Verdi, G.

LA FORZA DEL DESTINO — Verdi’s Giant Canvas




It would be dif­fi­cult to find another major Verdi opera that has been so mis­treated — and so mis­un­der­stood — through the years as has La Forza del Des­tino. Not that long ago, entire scenes were either cut entirely, or trun­cated almost beyond recog­ni­tion. Some­times they were rearranged in an attempt to “improve” the sup­pos­edly inco­her­ent libretto. Char­ac­ters whom the com­poser admired were reduced to a few lines, or elim­i­nated entirely. Even though such once-routine man­gling of Forza is (thank­fully) rarely encoun­tered in major the­aters today, for many oper­a­go­ers the work remains more than slightly tainted by the idea that Verdi, some­how, got conned into writ­ing some won­der­ful music for an absurd, unwieldy drama that prob­a­bly should have been left undis­turbed on 19th–cen­tury library shelves.

That view, though com­mon, is regret­tably short­sighted. It is true that if ever a major Verdi work dis­re­garded the Aris­totelian dra­matic pre­cepts of unity of time, place and action it is La Forza del Des­tino. Aris­to­tle thought a drama should take place within a 24-hour period. A pro­duc­tion book from 1862, the year of Forza’s pre­mière, and thought to be the work of the opera’s libret­tist, Francesco Maria Piave, points out “about 18 months pass between the first and sec­ond acts; sev­eral years between the sec­ond and third; more than five years between the third and fourth.” Far from tak­ing place in a sin­gle loca­tion, Forza blithely trav­els through Spain and Italy, encom­pass­ing numer­ous set­tings such as aris­to­cratic homes, tacky inns, bat­tle­fields, wood­lands, a monastery and a cave in the side of a moun­tain. And as for stick­ing with one cen­tral story and elim­i­nat­ing any action not rel­e­vant to the plot — well, that’s the antithe­sis of Forza’s drama.

But far from being the major weak­ness of Forza, the great sprawl­ing nature of the libretto with its cast of hun­dreds and improb­a­ble dra­matic coin­ci­dences is — in fact — pre­cisely its strongest point. In Forza Verdi paints on a gigan­tic can­vas, telling the story of human­ity itself. Scenes of aris­to­cratic honor, all-consuming love and wrench­ing pri­vate anguish are cheeky by jowl with scenes of squab­bling peas­ants and drunken soldiers.

Some writ­ers have com­pared the vast sweep of Forza with Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelun­gen. Per­haps the best descrip­tion, how­ever, is that La Forza del Des­tino is Shake­spearean. In fact, William Weaver has termed it “Verdi’s most Shake­spearean opera. Shake­spearean, that is, in Verdi’s sense: a work of great vari­ety, vast scope, jux­ta­pos­ing comic and tragic, employ­ing a num­ber of unusual char­ac­ters, all sharply defined, even if only briefly seen and heard. Though the opera is flawed (as Verdi him­self real­ized), it is per­haps Verdi’s bold­est attempt to por­tray an entire, com­plex, con­tra­dic­tory world.”

Verdi in Rus­sia for FORZA’s première.

Shake­speare was a drama­tist Verdi both loved and admired. He kept Ital­ian trans­la­tions of Shakespeare’s plays beside his bed, and the high­est com­pli­ment he could pay a char­ac­ter was that it was “wor­thy of Shake­speare.” When he wrote La Forza del Des­tino, his first opera based on a Shake­speare play—Mac­beth—was over a decade old. His two final mas­ter­pieces, both drawn from Shake­speare—Otello and Fal­staff—were decades in the future. His most recent opera, Un Ballo in Maschera, had been a suc­cess at its pre­mier in Rome in 1859. It had brought to a close an aston­ish­ing decade which was ush­ered in by Verdi’s remark­able trio of Rigo­letto, Il Trova­tore, and La Travi­ata; found him writ­ing his first French grand opera Les Vêpres Sicilennes; then return­ing to Venice (scene of the pre­miers of Rigo­letto and Travi­ata) with Simon Boc­cane­gra in 1857.

Verdi was the undis­puted lead­ing com­poser of Ital­ian opera of the day. He had shown he was a mas­ter of the bel canto tra­di­tion that he was remold­ing in new ways to express char­ac­ter and drama with increased vivid­ness and truth. In short, Verdi was at the height of his pow­ers thus far and not at all inclined to sim­ply com­pose for the sake of com­pos­ing.  Instead, after Ballo’s pre­mier, Verdi essen­tially retired from the the­ater, turn­ing down numer­ous oppor­tu­ni­ties to write new operas in favor of ful­fill­ing his duties as a (reluc­tant) mem­ber of Italy’s new par­lia­ment and liv­ing the life of a coun­try farmer, mak­ing repairs on his prop­erty and dis­cour­ag­ing visitors.

Under these cir­cum­stances, it would be absurd to think Verdi was some­how fina­gled into set­ting a drama with which he was not fully in sym­pa­thy. Verdi explained part of the attrac­tion the sub­ject had for him in a let­ter: “The play is pow­er­ful, unusual and extremely vast. I like it immensely.” But just because it offered a vast panorama for Verdi does not mean he was care­less about the con­struc­tion of the libretto. Far from it. He harangued Piave repeat­edly, empha­siz­ing, “The style must be tight­ened up. The poetry can and must say all that the prose says, and in half the words.”

Libret­tist Piave

By con­ven­tional stan­dards it could, indeed, seem to be some­thing of a prob­lem to have a hero­ine, Leonora, with whom the audi­ence falls in love in the open­ing scene, only to have her dis­ap­pear at the end of act two and not reap­pear until the opera’s last scene. But Leonora is not the sub­ject of the opera. Nei­ther is her lover, Don Alvaro, though the Span­ish play by Angel de Saave­dra, Duke of Rivas, on which the opera is based is enti­tled Don Alvaro, o La Fuerza del sino. Instead. Verdi took the play’s sub­ti­tle and called his opera La Forza del Des­tino. The Force of Des­tiny. And to empha­size his opera is not only about the tra­vails of the Cala­trava fam­ily, he bor­rowed a scene from Schiller’s Wal­len­steins Lager which adds even more to the already bub­bling mix of gyp­sies, sol­diers, dis­rep­utable fri­ars and peddlers.

Verdi’s opera is not about indi­vid­ual char­ac­ters, but about the way these char­ac­ters react to the work­ings of fate, or des­tiny. The cen­tral char­ac­ter is fate itself, and the way it affects all seg­ments of soci­ety, from the high­est to the low­est. And des­tiny, by its very nature, can­not be con­fined to a nice tidy set of uni­ties. Des­tiny runs its own course.

Which is one rea­son Verdi empha­sized the impor­tance of char­ac­ters we some­times (mis­tak­enly) regard as “minor.” “Don’t for­get you need three artists who are com­pletely at ease on stage to do Preziosilla, Meli­tone and Tra­buco,” Verdi wrote to his pub­lisher. “Their scenes are com­edy, pure com­edy. There­fore good dic­tion and an easy stage man­ner. See to that.”

And that sug­gests another rea­son we are per­haps a bit uncom­fort­able with La Forza del Des­tino: its assump­tion of the cen­tral role of fate or des­tiny in human exis­tence.  “Art,” W. H. Auden once observed, “is not Magic, i.e., a means by which the artist com­mu­ni­cates or arouses his feel­ings in oth­ers, but a mir­ror in which they may become con­scious of what their own feel­ings really are: its proper effect, in fact, is disenchanting.”

Our soci­ety preaches an indi­vid­ual is respon­si­ble for the out­come of his or her own life. If you really work hard, you’ll be rewarded. If you sac­ri­fice plea­sure now, you’ll reap div­i­dends later on.  Yet, on the bound­aries of our lives — usu­ally pushed away from our daily rou­tines — we all know there are excep­tions. From great nat­ural dis­as­ters like Hur­ri­cane Kat­rina to doing some­thing noble that back­fires and brings calamity.  In act one of Forza Don Alvaro does some­thing noble. He sur­ren­ders to Leonora’s father by throw­ing down his pis­tol, only to have it acci­den­tally go off, kill the Mar­quis di Cala­trava, and set in motion a cycle of vengeance, death and grief that lasts for years.

A leg­endary per­for­mance of FORZA.

Oh please!” groans the mod­ern oper­a­goer. “That is so unre­al­is­tic.” But is it? Acci­den­tal deaths (some from gun shots) are so com­mon we sel­dom bother to trace their effects on the fam­i­lies involved. And in a larger sense, we all know sto­ries about a per­son who is caught in traf­fic, thus miss­ing a flight, only to not be on board an air­plane that crashes. Or the reverse. How many of us, years later, are so thank­ful we didn’t get a job we were des­per­ate for at the time; or who are annoyed we’ve got­ten lost in an unfa­mil­iar city, only to turn the cor­ner and meet a per­son who will bless our lives for years.

This qual­ity is depicted in the tarot by the Wheel of For­tune, num­ber 10 of the major arcane. “The Wheel does not become vis­i­ble until we step away from it,” writes Rachel Pol­lack in Seventy-eight Degrees of Wis­dom, Part I.  “When we are involved in it, we see only the events imme­di­ately before and behind us; the daily con­cerns our egos find so impor­tant. When we with­draw we can see the whole pat­tern. Psy­cho­log­i­cally we can view this vision as an assess­ment a per­son makes of where his or her life has gone and where it is going. On a deeper level, the vision remains mys­te­ri­ous and sym­bolic. We can see what we have made of our par­tic­u­lar lives, but fate remains a mys­tery.… The impor­tant thing about change is our reac­tion [to it]. Do we use it as an oppor­tu­nity and find some mean­ing and value in it? The end of a love affair, despite its pain, can give greater self-knowledge. It can open the way to a new awareness.”

This is not the sub­ject mat­ter we usu­ally asso­ciate with an opera by Giuseppe Verdi. But Julian Bud­den got it exactly right when he said Forza was “an opera whose only fault is that it is too rich in ideas. It is a fault on the right side.”

This arti­cle orig­i­nal appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill Feb­ru­ary 2006.




Through­out his long life, Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) seemed to have a gut instinct about exactly which char­ac­ter or dra­matic sit­u­a­tion would best suit his opera-composing abil­i­ties. So it is not sur­pris­ing that when he read Vic­tor Hugo’s play, Le roi s’amuse (The king’s amuse­ment), Verdi real­ized its aston­ish­ing poten­tial. The dis­cov­ery of a play that fired his imag­i­na­tion could not have come at a bet­ter time, since he had just been com­mis­sioned by Teatro la Fenice in Venice to write an opera to be pre­miered early in 1851.

In April 1850 Verdi wrote his libret­tist, Fran­cisco Maria Piave (1810 – 1876): “I have in mind a sub­ject that would be one of the great­est cre­ations of the mod­ern the­ater if the police will only allow it. Who knows? They allowed Ernani, they might even allow us to do this and at least there are no con­spir­a­cies in it. Have a try! The sub­ject is grand, immense and there’s a char­ac­ter in it who is one of the great­est cre­ations that the the­ater of all coun­tries and all times can boast. The sub­ject is Le roi s’amuse and the char­ac­ter I’m speak­ing about is Triboulet.

PS: As soon as you get this let­ter, put on your skates; run about the city and find some­one of influ­ence to get us per­mis­sion to do Le roi s’amuse. Don’t go to sleep; give your­self a good shake; do it at once. I shall expect you at Bus­seto [Verdi’s home], but not now, after they’ve agreed to the subject.”

The let­ter is the first time Verdi men­tions his desire to write what would become Rigo­letto—one of the great­est of all Ital­ian operas — and it is an extremely telling let­ter in many ways. First of all, no sooner does Verdi express enthu­si­asm for the sub­ject than he adds, “if the police will allow it.” Verdi knew exactly what he would be up against, and so he deftly shifted the almost impos­si­ble task of slip­ping the sub­ject mat­ter past the cen­sor onto the shoul­ders of his poor librettist.

Vic­tor Hugo in 1853

Vic­tor Hugo’s play had been given in Paris in Novem­ber 1832 when it was sus­pended by the gov­ern­ment after a sin­gle per­for­mance. Hugo pleaded his case before the Tri­bunal de Com­merce but to no avail. The play was pub­lished, but it was not per­formed again in Paris until 1882 — a fact that dou­bly dis­pleased the play­wright since Verdi’s opera, based on the play, was given over 100 times dur­ing its first sea­son in the very city that con­tin­ued to ban Le roi s’amuse.

At the time, Venice and much of north­ern Italy was in the hands of the Aus­tri­ans, who were deeply fear­ful of the attempts to unify Italy and were well aware of Verdi’s patri­otic stance. His very name had become an ana­gram, an open secret used to inflame the pub­lic toward inde­pen­dence and uni­fi­ca­tion. “Viva VERDI” was scrawled on walls, painted on ban­ners, shouted by crowds — osten­si­bly in honor of the increas­ingly pop­u­lar com­poser. But “VERDI” also stood for Vitto­rio Emmanuele, Re dItalia (Vit­to­rio Emmanuel, King of Italy, mean­ing a free, uni­fied Italy, not just King of Sar­dinia as he was at the time). Obvi­ously any­thing that might be inflam­ma­tory, as defined by the increas­ingly uneasy occu­py­ing Aus­tri­ans, would be banned.

Also telling in that first let­ter to Piave on the sub­ject of their new opera was Verdi’s sin­gling out the char­ac­ter of Tri­boulet, who even­tu­ally would be named Rigo­letto. In another let­ter Verdi referred to Tri­boulet as “a cre­ation wor­thy of Shake­speare,” which was the high­est praise Verdi could give.

Verdi had first used Piave as a libret­tist on Ernani, which pre­miered in Venice in 1844, and col­lab­o­rated with him reg­u­larly there­after. Piave sup­plied the com­poser with ten libret­tos in all, includ­ing Mac­beth, Travi­ata, Simon Boc­cane­gra and La forza del des­tino, in addi­tion to Rigo­letto. If Piave was not a par­tic­u­larly dis­tin­guished writer on his own, he took direc­tion well, put up with Verdi’s almost con­stant abuse, was to all accounts extra­or­di­nar­ily charm­ing, and had numer­ous influ­en­tial friends in high places. He was promptly assured there would be no dif­fi­culty with La Fenice pre­sent­ing an opera based on Le roi s’amuse, so the two men set to work.

Libret­tist Piave

But of course there would be dif­fi­culty — a great deal of it. In the play the vil­lain is a king, Fran­cis I of France, whose licen­tious­ness is plainly depicted, and the hero is a hunch­back com­moner, a jester in the court. Fur­ther­more, in the final scene a corpse is dis­played on stage in a sack. Both in France and Ger­many the play was derided for its “obscen­ity.” The Aus­trian cen­sors were so offended by Piave’s libretto they sim­ply washed their hands of the whole mat­ter in a let­ter to the direc­tors of La Fenice: “His Excel­lency the Mil­i­tary Gov­er­nor Cheva­lier Gorzkowski…directs me to com­mu­ni­cate to you his pro­found regret that the poet Piave and the cel­e­brated mae­stro Verdi should not have cho­sen a more wor­thy vehi­cle to dis­play their tal­ents than the revolt­ing immoral­ity and obscene triv­i­al­ity of the libretto of La maledi­zione [as the opera was then called].

His above-mentioned Excel­lency has decided the per­for­mance shall be absolutely for­bid­den, and wishes me at the same time to request you not make fur­ther inquiries in the matter.”

Verdi, how­ever, was not about to with­draw the project. He answered the objec­tions of the Aus­trian over­lords one by one, finally respond­ing to the desire that Tri­boulet should not be ugly or hunchbacked.

A hunch­back who sings? Why not?” Verdi wrote to the the­ater direc­tors. “Will it be effec­tive? I don’t know; but if I don’t know, nei­ther, I repeat, does the per­son who sug­gested the change. To me there is some­thing really fine in rep­re­sent­ing on stage this char­ac­ter out­wardly so ugly and ridicu­lous, inwardly so impas­sioned and full of love. I chose the sub­ject pre­cisely because of those qual­i­ties, and if these orig­i­nal fea­tures are removed I can­not write the music.…I tell you frankly that, good or bad, my music is not just writ­ten casu­ally for any sit­u­a­tion; I try to give it a char­ac­ter appro­pri­ate to the drama.”

Giuseppe Bertoja’s pre­mière stage set for the sec­ond scene.

In Rigo­letto Verdi did just that — he wrote pow­er­ful, evoca­tive music that describes each of the char­ac­ters so per­fectly it would be laugh­able to sug­gest the same music be sung by the watered-down, col­or­less char­ac­ters sug­gested by the cen­sors. Finally Verdi, Piave, and the La Fenice man­age­ment reached a com­pro­mise with the cen­sors, but all of the key dra­matic points from Le roi s’amuse made it into Rigo­letto. In the title char­ac­ter, Verdi wrote what is prob­a­bly the great­est part ever writ­ten for a high bari­tone — an aston­ish­ing tour de force for a singing actor who can con­vey all the emo­tional nuances of the music.

Some writ­ers have com­pared Verdi’s Rigo­letto to Beethoven’s Third Sym­phony — with it, the com­poser reached a new level of mas­tery, broke new ground in his art form, and after it noth­ing was ever the same. In Rigo­letto Verdi took the exist­ing forms of Ital­ian bel canto opera as used by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, and molded them into a new, more imme­di­ately and pow­er­ful music drama, which he would con­tinue to expand for the rest of his life.

Tra­di­tion­ally an Ital­ian opera would open with a cho­rus, intro­duc­ing one of the main char­ac­ters who would then sing a for­mal aria, fre­quently in two parts, first a slow cantabile, then a faster cabaletta. But con­sider how Verdi adapted this form in Rigo­letto’s open­ing scene. It would have been easy to fol­low the tra­di­tion. The open­ing scene is a party; the cho­rus could have been the usual exten­sive one, prais­ing their host the Duke, who would respond with the usual for­mal two-part aria. It would work per­fectly with the story.

Poster for the very first performance.

Instead, Verdi fol­lows his intensely dra­matic, extremely short pre­lude (in which trum­pets and trom­bones con­stantly reit­er­ate the dotted-note rhythm and notes Rigo­letto will use through­out the opera with the phrase “Quel vec­chio male­di­ami!” That old man cursed me!) with an off-stage band play­ing some of the most banal “cheer­ful” music pos­si­ble. Instead of open­ing with the cho­rus (which is on stage), we get snip­pets of brief con­ver­sa­tion by a vari­ety of char­ac­ters that will only make sense in hindsight.

In this open­ing scene Verdi antic­i­pates the cin­ema by more than half a cen­tury. He (the cam­era) is walk­ing us through the party, giv­ing us an overview while let­ting us over­hear numer­ous bits of con­ver­sa­tion. When Verdi wants to let us know some­thing is really impor­tant, he switches from the off-stage banda to using the orches­tra in the pit (as in a cam­era close-up). As he does for the Duke’s first aria, “Questa o quello.” Yes, it is the Duke’s first aria, but far from being the usual two-part for­mal aria Verdi gives the Duke a breezy dance tune (in the score it is labeled “Bal­lata”). It fits per­fectly with the dra­matic sit­u­a­tion, gives us insight into the Duke him­self, and last barely two min­utes; then the orches­tra yields to a string banda on stage and  the flirt­ing — the con­ver­sa­tion that sets up the entire opera — con­tin­ues. It is all so con­cise that the entire whirl­wind open­ing scene lasts barely fif­teen minutes.

Another way Verdi reworked the forms of Ital­ian opera, was the way he repeat­edly inter­rupts a scene to give the audi­ence a fore­taste of what’s to come. In the open­ing scene, the cho­rus is inter­rupted by Monterone’s appear­ance and curse, which abruptly changes the tone of the scene — thus height­en­ing the cru­cial point of the drama. In the sec­ond scene, the duet between Rigo­letto and Gilda is inter­rupted by the furtive arrival of the Duke, who, in turn, is inter­rupted in his woo­ing of Gilda by a noise out­side which turns out to be the foot­steps of the courtiers who have come to abduct Gilda. Her sin­gle aria is inter­rupted by their com­ments, which serve to tighten the drama. All this over­lap­ping of scenes and char­ac­ters gives a sense of urgency and propul­sive­ness to the storytelling.

Felice Varesi, the first Rigoletto

In was in Rigo­letto that Verdi set the stan­dard in writ­ing an exten­sive ensem­ble (the famous Quar­tet), which serves not only the for­mal, tech­ni­cal require­ments of an iso­lated set piece of music, but also imparts addi­tional infor­ma­tion about all the char­ac­ters involved and fur­thers the drama — all at the same time. Rather than hav­ing each of the char­ac­ters sing the same musi­cal phrase in turn, and then work­ing it together har­mon­i­cally (as com­posers had tended to do before), Verdi assigns each of the four char­ac­ters a dis­tinct melody and rhythm uniquely his or her own — that only that char­ac­ter could sing at that point in the drama. For exam­ple, the Duke’s insou­ciant woo­ing of Mad­dalena with his seduc­tive, lyric melody to the words “Bella figlia dell’amore” (Beau­ti­ful daugh­ter of love), which oozes charm and pheromones equally; her answer in scam­per­ing stac­cato six­teenth notes that elude the Duke musi­cally as she deftly eludes his grop­ing hands on stage; Gilda’s descend­ing melodic line that con­stantly droops, sighs, breaks into sobs, and Rigoletto’s broad, com­pas­sion­ate sup­port­ing of Gilda. Some­how Verdi mirac­u­lously turns all these dis­parate ele­ments into a proper quar­tet of aston­ish­ing beauty, even ele­gance with­out rob­bing the num­ber of any of its con­sid­er­able dra­matic and emo­tional impact.

Add to this Verdi’s grow­ing facil­ity at orches­tra­tion and the numer­ous ways he uses the orches­tra to give emo­tional color to a char­ac­ter of a scene. For instance, his use of flutes when Rigo­letto sud­denly thinks of Gilda dur­ing “Pari siamo,” or when she is on stage, to con­vey her inno­cence and purity; or the way he slowly builds the storm in the last act, the utter con­vinc­ing fury of its height, and then the way it takes most of the rest of the act to die away.

After Rigo­letto, Verdi gave us only mas­ter­pieces (the sin­gle excep­tion being Aroldo, itself a rework­ing of the ear­lier Stiffe­lio) — one after another until his mirac­u­lous Fal­staff writ­ten at the age of almost eighty. As Julian Bud­den writes in his mon­u­men­tal study of Verdi’s operas: “Just after 1850, at the age of thirty-eight, Verdi closed the door on a period of Ital­ian opera with Rigo­letto. The so-called ottocènto in music was fin­ished. Verdi con­tin­ued to draw on cer­tain of its forms for the next few opera, but in a totally new spirit.”


Rigo­letto Extra:

The Duke’s Famous Aria

Though Rigo­letto, like most Verdi opera, is brim­ming with melody, one catchy tune per­sis­tently stands out from all the oth­ers: “La donna è mobile” (Woman is fickle). It’s one of the most famous tenor arias ever writ­ten and is sung by the lib­er­tine Duke in the opera’s last act, in which its slightly tawdry — but utterly irre­sistible — nature is sheer genius on Verdi’s part. There is noth­ing the least bit aris­to­cratic about it (unlike the Duke’s Act One aria, “Questa o quella.”) In the last act the Duke is slum­ming, in dis­guise, set­tling in for an evening of drink­ing and whor­ing, but even so, his irre­press­ible charm pre­vails, per­fectly cap­tured in this catchy, but almost plebian tune in three-quarter (waltz) time.

Verdi cer­tainly knew how unfor­get­table this effer­ves­cent song was, and he was con­cerned that it might become known before the opera’s pre­mier in Venice on March 11, 1851. Leg­end has it that to avoid the singers or other mem­bers of the com­pany whistling or hum­ming the melody out­side the the­ater before open­ing night (thus dilut­ing the shock of the audi­ence har­ing it for the first time in the con­text of the drama), he delayed giv­ing the music to the tenor until the dress rehearsal.

This seems a bit unlikely since one of the most jar­ring uses of the tune in when the tenor reprises it at the end, as Rigo­letto stands over the sack he believes con­tains the Duke’s body. It is unlikely Verdi would chance ruin­ing such a hor­ri­fy­ing coup de théâtre by only hav­ing rehearsed the moment once. But it is quite pos­si­ble the com­poser delayed giv­ing the tenor the music to “La donna è mobile” until well into the rehearsal process so it would still be fresh on open­ing night.

And one can eas­ily believe the other sto­ries about the aria, that the first audi­ence exited La Fenice hum­ming and whistling the new hit tune. After all, audi­ences still do that over 150 years later.

This arti­cle first appeared in the 2004 pro­gram book for the Aspen Opera Theater.

The photo at the top of the page is the great Tito Gobbi as Rigo­letto, one of his most famous roles.

FALSTAFF — The Ultimate Bel Canto Opera?




What peo­ple do with food is an act that reveals how they con­strue the world,” writes Mar­cella Hazan in The Clas­sic Ital­ian Cook­book. Her point is a good one, and by sub­sti­tut­ing the word “voice” for “ingre­di­ents” in Hazan’s dis­cus­sion of Ital­ian cui­sine, one gets a superb descrip­tion of Ital­ian bel canto opera – and just what makes Verdi’s Fal­staff the supreme mas­ter­piece it is.

The essen­tial qual­ity of Ital­ian food can be defined as fidelity to its ingre­di­ents, to their taste, color, shape, and fresh­ness,” she explains. “The meth­ods of Ital­ian cook­ing are not intended to improve an ingredient’s char­ac­ter, but rather to allow it as much free and nat­ural devel­op­ment as the taste­ful bal­ance of a dish will permit.”

Just as Ital­ian cook­ing depends on raw ingre­di­ents “of the fresh­est and choic­est qual­ity,” bel canto opera depends on great voices. In bel canto opera the empha­sis is on voice, voice, voice. It is through the voice that the drama and emo­tion are pri­mar­ily con­veyed. No mat­ter how skill­fully Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi wrote for the orches­tra (and they were all mas­ters at it), they con­ceived of it as a way to enhance the voice. The orches­tra was the embell­ish­ing sauce, not the main dish itself.

Fal­staff is often viewed as an opera that has almost noth­ing to do with Verdi’s ear­lier works. Some crit­ics have described it as being more like a Wag­ner­ian opera, and com­plained it lacks arias and set pieces. In fact, Fal­staff is the cul­mi­na­tion of bel canto opera. In writ­ing it, Verdi took the ele­ments of Ital­ian opera and boiled them down to their very essence, like a mas­ter chef reduc­ing a sauce.

One of the sur­pris­ing things about Fal­staff is just how often the singers are left com­pletely on their own. Time after time Verdi silences the orches­tra entirely and leaves the voice totally exposed — for a few words or a phrase — but always in a way that points up the drama, as well as empha­siz­ing the voice itself.

Tito Gobbi, a mar­velous Falstaff

For instance, in Falstaff’s famous “Honor mono­logue” when he asks, “Can honor fill up your belly? Can honor set a bro­ken leg? Or a foot? Or a fin­ger? Or a hair?” each ques­tion is asked a capella. But Verdi varies the sound by bring­ing in the orches­tra each time Fal­staff answers the ques­tion with a resound­ing “No.” And it is in the way Verdi’s orches­tra accom­pa­nies each “No” that reveals just what a mas­ter chef Verdi has become in con­coct­ing the tim­bre of his opera.

A less expe­ri­enced com­poser might well be tempted to use the entire orches­tra to ham­mer home the humor of each “No,” giv­ing it a great orches­tral splat — the musi­cal equiv­a­lent of a prat­fall. At least, one might expect, surely Verdi would ask for a loud thump on the ket­tle­drums and a juicy blat on the tuba. But no. Instead Verdi judi­ciously sea­sons this part of his score with a sin­gle clar­inet, play­ing very low in its reg­is­ter,  a sin­gle bas­soon — both play­ing stac­cato — and two string basses (Verdi asks they pluck, rather than bow the strings). Only four instru­ments from the entire orches­tra, and all four directed to play softly. The result is a deli­cious com­bi­na­tion of instru­men­tal tim­bres, redo­lent of irony and acer­bic humor, and utterly right for that moment of the opera.

In fact, it is just that qual­ity of utter right­ness for every sin­gle moment of the opera, the unique­ness and exact­ness of Verdi’s response to the drama and emo­tion of the libretto, that makes Fal­staff such a con­stant joy for the lis­tener. But since every moment of the score has its own color, its own sea­son­ing, it passes so quickly that it is often gone before lis­ten­ers have con­sciously rec­og­nized it.

In the first scene of the opera, the scam­per­ing strings that accom­pany Falstaff’s call­ing for the Page and instruct­ing him to take the love let­ters to Alice and Meg lasts for maybe 10 sec­onds. When Fal­staff answers his ques­tion, “What is honor?” by reply­ing “A word,” Verdi empha­sizes how lit­tle Fal­staff val­ues a word by the del­i­cate orches­tral response: one flute and one clar­inet play­ing four quick, ascend­ing notes, fol­lowed by a four notes from a pic­colo and an oboe going even higher. It is almost over before we even hear it — like the per­fect sea­son­ing in a light sauce that lasts just a sec­ond on the tongue and van­ishes before we can quite make out exactly what it is.

Verdi also uses his orches­tra to move the audi­ence from one strong emo­tional state to quite a dif­fer­ent emo­tion, but he does it so deftly it only reg­is­ters in retrospect.

At the end of the first scene of Act II, Ford gives into his jeal­ously, and works him­self into a tirade, the end of which is accom­pa­nied by the entire orches­tra in full war cry, pas­sion­ately echo­ing the character’s over­whelm­ing rage — for four mea­sures. Two mea­sures later the orches­tra ele­gantly accom­pa­nies the re-entry of a fop­pish Fal­staff, dressed for woo­ing. How does Verdi move an audi­ence from anger to gig­gles in only two mea­sures? The astute com­poser knew that a gen­uine belly laugh always over­throws anger, so out of the thun­der­ing orches­tra, Verdi wrote descend­ing triplets for the horns silenc­ing most of the rest of the orches­tra so audi­ence would be sure to hear the horns’ deep, hearty musi­cal laugh.

This com­bin­ing of astute psy­cho­log­i­cal insights with deft musi­cal touches is part of Verdi’s genius in Fal­staff, and the way he does that, while also pay­ing trib­ute to his bel canto roots, is almost overwhelming.

One of the char­ac­ter­is­tic of bel canto opera is the large ensem­ble with which acts often close. Prin­ci­pals and cho­rus all react to what has just hap­pened dra­mat­i­cally on stage, and an extended con­cert num­ber devel­ops. Typ­i­cally one or two of the opera’s main char­ac­ters sing a long, arch­ing lyric line over the rest of the ensemble’s more rhyth­mic, pul­sat­ing music, which pro­vides a var­ied and excit­ing musi­cal tex­ture — and a quite effec­tive, and enjoy­able, close to an act.

Verdi uti­lized this bel canto device at the end of Act I, but he used what had been pri­mar­ily a musi­cal moment, not only to fur­ther the drama, but also to con­vey his pro­found psy­cho­log­i­cal insight into the char­ac­ter of Fen­ton. The entire sec­ond scene of Act I is an extended ensem­ble of Mozart­ian per­fec­tion. We meet the Merry Wives of Wind­sor and watch them hatch their plot against Fal­staff (Verdi uti­lizes the bel canto tra­di­tion of writ­ing vocal embell­ish­ments in a character’s music to add empha­sis by writ­ing trills for all of the women to point up the humor of their words); Bar­dolf and Pis­tol tell Ford what Fal­staff is up to and a coun­ter­plot is hatched; and in the midst of all this bustling, non­stop activ­ity the young lovers Fen­ton and Nanetta woo.

Juan Diego Flo­rez, an enchant­ing Fenton

Verdi’s mas­ter­stroke occurs at the cli­max of the nine-part (!) ensem­ble. Eight of the voices are busy plot­ting in scur­ry­ing eighth notes and six­teenth notes, but Fen­ton is singing music totally dif­fer­ent from every­one else on stage. Verdi knew that when a young man falls in love for the first time, it com­pletely knocks him into an entirely new world.  It is some­thing out­side the exis­tence he has known, he is totally unpre­pared for it and he often becomes obliv­i­ous to what’s going on around him. “She whose sweet love my heart is mur­mur­ing, bright­est love! We will be like a con­stel­la­tion shim­mer­ing, two hearts united as one,” Fen­ton rhap­sodizes in long arch­ing phrases, soar­ing over the hub­bub of the rest of the char­ac­ters. In one per­fect stroke Verdi pays trib­ute to an ele­ment of bel canto opera, defines Fenton’s char­ac­ter and reminds us how sweet, and how fleet­ing, young love is.

The ado­les­cent love bun­dle,” is how Charles Osborne summed up Nanette and Fen­ton. Verdi and Boito bring back the young lovers in each of the three acts, con­trast­ing their hon­est, fresh, true love with Falstaff’s heavy-handed, over-the-top comic woo­ing. But even the wel­comed moments of lyric repose the young lovers offer, in the midst of the opera’s gen­eral hilar­ity, are just “a taste.” They never have a proper love duet and Fen­ton never gets a com­plete aria.

I like that love of theirs, it serves to make the whole com­edy more fresh and more solid,” Boito wrote to Verdi. “So it is point­less to have them sing a gen­uine duet together by them­selves. Their part, even with­out the duet, will be very effec­tive, indeed, it will be even more effec­tive with­out. I don’t quite know how to explain myself: I would like to sprin­kle the whole com­edy with that light­hearted love, like pow­dered sugar on a cake, with­out col­lect­ing it in one point.”

Pas­tas are never swamped by sauce,” Mar­cella Hazan warns the ama­teur cook. “Por­tions are never so swollen in size as to tax our capac­ity for enjoyment.”

Verdi knew that. And in Fal­staff he pre­sented us with an oper­atic ban­quet that sums up the his­tory of Ital­ian opera, by giv­ing us a series of tastes and fla­vors. He has done it so mas­ter­fully that the more we know about opera, the more we are in awe of his feast and the more we enjoy it.  But it is so tasty that even a novice can delight in it. And isn’t that one def­i­n­i­tion of a True Masterpiece?

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, March 2002.




LA TRAVIATA – Giuseppe Verdi



La Travi­ata is Verdi’s most inti­mate music drama; and the feel­ings it por­trays are those of indi­vid­ual human­ity down the ages. The abid­ing glory of this opera is that it says fun­da­men­tal things in a sim­ple, direct way yet with a wealth of poetic sug­ges­tion.”
—Julian Bud­den, The Operas of Verdi, Vol­ume 2

La Travi­ata is such an enor­mously well known opera, so much a part of the expe­ri­ence of every opera-goer, that it seems incon­ceiv­able it very nearly was not writ­ten at all.

In Jan­u­ary 1852, Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) was approached by the the­ater La Fenice in Venice to com­pose a new opera. His most recent work, Rigo­letto (1851), had just had an enor­mously suc­cess­ful pre­mière in the the­ater, which had also pre­miered Ernani (1844) and Attila (1846). Verdi was inter­ested, but warned he couldn’t pro­ceed in pick­ing a sub­ject and writ­ing the opera, until he knew whom the singers would be. By May, Verdi signed a con­tract oblig­at­ing him to have the new opera ready for per­for­mance by the first Sat­ur­day of March, 1853. The singers were to be tenor Lodovico Graziani and bari­tone Felice Varesi. As for the soprano, Verdi had sug­gested sev­eral, none of whom were avail­able. The the­ater finally engaged Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, and a clause in Verdi’s con­tract said he would make up his mind about using her in his new opera after she made her debut with the com­pany, but before Jan­u­ary 15th, 1853.

Verdi began his usual pro­ce­dure of con­sid­er­ing and reject­ing pos­si­ble sub­jects for his opera — all the while work­ing on Il Trova­tore for the Teatro Apollo in Rome. Even­tu­ally Trova­tore would have its pre­mière on Jan­u­ary 19th, 1853; La Travi­ata’s pre­mière would be only a few weeks later, on March 6th. The fact that Verdi was simul­ta­ne­ously com­pos­ing music for two such dif­fer­ent operas is noth­ing less than a miracle.

The libret­tist was to be Francesco Maria Piave (1810 – 1876), a poet, proof­reader and edi­tor asso­ci­ated with La Fenice who, as was the cus­tom of the day, often func­tioned as stage direc­tor as well as sup­ply­ing libret­tos. He already had worked with Verdi on sev­eral operas, includ­ing Ernani, Mac­beth and Rigo­letto, and would con­tinue through Simone Boc­cane­gra and La Forza del Des­tino. Piave must have had the patience of a saint, because Verdi’s numer­ous let­ters to him often become down­right abu­sive and sadis­tic. (While work­ing on Mac­beth Verdi once threat­ened to cas­trate Piave if he didn’t imme­di­ately pro­vide the com­poser with exactly what he wanted.)

By July 1853 Verdi was com­plain­ing Piave hadn’t yet come up with an orig­i­nal and provoca­tive sub­ject for their new opera. “It’s easy to find com­mon place sub­jects,” Verdi wrote at the time, “I can find fifty of them an hour. But it is dif­fi­cult, very, very dif­fi­cult, to find one that has all the qual­i­ties needed to make an impact, and that is also orig­i­nal and provocative.”

By late Sep­tem­ber the dead­line for the new libretto had past, Verdi was still look­ing for a sub­ject, and Piave was dis­patched to Verdi’s home in Sant’Agata to try and speed up the process. Since Piave and Verdi were in the same house — and there­fore we have no let­ters between them dur­ing that period — details of what hap­pened next are miss­ing. We do know a sub­ject was selected, though what it was remains a mys­tery.  Piave wrote the entire libretto, only to have Verdi abruptly change his mind at the last minute, because he had decided on La Dame aux camélias instead. (One won­ders, what was this opera we almost had instead of La Travi­ata?) Poet and com­poser started all over and roughed out the new libretto in five days. Under the title Amore e morteLove and Death—it was sent to Venice to be approved by the cen­sors.  (Undoubt­edly the pro­tracted tri­als Verdi and Piave had recently suf­fered at the hands of the Venet­ian cen­sors over Rigo­letto, made them extra skit­tish about their new sub­ject matter.)

Marie Dup­lessis

It was a dar­ing propo­si­tion to write on opera on such a con­tem­po­rary sub­ject. The novel, by Alexan­der Dumas fils, La Dame aux camélias, was pub­lished in 1848, only a few months after the death of Alphon­sine (Marie) Dup­lessis, the woman on whom Dumas mod­eled Mar­guerite Gau­tier (see below). The book was so over­whelm­ingly suc­cess­ful Dumas promptly turned it into a play, but it couldn’t get it staged until Feb­ru­ary 2nd, 1852, at the Théâtre du Vaude­ville where it was seen by Verdi and Giusep­pina Strep­poni, the woman who would later become his sec­ond wife. Verdi’s opera pre­miered only 13 months later.

Today we’re largely inured to the shock-value La Travi­ata had for its first audi­ences. But it’s safe to assume a large sec­tion of the pub­lic would have agreed with the bari­tone Felice Varesi, who cre­ated the role of the elder Ger­mont, when he groused “the main char­ac­ter is a kept woman or rather a com­mon whore of our own time who died in Paris not very long ago.” Never mind that she was not a street­walker but a mem­ber of the demi­mondaine, liv­ing a lux­u­ri­ous life quite beyond the reach of many of the opera goers them­selves. Never mind the hypocrisy of the Vic­to­rian world’s male who sneered at her and demeaned her dur­ing the day while actively pur­su­ing her favors at night. Yet Verdi and Piave treated her not as a curios­ity but with the great­est sym­pa­thy, as a human being to be admired, and in the process they exposed the sham of much of the pub­lic “virtue” of their time.

Another shock­ing aspect of Travi­ata was in frankly depict­ing tuber­cu­lo­sis on stage. Later operas such as The Tales of Hoff­mann and La Bohème would also have con­sump­tive char­ac­ters, but in 1853 it still raised eye­brows. In Jan­u­ary Verdi wrote his friend Cesare De Sanc­tis: “In Venice I am doing La Dame aux camélias, which will per­haps be called Travi­ata. A sub­ject from our own time. Per­haps some­one else would not have done it because of the cos­tumes, the period, and a thou­sand other awk­ward reser­va­tions. I am doing it with immense plea­sure. Every­one protested when I put a hunch-back on stage. Well, I was happy to com­pose Rigo­letto.”

Among the rea­sons Verdi must have had for turn­ing so sud­denly to La Dame aux camélias after Piave had fin­ished the libretto for another opera, we can­not dis­count a cer­tain timely emo­tional res­o­nance it had with him per­son­ally. While it’s true that no artist can cre­ate any­thing endur­ing with­out hav­ing a very per­sonal response to the work, Travi­ata must have hit very close to home, indeed, with the composer.

Verdi’s beloved first wife had died in 1840, their two young chil­dren pre­ced­ing her in death.  When Nabucco, the opera that made Verdi’s name, pre­miered at La Scala in 1842, its soprano was Giusep­pina Strep­poni, an early, strong sup­porter of the young com­poser. She was one of the great singers of her day, then at the pre­ma­ture end of her career. The fol­low­ing year she became his mis­tress, and five years later they began liv­ing together openly in Paris. She would become his wife in 1859, but in the early 1850s they were being harassed by their neigh­bors, as well as Verdi’s rel­a­tives, in Bus­seto and Sant’Agata — largely stem­ming from the (then unmar­ried) Strepponi’s “tar­nished” reputation.

Giusep­pina Strepponi

In cos­mopoli­tan Paris, Strep­poni was respected as a cul­tured, vibrant woman who had enjoyed a splen­did career on the opera stage. The per­sonal sac­ri­fices she had made dur­ing her career were shrugged off, and her alliance with Verdi was accepted. But provin­cial Bus­seto and Sant’Agata saw her “as a 34-year-old the­atri­cal whore whose preg­nan­cies had been there for all to see, in full view, on stage. And who knew where her hap­less chil­dren were?” as Mary Jane Phillips-Matz puts it. “Later Strep­poni recalled the fury of insults that were shouted up from the street. Stones were thrown through the win­dows. Verdi was accused of being an athe­ist, even as his father kept going to church twice a day and the parish priest (one of the old ene­mies from his youth) tried to bring his house­hold into line.”

Phillips-Matz goes on to warn: “It would be a great mis­take to equate any of the char­ac­ters in La Dame aux camélias directly with Verdi, Strep­poni, [or Verdi’s father or his patron and father-in-law], but the gen­eral tone and feel­ing of the opera, its intensely per­sonal and com­pas­sion­ate atmos­phere, its set­ting as a fam­ily drama, is not unlike the very sit­u­a­tion Verdi lived through just before he wrote it.”

Though Verdi believed pas­sion­ately in his opera, he saw dis­as­ter on the hori­zon for its first per­for­mance at La Fenice. For one thing, the the­ater man­age­ment got cold feet and insisted on mov­ing the opera’s time period from the con­tem­po­rary 1850s to the 1700s, the era of Louis XIV. This despite the fact Dumas’s play was being given in Venice at the very time Verdi’s opera, based on that play, was being given.

Verdi also real­ized the cast was not up to the work.  The tenor was ill and hoarse. The bari­tone, Varesi was not only at the end of his career and in wan­ing voice, he did not under­stand the role of the elder Ger­mont which did not give him any heroic arias with which he had made such a suc­cess in Rigo­letto and Mac­beth. (Verdi “did not know how to use the gifts of the artists at his dis­posal” Varesi com­plained to a news­pa­per.) At the dress rehearsal Verdi crit­i­cized the singers to their faces, which can not have helped their confidence.

Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, the first Violetta

Much has been made of the fact the soprano Salvini-Donatelli was plump, caus­ing the first audi­ence to laugh at the idea she was dying of con­sump­tion. But, in fact, she was well-applauded for her arias, espe­cially the bril­liance of her cabaletta singing in Act I. The audi­ence also applauded so long after the Act I pre­lude that Verdi had to come out and take a bow — as he had to do after the brin­disi, the love duet, and at the con­clu­sion of the first act. It was only with Act II that the audi­ence began los­ing inter­est, largely because — said one news­pa­per reviewer — the poor qual­ity of the singers kept the audi­ence from under­stand­ing the true spirit of Verdi’s work.

But Act II is the core of the opera. If the cru­cial rela­tion­ship between Vio­letta and Alfredo’s father isn’t con­veyed to the audi­ence, we end up not under­stand­ing either char­ac­ter, and are left with only the outer shell of the opera.

After run­ning for nine or ten per­for­mances (depend­ing on whom one believes), and doing mod­estly well at the La Fenice box office, Travi­ata fin­ished its ini­tial run. Verdi, who was busy telling every­one it had been “a fiasco” (which isn’t quite true) refused to let other the­aters have the opera. But a year later, on May 6th, 1854, after Verdi reworked part of the score (rather more than he let on he had, accord­ing to some his­to­ri­ans), La Travi­ata was again given in Venice, at a dif­fer­ent the­ater and with a dif­fer­ent cast. It was a hit. “Then it was a fiasco; now it has cre­ated a furor. Draw your own con­clu­sions,” Verdi wrote to a friend.

La Travi­ata is an opera in which all of Verdi’s finest qual­i­ties are to be per­ceived: his tech­ni­cal mas­tery, his clar­ity, his human­ity, his psy­cho­log­i­cal pen­e­tra­tion, his unerr­ing taste,” writes Charles Osborne. “It was that great trans­mo­gri­fier, Proust, who said that in La Travi­ata Verdi had lifted La Dame aux camélias into the realm of art.”


Armand’s descrip­tion of Mar­guerite at their first meet­ing, in Dumas’s novel La Dame aux camel­lias:

I was full of indul­gence for her life, full of admi­ra­tion for her beauty. The proof of dis­in­ter­est­ed­ness that she gave in not accept­ing a rich and fash­ion­able young man, ready to waste all his money upon her, excused her in my eyes for all her faults in the past.

There was a kind of can­dor in this woman. You could see she was still in the vir­gin­ity of vice. Her firm walk, her sup­ple fig­ure, her rosy, open nos­trils, her large eyes, slightly tinged with blue, indi­cated one of those ardent natures which shed around them a sort of volup­tuous per­fume, like East­ern vials, which, close them as tightly as you will, still let some of their per­fume escape. Finally, whether it was sim­ple nature or breath of fever, there passed from time to time in the eyes of this woman a glim­mer of desire, giv­ing promise of a very heaven for one whom she should love. But those who had loved Mar­guerite were not to be counted, nor those whom she had loved.

In this girl there was at once a vir­gin whom a mere noth­ing had turned into a cour­te­san, and the cour­te­san whom a mere noth­ing would have turned into the most lov­ing and the purest of vir­gins. Mar­guerite had still pride and inde­pen­dence, two sen­ti­ments which, if they are wounded, can be the equiv­a­lent of a sense of shame.”

The real-life model for Violetta:

Mar­guerite Gau­thier, the hero­ine of Alexan­der Dumas’s novel and play (and, by exten­sion, of Verdi’s La Travi­ata), was drawn from real life. Alphon­sine (she pre­ferred to be called Marie) Dup­lessis was one of the most cel­e­brated demi­mondaines of her day. Born in Nor­mandy in 1824, she seems to have arrived in Paris about the age of 15, first work­ing as a shop assis­tant. Dup­lessis had far more going for her than mere phys­i­cal beauty, though she was often referred to as “a Saxe fig­urine.” Either from birth, or through remark­ably quick study, she had a grace and charm that was truly aris­to­cratic. She had a quick mind, was well-read, inter­ested in the arts, and was soon installed in a lux­u­ri­ous apart­ment in rue Madeleine with her own car­riage and horses. She was given the title of duchess by Louis-Philippe (at the urg­ing of a pow­er­ful mem­ber of the king’s entourage), so she could attend court balls and royal wed­dings. Her lovers included the Duc de Guise and Franz Liszt, who, after her death, wrote, “She was the first woman I ever loved. If I had been in Paris when la Dup­lessis was ill, I would have tried to save her at any price, for hers was truly an exquis­ite nature, and what is gen­er­ally described (per­haps accu­rately) as cor­rup­tion, never touched her heart. I felt for her a somber and ele­giac attach­ment, which, with­out her know­ing it, put me in the vein of poetry and music.”

Young Alexan­der Dumans, fils

Dumas was intro­duced to her in 1844. One day while she was enter­tain­ing friends, she began cough­ing up blood and went into her bed­room. Dumas fol­lowed, and his gen­uine con­cern so moved her that she allowed the young man to become one of her lovers. He could not afford to pro­vide the lux­u­ries she was used to, so she con­tin­ued to enter­tain other men. The affair, though mem­o­rable, was brief. In 1846, in Lon­don, she signed a mar­riage con­tract with the Comte Edouard de Per­re­gaux, a mem­ber of the Jockey Club. The cou­ple often went their own ways, and Dup­lessis vis­ited a num­ber of spas, try­ing to cure her con­sump­tion — with­out suc­cess. She died in her Paris apart­ment in Feb­ru­ary 1847 — age 23.

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the Aspen Opera The­ater pro­gram book.