Last year I posted a performance of Philippe’s monologue from Don Carlos by the great Pol Plançon. Since Don Carlos seems to be the order of the day today (see Re-visioning Callas), I thought that I would post another gorgeous, musicianly performance of this aria, this time by Vanni Marcoux.
Born in Turin in 1877 to an Italian mother and a French father, Vanni Marcoux had a freakishly light timbre for a bass-baritone, very different from the plummy, black (or verging-on-black) sounds we often hear today from those cast in Verdi’s bass rôles. His enunciation is splendidly clear, and that is a trait that Verdi prized—nay, insisted on—in those singing his music.
Earlier this week I read something that Verdi wrote about singers in the 1850s:
If only these singers, the women as much as the men, would sing and not shout! If only they would remember that to declaim does not mean to scream! Even if there aren’t many vocalises in my music, singers shouldn’t take advantage of that and tear their hair out and shriek as if possessed.
Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film Il gattopardo may be my favorite work of art. I will view it only at the cinema (I couldn’t bear the thought of dishonoring it by watching it on television). Every time I see it, my appreciation for it grows and grows.
The blog Opera Fresh offers a lovely post rich with information about Il gattopardo, including the use of Verdi’s music in the film. The waltz by Verdi heard in this scene was unpublished until 2009, when the University of Chicago and Casa Ricordi issued a critical edition of Verdi chamber music edited by Gundula Kreuzer.
(The first time we hear Verdi’s waltz in Il gattopardo is during a shot of Sicilian peasants working the fields under a scorching sun—a pointed reminder from Visconti the Communist about the human and material basis of the Sicilian aristocrats’ wealth. The shot quickly shifts to Palazzo Ponteleone and the 45-minute ball scene that is one of the pinnacles of cinematic art.)
Opera Fresh tells us about music from Verdi’s La traviata used to fairly comic effect in Il gattopardo. As noted earlier this week, Visconti modelled Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) in the film on Boldoni’s famous portrait of Verdi.
This video shows the bis of “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco that was given at La Scala in 1986.
People sometimes go on about how “tyrannical” and “inflexible” Maestro Riccardo Muti is supposed to be. To this I reply: This is what so-called tyranny and inflexibility give you: music-making of unsurpassed poetry and power.
This clip, which seems to be from La Scala and (possibly) the Ministero degli affari esteri, brings together footage from Luchino Visconti’s Senso and the 1982 television mini-series about Verdi directed by Renato Castellani.
I posted the Visconti clip earlier, with more detailed information, but I think that any excuse is good to watch it again. Italy once had the finest cinema in the world. One weeps reflecting on what Italian cinema has become—and on the willingness of Italians and others around the world to neglect their own cinematic traditions and embrace the obscene, depraved tripe churned out by Hollywood.
The clip rightly includes near the end a snippet from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, as much a “Risorgimento opera” as any other.
While scholars in recent years have tended to debunk the idea that “Va, pensiero” was an important Risorgimento hymn, listening to “Di quella pira” in the Visconti clip, I am reminded of what Antonio Fogazzaro said after Verdi died: “Verdi was our great unifier, when the wave of his passionate music, something that the enemy could not seize, embodied the idea of the nation.”
I have begun revisiting the Castellani mini-series, which stars Ronald Pickup as Verdi and Carla Fracci as Giuseppina Strepponi. I last saw it (in English, with heavy cuts) when it was broadcast on PBS here in the States more than twenty years ago. This time around I expected to find it hokey and inaccurate, but so far, I am pleasantly surprised at how much it gets right. The casting is remarkable—Countess Maffei looks like Countess Maffei, Cavour looks like Cavour, etc.; regional accents are generally respected; the dialogue is often based on the correspondence of Verdi and others; and the production values are delicious.
That said, the mini-series also gets many things wrong, particularly in the realm of aesthetic judgments. In this scene, the voice-over deems Jérusalem “merely a hasty reworking of I Lombardi,” when most critics today rate Jérusalem rather more highly than I Lombardi. In any event, let’s admire what is admirable in this clip, depicting Verdi’s Paris sojourns and his marriage with Strepponi.
I invite you to marvel at Giuseppe Taddei as Falstaff. He is both funny and—somehow—sexy, like a fat, blissed-out cat sprawled in the sun. Bonus: The great Heinz Zednik is a scream as Bardolfo. (P.S. As I write, the entire Karajan Falstaff is available on YouTube.)
Ten favorite recordings
Why no Rigoletto or Trovatore? Because there are no versions that I find completely satisfying. Yes, of course, I know and adore the Callas/Serafin and Callas/Karajan sets, but the mutilations (a.k.a. “the traditional cuts”) are hard for me to stomach. If you feel otherwise, good for you! I quote Montaigne: Je donne mon avis non comme bon, mais comme mien.
(But… No Milanov! But… No Corelli! But… Bite me.)
Simon Boccanegra led by Claudio Abbado (DG)
The single greatest recording of an opera that I know.
Aida led by Carlo Sabajno (various labels; 1928) Aida has had a happy history on disc, with superb recordings led by Karajan (Decca and EMI), Solti, Muti, and Levine. Still, listen to this excerpt (courtesy of Cantabile-Subito) from the judgment scene with Irene Minghini-Cattaneo as Amneris and Aureliano Pertile as Radamès. Simionato/Bergonzi, Gorr/Vickers, Baltsa/Carreras: I love ’em all. But this version has the stink of the theatre about it, a tartness and vigor that I don’t find elsewhere.
Macbeth led by Claudio Abbado (DG)
The versions led by Leinsdorf, Muti, and Sinopoli are also quite fine, but this set, like the DG Boccanegra, documents the Abbado-Strehler collaboration at La Scala: one of the pinnacles of Verdi performance in the twentieth century.
Un ballo in maschera led by Gianandrea Gavazzeni (EMI), supplemented with the versions led by Karajan (DG) and Muti (EMI)
In my view, there is no ideal Ballo (yet). So I choose Gavazzeni for the white-hot fire generated by Callas and di Stefano in the love duet; Karajan for that autumnal glow and the sublime Oscar of Sumi Jo; and Muti for silken grace. Oscar, as Gabriele Baldini reminds us, is no mincing fop but the “laughter, warm embrace, and mercy” that live on after the murdered king. The Salzburg DVD (led by Sir Georg Solti following Karajan’s death) documents the stage production on which the Karajan recording was based. It is quite fine.
Falstaff led by Herbert von Karajan (Sony DVD)
I choose this set primarily for the great Giuseppe Taddei, whose portrayal of Falstaff seems to me unsurpassable. Falstaff, too, has had a lucky history on disc, so knock yourself out sampling the many other superb recordings!
Ernani led by Riccardo Muti (EMI)
This is slashing, incandescent, not-to-be-missed Verdi.
Don Carlo led by Carlo Maria Giulini (EMI)
I don’t care for the French-language sets led by Pappano (EMI) and Abbado (DG), though I eagerly await the coming of a good one. Still, Giulini’s reading—world-weary, grave, and filled with a melting tenderness—will always have a proud place chez moi. Shirley Verrett as Eboli seems to me impossible to beat.
Manzoni Requiem led by John Eliot Gardiner (Philips)
The Manzoni Requiem, too, is amply well-represented on disc. There are admirable sets conducted by Toscanini, Giulini, de Sabata, Serafin, Fricsay, Reiner… But Gardiner’s sizzling reading uses David Rosen’s critical edition of the score and period instruments. And for all that they are not classic “Verdians,” Anne Sofie von Otter and Luca Canonici slay me with their rapt, poignant singing.
La traviata led by Riccardo Muti (EMI)
This “come scritto” performance does not offer the ornaments that would have been expected in second verses, but its febrile swiftness, the patrician grace of Kraus and Bruson, and Scotto’s intensity make it my top choice. (You didn’t really expect me to pick a performance that leaves out, oh, a third of the music, did you?)
Otello led by Carlos Kleiber (Opera d’Oro)
There are many fine sets of Otello (led by Levine, Muti, Serafin, Karajan, and others), but this 1976 recording from La Scala starring Plácido Domingo and Mirella Freni documents a real moment of grace.
While I was not lucky enough to see the 2001 La Scala Otello, I have seen and heard Plácido Domingo and Barbara Frittoli sing this music many times—together and with other partners. They are among my most cherished opera-going memories. Frittoli and Domingo are not quite at their best in this clip, but even so, I find them unforgettable interpreters of these rôles.
A long, long time ago, I had a blog for which I wrote much of what follows—for 27 January, the day of Verdi’s death.
But why should I hold these materials in reserve to grieve over Verdi’s death, when his life and music give us so much to celebrate?
(A note on the clip: One forgets: hot damn, Maestro Muti was quite the looker back in the day! Be still my beating heart…)
* * *
From the time I first heard La traviata (a PBS telecast of a BBC production), Verdi’s music has been at the center of my life. That ineffably beautiful prelude filled with a dying woman’s breath and the bleak, timid dawn that glimmers outside her window. Secret music that we overhear only with pain and discomfort. I was thunderstruck, and my gratitude and awe continue to grow.
I don’t remember the precise trajectory I followed. Probably Rigoletto came next, “burnt into music,” as George Bernard Shaw wrote. Forza and Ballo were also early favorites. Though there was darkness in Verdi’s character, I learned to love his best qualities: his reserve, sobriety, and generosity.
I had planned to assemble a handful of music excerpts to honor Verdi. In the end, though, everything else sounded scruffy compared with this: “La vergine degli angeli” from La forza del destino, recorded in 1928 by Ezio Pinza and Rosa Ponselle. The Act II finale of Forza was part of the February 1901 memorial concert for Verdi conducted by Toscanini at La Scala.
Bow your head, be silent, and lose yourself in the “dark splendor” of these voices and Verdi’s music.
Someone, perhaps Charles Osborne, cited Terence’ maxim with respect to Verdi: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto; “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” That’s as good a summary as any of Verdi’s art, no?
Ten favorite links
Casa Verdi, the home for aged musicians to which Verdi bequeathed the royalties from his operas, and that he deemed his “most beautiful work.” Daniel Schmid’s documentary Il bacio di Tosca offers an affectionate look at the home and its residents.
Verdi was born on 9 or 10 October 1813. Wikipedia offers some details about the uncertainty of his birth date. (Mary Jane Phillips-Matz and other biographers say that he was born on the 10th, but apparently he celebrated his birthday on the 9th.)
As a first offering for Verdi’s birthday, here is a post from the archives: “Il maestro,” Paolo Conte’s wry and warmhearted tribute to Verdi.
The cabarettistaPaolo Conte (1937– ) is one of the world’s great singer-songwriters, the author of such classics as “Via con me,” “Azzurro,” and “Genova per noi.”
While sometimes labelled a jazz musician, Conte always insists that he does not write jazz—that, rather, he writes songs about jazz. Onda Rock offers a superb overview of Paolo Conte’s career (in Italian).
There is another Conte masterpiece about music: “Il maestro.” Onda Rock calls the song “an epic Verdian hymn intoned by a female chorus, repeated by Conte with his usual talent for oblique variations as he pays tribute to one of his own artistic influences.”
Full of affection and irony, more than a touch surreal, “Il maestro” is a beautiful homage to Verdi.
The Maestro is in our soul,
and within our soul he will always remain!
Long live the woman, a beautiful martyr,
who will give him all that he asks.
There is nothing more seductive
than an aroused, nymphomaniac orchestra
enclosed within the mystic gulf
that boils with storms and liberty
whirling in the vortex
in which villages* and cities disappear
in the delirium* of those simpletons
and of the usual crowd that ends up there
to see him conduct
with a perfidy that flogs every vileness…
The Maestro is in our soul,
and within our soul he will always remain!
* Paesi can mean “countries,” “homelands,” or “villages.”
Riccardo Muti leads the Vienna Philharmonic in a 2005 performance of the overture to La forza del destino.
In terms of the clairvoyance of conductors, and creation at every performance… This is a principle that leads directly to the baroque and to the false… I read frequently in the papers of effects not imagined by the composer, but I, for my part, have never, ever encountered such effects… I cannot sanction in either singers or conductors the power to create which, as I said before, is a principle that leads to the abyss… Do you want an example? You cited earlier, with praise, an effect that Mariani drew out of the overture to La forza del destino, making the brass enter fortissimo in G. Well then: I disapprove of this effect. Those brass instruments at mezza voce in my concept were supposed to—nay, could express nothing other than the friar’s religious song. Mariani’s fortissimo completely alters their character, and the passage becomes a warlike fanfare, which has nothing to do with the subject of the drama, in which the warlike episodes are utterly episodic. And here we are on the road of the baroque and the false. —Verdi to Giulio Ricordi (1871)
To the world, as to the nation he helped to found, Verdi left an enduring legacy of music, charity, patriotism, honour, grace, and reason. He was and remains a mighty force for continuing good. Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, Verdi: A Biography
Se noi uccidiamo la cultura su cui è fondata la storia dell’Italia, veramente sarà la nostra patria bella e perduta. Il maestro Riccardo Muti