The extent to which Verdi the artist was engagé, and the importance (or lack thereof) of “Va’, pensiero” during the Risorgimento, have been hot topics in Verdi studies in recent years.
I shall not take on those subjects today. Instead, I wish to call your attention to something extraordinary that happened in Italy on Saturday evening. At the Opera di Roma, Nabucco was on the boards, conducted by Riccardo Muti. Before the performance, the mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, called upon the Italian government to revoke the draconian cuts to arts funding.
I quote from the article in La Repubblica:
When the time came for the famous third-act chorus, “Va’, pensiero,” which stirred the hearts of patriots a century and a half ago, the question was in the air: Will there be an encore? But Muti, having finished the celebrated chorus, did more. He turned to the public and said, “I am greatly pained by what is happening. I don’t do this only for patriotic reasons, but [because] we truly run the risk of our fatherland becoming ‘beautiful and lost,’ as Verdi says. And if you would like to join us, we’ll do the encore together.”
As if responding to a silent command, all of the spectators rose to their feet and sang along with the hundred choristers remaining on the stage. It was an absolutely unprecedented event, further enriched by the throwing of Risorgimento-like flyers that said “Viva Giuseppe Verdi” or “Long live our President Giorgio Napolitano” or “Riccardo Muti, senator for life”! From that point, the spectacle went into the home stretch until the final notes and a shower of applause lasting more than ten minutes.
Let it be said that there are layers upon layers of irony here, given that both Alemanno and Muti are men of the right—and the right, in Italy, has taken a very ugly, American-style, obscurantist turn in recent years. (This is one reason why I loathe the indiscriminate and cancerous esterofilia of Italians. Pazienza.)
What follows is my quick-and-dirty translation of this interview from La Repubblica.
Riccardo Muti in the front lines against cuts in arts funding. Against the “reduction to nothingness” of our culture. With the premiere of Nabucco at the Opera di Roma, Saturday evening became an extraordinary manifestation set to the notes of “Va’, pensiero.”
Maestro Muti, it was truly a special evening…
It was out of the ordinary and not prepared, I am keen to emphasize. I believe that conductors should not speak from the podium, but yesterday, after the words of the mayor of Rome, it was necessary and important for a musician, too, to speak up. For a musician like me, who has been lucky enough to travel the world and see the reality of Italy from other nations, and thus to suffer on account of our situation. It was my duty to speak up. But I thought I had finished after I said, “On March 9, 1842, Nabucco had its world premiere as a patriotic opera striving for the unity and identity of Italy. Today, on March 12, 2011, I would not have Nabucco be the funeral song of culture and music.” Because a nation that loses its culture loses its identity.
And then what happened?
It’s clear that “Va, pensiero,” above and beyond the nonsense that is said about the national anthem, is a song that gives intense expression to the soul of Italians—nostalgia, a feeling of prayer, a Mediterranean depth that Verdi attributes to the enslaved Jewish people but that Italians chose as the standard of their Risorgimento. When I conducted it the first time I felt, when the chorus sang “o mia patria, sì bella e perduta” (oh my fatherland, so beautiful and lost), that that moment was charged not only for our institutions but also for the lives of those called to study in our conservatories, academies, and universities. I sensed that that cry came from the depths of the soul, a genuine cry on the part of those living through this drama, the men and women who create culture in our nation. And they do so out of respect for our nation and for the sake of the world’s respect for Italy amidst the ever-greater neglect on the part of those called to preserve culture. The world doesn’t look to us for technology—we do important things, but when people think of Italy, they think of poets, painters, musicians, museums and theatres, of what we represent. The world is full of Italians, highly touted researchers, scholars, and doctors at great universities, especially in the United States. Young people who earn respect outside of Italy, because at home they encounter difficulties. We cannot allow this ship to sink. On Saturday, I felt that “Va’, pensiero” was this cry.
And you decided to surprise everyone.
I had to make a decision: Do I grant the encore as requested, a well-established custom, or do I give this repetition a new character, one fitting the situation? The chorus sang, “o mia patria, sì bella e perduta,” and surely, if we lose culture, we are moving in this direction, so let’s make this a cry against this reduction to nothingness of our culture. Given that the issue was of global importance, I invited the public to sing along. I didn’t expect the entire theatre to take part. Everyone knew the words. Then, in a kind of surreal situation, from the podium I saw people getting up in small groups. By the end, everyone was on their feet, up to the last rows. It was a heartbroken and heartbreaking chorus, a cry appealing for the return to light of culture, the backbone of Italy, our roots.
And the public was moved.
Yes. I saw many people in the first rows with tears in their eyes. It showed that our people is strongly united, beyond any slogans. And it showed the extraordinary ongoing relevance (attualità) of Verdi, which will be valid in the future, given his great universality. Verdi speaks to human beings of human beings and will always remain bound up with our reality. He will always remain absolutely contemporary (attuale).