6 July 2015 at 5.45pm | 2 Comments
In the 11 years between Nabucco (1842) and La traviata (1853), Verdi wrote 15 operas. By the time of Traviata he was 40 years old and near the height of his fame as a composer. Amazing as it might seem though, Verdi could look forward to four more decades of professional activity. But compared to the prolific decade or so previously, the results were somewhat meagre. After La traviata, just eight original operas appeared. So, what stemmed the Verdian flow?
The comparison with Rossini’s retirement from the stage in 1829, which happened at roughly the same age as Verdi had reached in 1853, is telling. Verdi shared with Rossini a conviction that the musical world was changing too fast, and along paths they had no desire to follow. For Verdi, the cultural enemy came from outside Italy’s new frontier. Fulminate as he might, he could do little to diminish a new Italian fascination for other European operatic styles (first for the French, then – worse – the German) that invaded the birthplace of opera just as it achieved nationhood.
Time and again, Verdi trumpeted forth his distress at these foreign imports: at the blague and superciliousness of the French, with their over-inflated grand opera (he liked to call the Paris Opéra ‘la grande boutique’). He was even more vocal about the barbarity and symphonic obsessions of the Germans, and how their influence was destroying native talent. In a letter to a friend, written very late in life, he joked bitterly:
"At present I’m extremely busy putting the finishing touches to an opera in twelve acts plus prelude and an overture as long as Beethoven’s nine symphonies all joined up together; there’s also a prelude to each act with all the violins, violas, cellos and basses playing together a melody in octaves, not in the manner of Traviata or Rigoletto, etc, etc, but with a modern melody, one of those beautiful ones that has neither beginning nor end and remains suspended in the air."
There was, though, a critical difference between Rossini’s and Verdi’s later careers. Rossini’s operatic retirement was permanent; with Verdi the flame refused to die. Even in advanced old age, when his public pronouncements were ever more uncompromising about the sins of modernity, the compelling vitality that had been such a feature of Verdi’s early operas remained intact, allowing him to create musical drama that could affect audiences belonging to a world of changed values.
In many ways the most remarkable part of this ‘second period’ in Verdi’s career was its last phase. After the premiere of Aida in 1871 it did indeed seem as though his struggle with modernity was at an end. For 16 years, there were no new operas. But then, in the 1880s, with Verdi into his seventies, the spark again ignited: Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893) emerged, both in collaboration with composer-librettist Arrigo Boito.
After Falstaff’s triumphant premiere of there was inevitably talk of a third Verdi-Boito collaboration: a version of Antony and Cleopatra was suggested, and a King Lear. But it was not to be. In spite of some beautiful late religious pieces, Verdi’s world narrowed. His partner of some fifty years, Giuseppina Strepponi, died in November 1897. There are some very sad final letters to another soprano, Teresa Stolz, with whom he had been much involved, perhaps romantically, in the dark, opera-less years of the 1870s.
In these letters, Verdi laments the loss of vitality and strength, courage and power – those qualities that he gave so generously in the service of musical and dramatic expression. There is also, at the last, a tender expression of love and loyalty. Most striking of all, though, is an uncompromising honesty, a willingness to stare full in the face what a changing world offers. These were just some of the qualities that caused his last years to be peopled with such astonishing operatic characters.
This is an edited extract from Roger Parker’s article ‘Verdi’s Late Flowering’ in The Royal Opera’s programme book, available during performances and from the ROH Shop.
Otello runs 21 June–15 July 2017. Tickets are still available.
The production is generously supported by Rolex and is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, Mrs Susan A. Olde OBE, Alfiya and Timur Kuanyshev, Lord and Lady Laidlaw, Mr and Mrs Baha Bassatne, John G. Turner and Jerry G. Fischer, Ian and Helen Andrews, Mercedes T. Bass, Maggie Copus, Martin and Jane Houston, Mrs Trevor Swete, Beth Madison, John McGinn and Cary Davis, the Otello Production Syndicate, The American Friends of Covent Garden, The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund and an anonymous donor.