Giuseppe Verdi was born on the 9th or 10th October 1813, and so we are now celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of his birth. Even if you are not very musical, you probably know one or two of the great composer’s tunes; even if you have never been to the opera, or never knowingly listened to opera, you may well be able to hum La donna é mobile, or Va, pensiero, or the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore. Verdi, like all truly great composers, is part of the fabric of life.
His Wikipedia entry lists 30 operas though some of them are double entries caused by the revision of earlier works. Cutting these out, we get down to twenty-seven. Quite a few of these are hardly ever performed: take for example The Sicilian Vespers, which is being put on at Covent Garden this winter for the very first time there. Of the twenty-seven, I have seen twelve on stage, which represent the ones most frequently performed, I suppose, as well as a few others on film. But these twelve or so operas represent a towering achievement, and Verdi is the man of the nineteenth century as far as music is concerned.
There are lots of reasons why Verdi is so good; when I was much younger I used to love the rousing choruses, and was in love with the triumphal march from Aida as well as the party scene in the second scene of the second act of La Traviata. But what appeals to me about Verdi now is the way he can convey the most intimate and secret of feelings. It’s true that his public scenes are magnificent, but what really moves me is the way he portrays the private interaction of character.
Oddly, this is not to do with the way tenor meets soprano and the two fall in love. On the whole that is all rather routine in Verdi. Rather it is the way that two people face death together, as in the final scene of Aida, where Radames and the eponymous heroine are entombed together. It is true that they are lovers, but this is about so much more than romantic love. Or else it is in that touching and complex scene between Violetta and Alfredo’s father in the first scene of the second act of Traviata, where bourgeois morality meets a fallen woman and recognises her not simply as fallen, but as a woman too, another human being, and a noble one. That is the real love story for me: the way Alfredo’s father comes to embrace the dying Violetta as his daughter – it is far more profound and moving than anything that happens between her and Alfredo.
Indeed, Verdi is the poet of father-daughter love. That is the subject of the superb Simon Boccanegra, an opera that is rapidly becoming a favourite. It is also the subject of the moving opening of La Forza del Destino. Indeed, it seems to me that Verdi, the great romantic, in dealing with tempestuous passions between men and women, merely serves to show, through his genius, the limits of such passions. Real love is the love of family, and, possibly, the love of God.
A lot of Italian patriots were anti-clerical, and it is possible to read Aida, for example, as an anti-clerical parable, but there is nothing anti-Catholic about Verdi. Traviata ends with Violetta on her deathbed seeing the doctor, but she tells us that she has seen the priest and that religion is a great comfort. Her death scene is an archetypal good Catholic death: her last words are “Son rinata…”(I am reborn). I do not think that this religious language is either insincere or merely decorative. Traviata is a story about redemption, about passing from sensual love to spiritual love. The key word in the second act is “sacrifice”.
Critics like to point out, with justice, that Verdi is an innovative composer, and that he was learning new things right up to the end of his career. His last opera is also his best, perhaps: Falstaff. Its closing scene, set in Windsor Great Park, scales the heights. And here the great master teaches us the best lesson of all: in the end tragic vision of life does not prevail, rather comedy has the last word. The last Verdi opera closes with the joyful reconciliation of opposites and the humble admission that we are all figures of fun, and that through the acceptance of our flawed and fallen nature we can find true happiness, even here on earth. In Nabucco, his first great success, the place of rest for the Hebrew slaves is mia patria, si bella, perduta (my homeland, so beautiful, so lost). But in Falstaff, his last work, the land of lost content is realised in a Berkshire field.