b. Busseto, Italy, October 9, 1813; d. Milan, January 27, 1901
The story of Italian opera from 1850 to 1900 is the story of Giuseppe Verdi. Born into one of the most exciting periods in Italian musical history, he reached maturity in the 1840s, when things had begun to look decidedly bleak: Rossini was in retirement, Bellini was dead and Donizetti was dying. Over the next fifty years, through the composition of nearly thirty operas, Verdi revitalized Italian music, giving it an identity as strong as that created for German music by Wagner.
More than that, he was a figurehead for those endeavouring to constitute a nation from a country that had been divided up in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars.
Though the Verdi family was poor, the boy's musical talent quickly flourished: by the time he was twelve he had been appointed a church organist and was undertaking formal musical studies. In June 1832 he travelled to Milan to sit the entrance exam for the conservatory. To everyone's astonishment, above all his own, he failed. He nonetheless remained in Milan, found work conducting and began to make some sort of reputation as a conductor and musical jack-of-all-trades. In 1835 returned to Busseto as director of the Philharmonic Society, receiving his official appointment in February 1836, just three months before he married. Life progressed uneventfully, and he spent most of his time hankering after the big stage in Milan. In 1839 his ambition got the better of him: he resigned from his post in Busseto and moved back north, where he submitted his first extant opera, Oberto, to the La Scala management.
For someone with no track record as a composer it was a remarkably confident gesture, typical of a man increasingly known for his taciturn single-mindedness and self-belief. Thanks largely to the intervention of the young soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, La Scala accepted the unsolicited offering. Such was its success that the theatre offered Verdi a contract for a further three operas. In 1842 he produced Nabucco, a biblical tale with a political message that the long-suffering Italian people easily identified; it secured Verdi's fame throughout Italy. There followed a string of commissions from important Italian theatres, and during the next eight years he composed thirteen operas, most of them tragic and nearly all rooted in historical fact, in which Verdi cemented his reputation as his country's pre-eminent composer of opera.
By the time Verdi completed Stiffelio in 1850 he and Strepponi were three years into a relationship that would last for half a century (they married in 1859). A woman of great generosity and patience, she was witty and tactful where Verdi was blunt and rather humourless, and she had a profound influence on his personality and his work.
After the big trio of Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata, Verdi followed with Simon Boccanegra, Un ballo in maschera, La forza del destino, Don Carlos and Aida – the most consistently popular body of operas produced in the period between Mozart and Puccini. After Aida was completed in 1871 he wrote no new opera for fifteen years, but these years were far from fallow. He was elected to the Italian senate in 1874 and he revised several earlier operas as well as creating his one great non-operatic work, the Requiem (1874).
The revision of Boccanegra in 1880 benefited from the involvement of the librettist and composer Arrigo Boito, and it was to the team of Boito and Shakespeare that Verdi turned for the two operas that stand as the apotheosis of his life's work: a tragedy, Otello (1887); and a comedy, Falstaff (1893).
In terms of sustained popularity, Verdi belongs in the highly select company of Mozart, Wagner and Puccini, with at least a dozen of his works in constant circulation. The reasons for this can be summarized in just three words: drama and melody. Verdi's operas deal with basic human emotions in a manner that is immediately empathetic, no matter how unusual (or unlikely) the circumstances in which the protagonists find themselves. While his earlier operas were admittedly crude in their conception of drama, with Rigoletto his musical language changed and the later operas are marked by a far more sophisticated and fluent style. This fluency is quite different from the river-like structure of Wagner: in Verdi's work there are distinct arias, as in any traditional Italian opera, but the structure is as tight as a well-made play. Just as Verdi's manipulation of structure became far more adroit, so did his exploration of the expressive and illustrative character of melody. From Rigoletto onwards, Verdi showed an unerring ability to devise melodies that were both apposite and dazzling, expressing the profoundest of emotions without ever sacrificing the tunefulness that was the hallmark of nineteenth-century Italian opera.
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