Verdi is generally regarded as Italy's greatest composer. His finest works are still among the world's most popular operas.
Giuseppe Verdi was born in 1813 in Le Roncole, near Busseto in the Duchy of Parma, in an Italy which was still divided into many different states. He was the son of an inn-keeper, and owed his chance of a musical career to Antonio Burezzi, a wealthy Busseto merchant who sponsored Verdi's studies. After failing the entrance exam for the Milan Conservatory, he continued his studies in Busseto, where he became maestro di musica or master of music. He married Burezzi's daughter Margherita in 1836.
He completed his first opera (now lost) in 1836, and it was performed at La Scala, the great Milanese opera house. Then disaster struck: the deaths of their two young children were followed by Margherita's death in 1840. Verdi's next opera, the comedy Un Giorno di Regno, was a flop. This had such a drastic effect on his confidence that he avoided all attempts at comedy for over fifty years.
First Success and 'The Prison Years'
Verdi's first success came with Nabucco in 1842. Increasing popularity led to a string of commissions, and a period often known as the Anni di Galera or 'Prison Years'. Financial pressure forced Verdi to turn out a series of works in quick succession, and while they all had good points, the overall impression is of someone who was over-stretched. During this period, he quarrelled with the management of La Scala over some changes made in one of his works. In Paris in the 1840s, he met Giuseppina Strepponi, the soprano who had sung the part of Abigaille in Nabucco. They lived together for a number of years, scandalising both high society and their country neighbours.
Middle Period and the Risorgimento
Verdi entered a new phase of his career with Rigoletto in 1851. This is generally regarded as his first real masterpiece. From then on, he worked at an increasingly slower pace, but produced work of much higher quality. He and Giuseppina Strepponi were married in 1859. In the summertime, they lived on a large farm at Sant' Agata, near where Verdi grew up, and in winter they moved to Genoa.
The Risorgimento was the period of increasing nationalism and political campaigning (from around 1850 onwards) which led to the reunification of Italy into one state. Verdi, with bitter experience of political censorship, supported this movement. Va Pensiero, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco was adopted by the Italian people as a symbol of resistance against their various overlords. Verdi's name was said to stand for Vittorio Emmanuel, Re D'Italia (Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy), and Viva Verdi became a popular nationalist slogan. At the urging of Count Cavour, the great Italian leader, Verdi was elected to a seat in the parliament of the partly-united Italy in 1861. However, he was not exactly independent - he always voted in exactly the same way as Cavour, and in 1865 he decided not to stand again. In 1874 he was made a senator, but this was an honourary position.
Verdi and Giuseppina spent increasing amounts of time at their country home in Sant' Agata. Verdi eventually made up his quarrel with the management and audience of La Scala, and his two final masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff were both first performed there. In 1897 Giuseppina died of pneumonia at the age of 82. As his own health deteriorated, Verdi founded a home for aged musicians, the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti in Milan, to which he left much of his royalties. He died in January 1901 at the Grand Hotel in Milan, at the age of 87. At the funeral, the huge crowd sang Va Pensiero as his remains and Giuseppina's were brought to their final resting place at the Casa di Riposo.
Verdi's Music and Dramatic Themes
Verdi's early work was strongly influenced by the bel canto style of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. As his own distinctive style developed, he provided atmosphere and deeper characterisation. He had an instinct for dramatic effect, and an understanding of how to write for the human voice.
His middle period can be said to start with Rigoletto, and continue through La Traviata, finishing with Don Carlos and Aida. These middle operas are full of show-stopping arias and dramatic choruses, but show an increasing importance and subtlety in the music for the orchestra.
In his final works, Otello and Falstaff, the musical and dramatic elements are smoothly integrated into a flowing style. The arias are not separate songs as in his early works, and the connecting recitative is accompanied by a strong and varied orchestration, so the overall effect is of an unbroken dramatic flow. This style is often described as Wagnerian, though Verdi himself resented any implication that he was imitating Wagner.
It is noticeable that Verdi's interest in dramatic effect led him to base most of his works on successful plays by leading dramatists. Many of these were historical dramas, with a recurring theme of the importance of the responsible use of power. This theme was highly relevant in the political upheaval of the day, and meant that Verdi had continuing problems with government censorship. A more personal theme which featured strongly in his work was that of the father-daughter relationship, which can be seen in works such as Rigoletto and Aida.
The venue of the premiere of a Verdi opera is important for two reasons. First, since he worked mainly to specific commissions, local political concerns often forced him to alter his plots and characters. Secondly, he normally supervised the rehearsals closely, often finalising the orchestration during the rehearsal period. His frustrating experiences in certain opera houses left him dissatisfied. As a result, he produced extensively revised versions of some of his operas, in an attempt to restore his original vision.
This was written for the Teatro La Fenice at a time when Venice was still under Austrian rule. The libretto by Francesco Piave was based on the controversial play Le Roi s'Amuse by the French writer Victor Hugo. After the first version was rejected by the Austrian authorities, Verdi changed the original character of the French King Francis I to the Italian duke of Mantua, and the hunchback Triboulet became Rigoletto.
The Plot - Mantua in the 16th Century
Rigoletto (baritone) is the hunchback jester to the Duke of Mantua (tenor). He is put under a curse by a wronged father when he jeers the families of all the women whom the Duke has seduced. His daughter Gilda (soprano) is then abducted by the Duke. Rigoletto hires an assassin, Sparafucile (bass) to kill the Duke, but the assassin is persuaded to kill the first person who comes to his inn, and deliver the body to Rigoletto in a sack. Gilda, in love with the Duke, sacrifices herself by knocking on the door. She is stabbed. When Rigoletto opens the sack to find her body, he realises that the curse has struck home, while the Duke continues with his evil ways.
The baritone title role dominates the music, while the tenor role is for a light and charming style of voice. Some highlights include the tenor arias La Donna e Mobile and Quest' o Quella while the famous Quartet manages to present the emotions of four different characters in unified music.
La Traviata (1853)
While the title can be translated as 'The Lost One' or 'The Fallen Woman', the Italian title is more usually used. This work written to a libretto by Piave, based on the play La Dame aux Camellias by Alexandre Dumas the younger, which in turn was based on a semi-autobiographical novel. It is unusual in Verdi's work in having no political theme. The sympathetic treatment of the courtesan Violetta, which was regarded as scandalous at the time, may have reflected Verdi's feelings about his relationship with Giuseppina Strepponi. This opera was first performed at La Fenice in Venice, but the premiere was a fiasco, perhaps due to the often-recurring problem of an overweight soprano totally failing to look consumptive.
The Plot - Paris in the 1850s
Violetta (soprano) is a consumptive Parisian courtesan who falls in love with Alfredo Germont (tenor) and goes to live with him in the country. Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont (baritone) persuades Violetta to break off the relationship, for Alfredo's good. Violetta sacrifices her love and returns to Paris, where Alfredo insults her in front of her friends. As Violetta is dying of consumption a few weeks later, Alfredo, having learned the truth, returns in time to wish her farewell.
The music of this work is mostly on a more intimate scale, as suits the purely personal theme of the plot. There are a number of beautiful arias for the soprano heroine, including the well-known Sempre Libera, and her dying song, Addio, del Passato. The drinking song or 'Brindisi chorus' is also instantly recognisable.
La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny, 1862)
This was a commission from the Imperial Theatre in Saint Petersburg. Verdi's wife Giuseppina was delighted with the idea of a visit to Russia, and encouraged him to accept. His first choice of a subject (Victor Hugo's Ruy Blas) was rejected because it was seen as being politically risky. Verdi then settled on the plot of a play Don Alvaro, o la Fuerza del Sino by the Spanish playwright Angel de Saavedra, Duke of Rivas. He asked Francesco Piave to write the libretto. The original run in Saint Petersburg was a great success, but Verdi later became dissatisfied with the ending, and rewrote large sections of it for performance at La Scala in 1869.
This opera has the same 'unlucky' reputation in the world's opera houses that Shakespeare's Macbeth has in English theatrical tradition.
The Plot - Spain and Italy in the Mid-18th Century
While Leonora (soprano) is trying to elope with Don Alvaro (tenor), Alvaro accidentally kills her father the Marquis of Calatrava (bass). The lovers are separated and Leonora takes refuge as a hermit in a cave, while her brother Don Carlo (baritone) swears vengeance. Alvaro and Carlo meet, but their duel is interrupted and Alvaro enters a monastery. Five years later, Carlo tracks him down, and is mortally wounded by Alvaro in a duel near Leonora's cave. Leonora recognises Alvaro, and approaches her dying brother just in time for him to stab her to death. In the first version, Alvaro then kills himself in grief; in the second version, he decides to live and pray for redemption.
This work has a particularly rich and complex overture, often performed in the concert hall. There is strikingly contrasting music for all three central characters, with the baritone Don Carlo playing a very important role.
Don Carlos (1867)
This was commissioned by the Paris Opéra, and had to follow a vexatious number of that institution's written and unwritten rules. It was based on a play by the German author Friedrich Schiller, and the required French libretto was begun by Joseph Méry and finished by Camille du Locle. It had to be in five acts, with a ballet in the second act, and a large amount of spectacle was expected. There were constant delays in rehearsal, and a series of cuts and revisions.
The premiere was not a success, perhaps because the Empress Eugenie (of Spanish origin herself) took umbrage at the portrayal of Spanish history. Verdi himself was never satisfied, and blamed the constant interference for the problems with the work. He later revised it extensively into the four-act Italian version, Don Carlo, which was first performed at La Scala in Milan in 1884.
The Plot - Spain in the 1560s
Don Carlos (tenor), the son of King Philip II of Spain (bass), is in love with Elisabeth (soprano) who is forced to marry Philip instead. Carlos and his friend Rodrigo (baritone) take up the cause of the Flemish struggle against Spain, though Rodrigo saves the King when Carlos threatens him. The Grand Inquisitor compels Philip to sentence both Rodrigo and Carlos to death. Meanwhile, Elisabeth has been put under suspicion by the jealous Princess Eboli (mezzo soprano). Rodrigo is killed, and Carlos and Elisabeth meet to say goodbye. The Grand Inquisitor and Philip try to seize them, but the ghost of Charles V appears to draw Carlos into a tomb.
Here the music manages to reflect both the private emotions of the characters, and the public and patriotic conflicts on the wider political stage. The music again is complex and richly orchestrated, with some particularly striking duets.
This was a commission in 1869 from the Khedive or Viceroy of Egypt, who wanted to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal, and offered Verdi the enormous sum of $20,000. It is the only one of Verdi's greatest works which was written to an original story. The story was by the great French archaeologist Francois Mariette, and was sent to Verdi by the Khedive. Mariette apparently felt that he never received proper credit for this. The Italian libretto was by Antonio Ghislanzoni, with a large amount of alteration by Verdi himself. The influence of Parisian Grand Opera can be seen in the spectacle, the exotic setting, and the huge choruses.
Unusually, Verdi himself did not attend the rehearsals or the premiere in the Cairo Opera House. Though the score was ready in 1870, the sets which had been made in Paris were trapped there by the Prussian siege during the Franco-Prussian War. The premiere finally went ahead in Cairo in 1871, and the Khedive was apparently delighted.
The Egyptian prince, Radames (tenor) is in love with the Ethiopian slavegirl Aida (soprano). When Aida's father, the Ethiopian king is captured, he persuades Aida to wheedle military secrets from Radames. The jealous Amneris (soprano) gets Radames convicted of treason. Walled alive into a tomb, Radames discovers that Aida has joined him and will die with him.
Aida can be considered the crowning work of Verdi's middle period. There are many remarkable arias including the tenor classic Celeste Aida, and choruses such as the Grand March. There is more variety in the orchestration than in his earlier work.
Messa da Requiem (1874)
Verdi was inspired to write this Requiem by the death of the great Italian poet and patriot Manzoni in 1873. While it contains settings of the Latin texts of the Catholic funeral mass, it was always intended for performance in a concert hall rather than a church. It is highly theatrical, and requires four soloists, a large orchestra and a huge chorus to make the proper effect. The Dies Irae section, with full massed chorus and orchestra, has a strong contribution by the bass drum and is overpoweringly impressive. Other sections, such as the Lacrimosa, a quartet for the four soloists, are quiet and plaintively sad. The dramatic Libera Me section towards the end is a fugue which shows Verdi's technical mastery.
Verdi was tempted out of retirement by the encouragement of his music publisher Giulio Ricordi, and the sight of the libretto for Otello. This libretto was written by Arrigo Boito, who was himself a well-known composer. It was of course based on Shakespeare's play Othello. The premiere was at La Scala in Milan, and showed that Verdi had finally got over his quarrels with the management and audience of Italy's greatest opera house.
The Plot - Cyprus in the 15th Century
Otello (tenor), the Venetian commander, arrives in Cyprus. Iago (baritone) plots revenge for being passed over in favour of Cassio (tenor). He gets Cassio dismissed, and with the help of his wife Emilia (mezzo soprano) makes Otello believe that his wife Desdemona (soprano) is having an affair with Cassio. Otello decides to murder Desdemona. He finds her alone and suffocates her, but after Emilia reveals Iago's plot, Otello kills himself in remorse.
From the dramatic opening storm, the music flows continuously and expressively, reflecting varied emotions. The role of Otello demands a particularly strong and confident tenor, since his triumphant opening Esultate! is difficult enough to scare many singers away from the role. The bass Iago's role is almost as important, and his dramatic Credo in Un Dio Crudel is one of the most memorable arias. Desdemona's serene music is more detached from the drama, with her most striking arias being the gentle 'Willow song' and Ave Maria.
This was the first comedy that Verdi attempted since the failure of his only other comedy fifty years before. Again, Boito tempted him out of retirement with a well-written libretto, this time based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV. Verdi spent two hours a day for two years working on the score. It received its first performance at La Scala.
The Plot - Windsor in the reign of Henry IV
Sir John Falstaff (baritone) is trying to seduce Alice Ford (soprano) and Meg Page (mezzo soprano). The women decide to play a trick on Falstaff, while teaching Alice's husband Ford (baritone) a lesson for his jealousy. Alice and Meg persuade Falstaff to hide in a laundry basket, which is tipped into the Thames. Later, the servant Mistress Quickly brings Falstaff an invitation to meet Alice by Herne's Oak in Windsor Forest. Arriving at the Oak at midnight, Falstaff is terrorised by friends and neighbours disguised as spirits. In the confusion, the Fords' daughter Nanetta (soprano) manages to marry Fenton (tenor). When the plot is revealed, the resigned Falstaff sings that all the world's a jest.
The music is again smoothly flowing, with few arias or monologues. The whole work has a life and freshness that makes it hard to believe the composer was nearly eighty when he wrote it. The ending is striking, with Falstaff and the whole cast singing a dramatic chorus, which is a fitting end to Verdi's great career:
Tutti gabbati! Irrede
L'un l'altro ogni mortal.
Ma ride ben chi ride
La risata final.
We all are figures of fun
Every mortal laughs at the others.
But he laughs best
who has the final laugh.
Some Other Well-known Works
This was Verdi's first success. It contained the famous Va Pensiero or chorus of the Hebrew slaves, which became an unofficial national anthem for Italy.
This was Verdi's first attempt at setting Shakespeare, and showed his focus on dramatic effect. The music showed an increasing importance for the orchestra.
Il trovatore (1853, The Troubadour)
Written between Rigoletto and La Traviata, the music of this work is closer to that of his early period. This opera has a particularly lurid plot, involving gypsy curses, twins separated at birth, execution and suicide. It contains a number of memorable tunes, including the well-known Anvil chorus.
Un ballo in maschera (1859, A Masked Ball)
This opera was the cause of one of Verdi's most striking brushes with censorship. The plot was based on the assassination of the Swedish King Gustavus III in 1789 at a masked ball in Stockholm. It was written for the San Carlo opera house in Naples, but the Neapolitan censor refused to allow the assassination of a king to be shown on stage. A Roman theatre agreed to present it, on condition that the setting was changed, so 18th Century Stockholm became 17th Century Boston, and King Gustavus was demoted to become the Count of Warwick. Modern performances usually use the Stockholm version.