Giovanna d’Arco, with a libretto by Temistocle Solera, had its world premiere at La Scala on 15 February 1845. The next Verdi opera to premiere in Milan was the revised La forza del destino nearly a quarter-century later, in 1869.
The performance of the overture is by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with Andrea Licata conducting.
Giovanna is not a great favorite of mine, but it has an interesting history. According to Wikipedia, for the opera’s first performance in Rome, the papal censors demanded that it be recast as a secular drama: “The title was changed to Orietta di Lesbo, the setting was shifted to the Greek island and the heroine, now of Genoese descent, became a leader of the Lesbians against the Turks.”
Happy birthday to Falstaff, which had its world premiere 119 years ago today!
Today’s musical selection features Tito Gobbi not in the title rôle (which he also sang superbly) but as Ford in the great jealousy scene from Act II, Scene 1: “È sogno o realtà?” Tullio Serafin conducts this performance from 1941. The clip also allows us to hear a bit of Mariano Stabile’s Falstaff, a legendary interpretation.
Though he had been grumbling about his supposed decrepitude since the 1880s, Verdi was saddened to bid farewell to the theatre after the Falstaff premiere. Gruff and laconic as he was, he opened his heart to Emma Zilli, the first Alice Ford, several months after the memorable night.
Do you remember the third Falstaff?!!! I took my leave of you all; and you were all somewhat moved, especially you and Pasqua. Imagine what my greeting implied, since it meant: “We will never meet again as artists!!” It is true that we saw each other after that, in Milan, in Genoa, in Rome; but memory carried us back always to that third evening, which meant: Everything is finished! Lucky you who still have such a long career ahead.
Verdi confessed to his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, that he could hardly bear to think back on the premiere and the period leading up to it:
Otherwise, I will fly to Milan in a balloon to beg my dear Merry Wives and Big Belly and the Men to start rehearsing again!! It was just exactly two months ago today, the third, that we had the first rehearsal!!! Everything ends!! Alas, alas! too sad!! This thought is too sad!! It is all Big Belly’s fault. What madmen!! Everyone… He, You, You, You, You. Everything on earth is a joke.
Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, in her magnificent biography of Verdi, describes the night of Falstaff’s premiere.
When [Verdi, Giuseppina, and librettist Arrigo Boito] got to the Grand Hôtel de Milan, they were greeted by the same pandemonium that had reigned after Otello. Dignitaries waited inside the lobby; the flower-decked salon of the composer’s suite was decorated with a bronze wreath, a gift of [the hôtel proprietor] Spatz, who had had many of its leaves engraved with the names of Verdi’s operas but had left some of them blank!
…An unidentified writer who was with [the party] reported that the composer was “happy and satisfied: his beautiful face was bright with a smile. Verdi gladly received the congratulations of his friends, and did not forget anyone who was there…” Nowhere is there a hint that the composer ever showed fatigue or exasperation during the taxing month before the Falstaff première. Indeed, several men of science published articles on his extraordinary physical strength, energy, and soundness of mind.
Still, despite Verdi’s vigor, despite his having created in Falstaff “a new art, music, and poetry” (as Peppina wrote), “an extremely new art form” (in Boito’s words), everything really was finished.
I hear time’s dreadful march in nearly every measure of this swiftest of operas: in the gossamer of Nanetta and Fenton’s love music; in the luxuriant (but oh-so-fleeting) sensuality of Falstaff’s “Ber del vino dolce e sbottonarsi al sole”; even in “Quand’ero paggio”—blithe and tripping, but evoking a slip of a boy whose “green April” and “glad May” will never return. Julian Budden writes that much of Falstaff is “instinct with… lacrimae rerum” and an “underlying melancholy.”
And the fugue! That triumphant joke at the expense of the conservatory professors and “quartettists” who had heaped scorn on Verdi’s abilities; that wrenching suspension, dreadful pause, and dizzying look into the abyss—Tutti gabbati! (“We are all deceived!”)—before the laughter returns and merry brass flourishes bring to an end the operatic career of this most humane and great-hearted artist.
Budden closes his three-volume study of Verdi’s operas thus:
By his eightieth year [Verdi] knew that nothing in this world can be taken for granted and that “Man is born to be made a fool of.” That he was no mere destructive cynic; that, if no orthodox Christian, he thought seriously on first and last things we know from the Requiem and the Quattro Pezzi Sacri that were his last compositions; but the final message of the secular Verdi is one of tolerance, comprehension and humour. If we cannot all agree we can at least laugh with each other and at ourselves. It is a message of hope.
Falstaff had its world premiere on 9 February 1893 at La Scala.
Victor Maurel, the great baritone from Marseille, created the title rôle. Maurel was vain, willful, greedy, and by all accounts a supremely great artist. Verdi especially admired his beautiful enunciation. George Bernard Shaw wrote of Maurel at Covent Garden:
He challenges criticism as a creative artist, not as a mere opera singer. In doing so he at once rouses antagonisms from which his brother artists are quite exempt, since his view of the characters he represents may conflict with that of his critics—a risk obviously not run by eminent baritones who have no views at all.
Maurel is usually credited with creating three rôles for Verdi: Falstaff, Iago in Otello, and Simon Boccanegra in the revised edition of the opera. I believe that he participated in a fourth Verdi world premiere, that of Don Carlos. The Paris Opéra program lists a M. Victor Maurel, a student at the Conservatoire, as one of the choristers. I am not certain beyond all doubt that it was the same Victor Maurel, but he was indeed at the Paris Conservatoire at the time.
In 1907, some fourteen years after the world premiere of Falstaff, Maurel set down (thrice!) “Quand’ero paggio.” He brought along his own claque and sang the aria in French the third time.
“FEBRUARY 25, 1830! That date stands out in my past in letters of fire… That one evening shaped my entire life.”
So wrote the poet Théophile Gautier of the tumultuous premiere of Victor Hugo’s drama Hernani. Partisans of Hugo’s Romantic principles (led by Gautier) and “greybeard” Classicists squared off, trading insults and blows. Some historians say that the months-long aesthetic battle spilled over into real combat: the July Revolution that brought about a constitutional monarchy in France.
Nearly as momentous was the Hugo-inspired Ernani (1844) in the career of Giuseppe Verdi. It was his first European triumph, and it also marked his first collaboration with the librettist Francesco Maria Piave. Once dismissed as a ham-fisted naïf, Piave has come to be seen as Verdi’s most important partner. The operas that they crafted together departed from the historical pageantry of Verdi’s earlier successes Nabucco and I Lombardi and embraced ground-breaking Romantic dramas of sinners and outcasts, rebels and pariahs, including Macbeth, Stiffelio, Rigoletto (also drawn from Hugo), La traviata, and La forza del destino.
The presenter is nauseating, but the song “Verdi cries” by Natalie Merchant is interesting.
The man in 119 takes his tea alone.
Mornings we all rise to wireless Verdi cries.
I’m hearing opera through the door.
The souls of men and women, impassioned all.
Their voices climb and fall; battle trumpets call.
I fill the bath and climb inside, singing…
Verdi died in Milano on 27 January 1901. He had suffered a stroke on 21 January in his apartments at the Grand Hôtel.
Arrigo Boito described Verdi’s death to Camille Bellaigue in a beautiful letter:
Verdi is dead; he has carried away with him an enormous measure of light and warmth. We had all basked in the sunshine of that Olympian old age.
He died magnificently, like a fighter, formidable and mute. The silence of death had fallen over him a week before he died.
Do you know the admirable bust by Gemito? That bust, made forty years ago, is the exact image of the Maestro as he was on the fourth day before the end. With head bowed on his breast and knitted brows he looked downwards and seemed to weigh with his glance an unknown and formidable adversary…
His resistance was heroic. The breathing of his great chest sustained him for four days and three nights. On the fourth night the sound of his breathing still filled the room, but the fatigue… Poor Maestro, how brave and handsome he was, up to the last moment! No matter; the old reaper went off with his scythe well battered.
My dear friend, in the course of my life I have lost those I have idolized, and grief has outlasted resignation. But never have I experienced such a feeling of hatred against death, of contempt for that mysterious, blind, stupid, triumphant, and craven power. It needed the death of this octogenarian to arouse those feelings in me.
He, too, hated it, for he was the most powerful expression of life that it is possible to imagine.
Verdi’s first funeral on 30 January was simple, in accordance with his wishes: “two priests, two candles, one cross.” He wanted no flowers, so his adopted daughter Maria Carrara Verdi and her daughter Peppina placed palm fronds in his coffin. Mary Jane Phillips-Matz tells us that a second-class hearse transported his remains. Verdi may have gone to eternal rest with the score of the Te Deum beneath the pillow in his coffin; this was family tradition.
Some of the earliest surviving Italian film footage documents his state funeral on 27 February 1901, when his remains and those of Giuseppina were moved to the crypt of the Casa di riposo, where we can pay our respects to them today. (The crypt is always my very first stop whenever I visit Milano.)
There is a YouTube clip of an elderly Milanese lady who saw Verdi’s funeral as a little girl.
It is said that a country priest sent a telegram to the Grand Hôtel upon learning of Verdi’s death. It read: La Vergine degli Angeli vi copra nel suo manto. This selection from La forza del destino was sung the day of Verdi’s state funeral; here it is in one of the greatest recordings ever made of Verdi’s music (or anyone else’s), sung by Rosa Ponselle and Ezio Pinza in 1928.
Of course, “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco was sung at the state funeral, too. Here is an historic performance from several months ago led by the great, the immense, Riccardo Muti. Background here. I dare you to try to watch this with a dry eye.
The final words of Mary Jane Phillips-Matz’s magnificent Verdi biography:
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.
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