Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

Verdi and NABUCCO; crossing into genius..

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The Washington National Opera Company has a rousing new production of Nabucco on the boards, and ahead of going to see it, the current alert crop of students, at Stanford in DC, endured a luncheon lecture of mine..


In the cult of opera, there are always stories. Opera, by its very nature, is a heightened species; it’s all about the drama –even if it’s comedy.

..but in the deep aisles of history, there is one man in particular who stood on his life as one vast opportunity, and single mindedly honed his musical expression into works that became the yardstick of style and composition, which then stood as measure for future generations of Italian composers, and more often than not, left them short, or insignificant in comparison..

This man was Giuseppe Verdi.

Verdi was born in 1813; he died on the 27th January, 1901.

As a person Verdi could never be considered a ‘humble’ man, but being from country stock, he was –direct; earthy; clear eyed; shrewd; determined; disciplined; calculating; innovative; hard working; honorable -Italian; and each of those qualities, defines his operas, especially the ones which are based in the observations of frailty, and the dignity required to overcome such affliction.. La Traviata; Don Carlo; Aida.. grand works, based in the chambers of the human heart..

In the early years, there was only groping towards an ill defined future.. up, through the general publics’ common taste, and the byzantine permissions required of the foreign powers which ruled the land..

Italy was not a unified country at Verdi’s birth, but by the mid point of his fame, this man’s name was on the lips of every Italian, as acknowledgement of genius, and more seditious, as acronym for unification: Viva V-E-R-D-I [Vittorio Emmanueal, Re di Italia].

Verdi was born in a village in the Duchy of Parma, a land under French authority and dominion; his birth was registered with the French civil authorities. Within a few years, the Duchy of Parma was lost to Austrian advances, and in the transfer of power, things Italian were further subsumed.

As a young adult Verdi found a patron in the nearby town of Busetto, in the guise of a very paternal businessman –Antonio Barezzi.

Barezzi’s investment of love and fortune paid off in Verdi; the young man loved, and married, his patron’s eldest daughter, Margherita, on May 4th, 1836. She gave birth to their first child, a girl, Virginia Maria, in 1838; she had their second, a boy, Icilio Romano, in 1839.

In this period of time –between 1836 and 1839, Verdi’s operatic career ignited; though not as yet of a readily identifiable ‘style’, Verdi’s musicianship mastered and manipulated the conventions of the music of the day.

It is clear, in his first opera, that he was trying to make his own way, through the style of the leading, serious, composer of the period –Saverio Mercadante; but Verdi was also sensitive to the currents of Romanticism and melody, mastered by Bellini and Donizetti.

These composers’ works were predominant on the stages of Italy, in the various duchies and territories of occupation; as a matter of fact, the musical struggle for dominance was very heated; Rossini was out of the picture, in operatic composition; Bellini had died, suddenly, in 1835 –and Donizetti, in the fall of that same year, had tossed opera convention on its head with the sensation of Lucia di Lammermoor.

Verdi, who was 23 years old in 1835, was strong enough of a composer to want to strike a chord in his own vein –but smart enough to look to currying patronage and public support; his first opera, Oberto, which premiered in 1839, makes its way between the ‘symphonic’ darkness, prevalent in the period’s works of Mercadante, and the thrust of melody in the rousing style of Donizetti.

Though not considered a sensation, Oberto squarely hit the mark; it promoted his name in the ranks of potential masters, in the landscape of opera.

With the public’s pleasure of this work, and the clear promise of a great future, Verdi was signed by Tito Ricordi, head of the publishing house, Casa Ricordi; Verdi would make the fortune of this company, who, to this day, retain the rights to many of the composer’s work.

Simultaneously Verdi was signed to a contract by Bartelomeo Merelli, impresario at the prestigious opera house la Scala, in Milan; the contract committed the composer to write three further operas at 8 month intervals!

With Verdi’s name creating a stir, Merelli wasn’t going to waste a moment in getting the composer’s next work onstage!

This was to be a comedy; Un giorno di regno –“One Day to Reign”. But from the outset, Verdi was struggling against personal tragedy.

In August of 1838, nearing the end of composition on Oberto, Verdi’s daughter, Virginia, died; she was 18 months old. Then in 1839, after the premiere of Oberto, his son died; he was 15 months old.

Carrying this weight, Verdi engaged in fulfilling the contract with Merelli –but in June of 1840, the composer’s wife, Margherita, died, at the age of 26.

His comedy was scheduled for premiere that September.

Verdi had to be forced to fulfill the contract; opening night was a fiasco. Verdi never heard a note of that opera again in his lifetime.

This period of debilitating hardship and loss left the composer near emotional collapse. He was convinced his life –artistic and emotional- was over.

In the wake of the ridicule over Un giorno di regno, Verdi entombed himself in despair and a gloom of death.

In desolate frame of mind, he wanted to be out of his contract, and pleaded with various contacts in Milan’s music circles, to speak with Merelli and make this happen.

Merelli, often unscrupulous, and always demanding, managed to hold himself in check, and tread a different course with his young composer; he was casual about the next work, in fulfillment of the contract, and bided his time and wit to find the right moment to seduce Verdi into moving forward.

The story of this set of circumstances is almost legend; but the mythology, in this case, is true.

..the libretto, of Nabucco, had first been presented to a different composer of the day –Otto Nicolai (creator of Die Lustige Weib von Windsor), who had unceremoniously turned it down.

Merelli was stuck; he’d already paid for the libretto, and now had no composer to fashion it.

One cold afternoon, while walking Verdi through the streets of Milan, Merelli casually complained; he muttered something about a “stunning” libretto, crafted by an eminent librettist, Solera; and crabbed that Nicolai was a “German” and a fool; Merelli stated that the work was written to inflame the imagination of a good composer, but that a ‘great one”, could be catapulted to the heights of success if he took it in hand.

Verdi would not be swayed; but Merelli overrode the composer’s indifference, and stuffing the libretto into the pocket of Verdi’s overcoat, waved him off, saying “-go on, go on. It won’t do you any harm. Read it and then bring it back to me again.”

Verdi tells this story, and relates that, on his way home from the encounter, he felt a sudden and immense weight of debilitating sadness and distress. By the time he got home, the feelings in him focused on the libretto, and turned malevolent; he violently threw the work on the table in his room, and in a vertigo of emotion, stood looking down on the page opened before him; he stared at the page for some moments, before realizing that he was reading one line over and over again –the line was “Va, pensiero, sull’ ali dorate”..

..”Fly thought, on wings of gold”..

What struck him, was that the words were almost a perfect paraphrase, out of Psalm 137 from the bible, which he had been comforting himself with in this period..

He continued reading; then broke away, closed the manuscript, and went to bed –where he could not remain; got up, read the libretto, beginning to end, several times, and then several times more, so that by morning, he virtually knew it by heart.

Even so –he returned it to Merelli, but had to admit that the work was “beautiful”.

Merelli, scenting victory, agreed, and seductively offhanded, encouraged Verdi to keep it. And set it to music.

Verdi balked –but Merelli baited him, by saying that it was a useless piece to him, and Verdi might as well keep it for exercise.

Verdi continued to hesitate –but again Merelli shoved the libretto into the composer’s over coat pocket –and this time, shoved him out of his office!

Verdi returned to his rooms, and, in his own words –“ day one verse, another day another, here a note and there a phrase, little by little the opera was composed.”

Nabucco was completed by the autumn of 1841, and was set for performance in the Carnival season that fall.

Now it was Merelli who balked; he did not want to jeopardize a critical season of making money, as he had already engaged well know composers for work; Verdi insisted, however, because he knew that the roster of singers that Merelli had enlisted for the winter Carnival season, were the best and most talented artists of the day –and Nabucco –Nabucco would only make a sensation, if it had the right artistic, experienced singers in the lead roles.

Verdi got his way.

Nabucco premiered at La Scala on the 9th March, 1842.

As I mentioned earlier, at the time of this opera’s premiere, Italy was a collection of fiefdoms and foreign powers; Milan, was under Austrian dominion, and for most Italians of the day, the concept of “Italy” –did not exist.

Not until the impact of Garibaldi, and the successive efforts (from 1848 – 1860) to remove foreign powers from Italian soil, did the full sense of “unification” start to engage the average Italian, and make every moment of song an opportunity to inflame that passion.

Even so, already in 1842, as public policy, the Austrian authorities of Milan did not permit encores to be given at the opera house; they felt it encouraged demonstrations of civil expression- that only heightened, already overwrought Italian passions.

But on that night of Nabucco’s premiere, something extraordinary happened; there was an encore –because the opera house went wild.

The story is that the encore was Va pensiero..

This gained ground as myth, with the patriotic passions of the Risorgimento, as its ideals were in the subsequent chorus of the piece, and its reminiscence of a “lost country”..

“Va, pensiero, sull’ ali dorate..

..oh mia patria si bella e perduta!

Oh membranza si cara e fatal!”


Fly thought, on wings of gold..

..oh, my country so beautiful and lost!

Oh, remembrance so dear and so fatal!

 ..the story that this was encored makes for rousing mythology, but it is not the most accurate truth; the chorus that was encored that night was “Immenso Jehovah!” sung by the Hebrew slaves to celebrate their deliverance.

However it is true, that in 1901, as Verdi’s funeral cortege passed onto a boulevard in Milan, the crowd of thousands spontaneously, and almost as one voice, moved to sing Va pensiero..

..there’s also something else that has been overwhelmed by the dust and distance of history; a comment made by Otto Nicolai, the composer who first tossed aside the libretto of Nabucco.

His own career had endured an operatic fiasco, in 1841, and he’d had to cancel his contract with Merelli, and leave Italy.

The next year in Vienna, when the composer learned of Nabucco’s success, Nicolai commented that “Verdi’s operas are really horrible.. ..he scores like a fool –technically he is not even professional, and he must have the heart of a donkey; and in my view he is a pitiful, despicable composer.. –(that) opera is nothing but rage, invective, bloodshed and murder!”

….you know, by the standards of the day, there is a grain of truth in Nicolai’s tirade; as a young composer, Verdi music was brash, and new; but the texture was what best suited the material.

As he gained in stature, and was able to craft the works he wished (rather than ones he was contracted to do), Verdi’s manner of “orchestral directness” helped create a new genre of drama, especially exemplified by his last two great operas, both of which were based on Shakespeare.

Otello, Verdi’s penultimate work, cemented the direction of Italian opera to a course that reached far into the future; not only pointing the way into the meaty style of verismo (later mastered by composers such as Mascagni, Giordano, Ponchielli and Puccini), but with his last opera, Falstaff, Verdi’s musical palette contained the orchestral colors of a 20th century style of composition; it flies on word pointing and wit, sustained by music of thematic flexibility and conciseness; key features of the intimate operas of  Richard Strauss, such as Intermezzo, and Capriccio..

In hindsight, we have the whole truth of Verdi’s unique gifts.

And the reality, that the fruit of his genius was established with this particular work, which had grabbed his own heart, when he first felt the power of the words.. pensiero..


One Response

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  1. Endured a lecture….. too funny!

    Lori B. Brutten

    May 13, 2012 at 10:33 AM

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