A.C. Bradley. Bradley was a contemporary of Boito, to be sure, but that only means that Bradleian criticism might serve as a beginning, not the end, of a serious examination of Verdian drama. Dramatic criticism today, like musical analysis today, has to go beyond nineteenth-century criteria.
But to complain even further about Budden’s book along these lines would be, if not altogether unfair, altogether ungrateful, Global dramatic criticism was never a part of his scheme and is evidently not to his liking. As it is, he has produced what will long remain the definitive history of the twenty-eight Verdi operas, together with an analytical-descriptive account of them all which is certainly the most detailed, sophisticated, and acute that is available, by a large margin, in any language. A great achievement.
March 4, 1982