Thursday, January 25, 2001
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Posted on: Thursday, January 25, 2001

Verdi still the king of the opera

By Ronald Blum
Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK — Viva Verdi!

One hundred years ago, it was a battle cry of Italian patriotism.

Now it's one of the few things the world of classical music agrees on: Giuseppe Francesco Fortunino Verdi is the most popular opera composer ever — more than Mozart, more than Puccini.

"One of history's unique creative geniuses,'' Placido Domingo says.

"His music,'' Samuel Ramey says, "appeals to everybody.''

And on Jan. 27, the 100th anniversary of his death, it will ring out, from Milan to Munich to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In Italy, they still chant his Triumphal March from "Aida'' during soccer games.

The Anvil Chorus from "Il Trovatore'' is background music for television commercials.

For many people, "La donna e mobile'' from "Rigoletto'' is the only piece of opera they've heard of.

"In the case of a few composers, a very few, when I hear a work I do not like I am convinced it is my own fault. Verdi is one of these composers,'' said Benjamin Britten, himself among the greatest post-Verdi composers.

When Verdi suffered a stroke Jan. 21, 1901, straw was put in the streets outside Milan's Grand Hotel so the noise of traffic wouldn't disturb him. After he died six days later, at 2:50 a.m., Italian papers were printed with black borders.

As many as 200,000 joined the funeral procession through the streets of Milan on Jan. 30, many singing "Va pensiero,'' the chorus of the Hebrew slaves in "Nabucco,'' a tune that became a hymn of Italian unity.

Puccini, Leoncavallo and Giordano, the top young composers of the day, accompanied Verdi's family during the procession.

Arturo Toscanini conducted "Va pensiero'' with a chorus of 820 during the memorial service at La Scala on Feb. 27, and 300,000 followed Verdi's coffin as it was transported across Milan to the Casa di Riposo, the retirement home for singers Verdi had founded and financed.

"People could really feel something,'' conductor Vincent La Selva said. "He was right on the money. He had what Beethoven had and people would pick that up. They would cry. They would feel.''

Verdi wrote 28 operas from 1839 to 1893, and La Selva has conducted them all. In 1994, he began a cycle of presenting them all in order in New York's Central Park, and the final three — "Aida,'' "Otello'' and "Falstaff'' — are scheduled for this summer. For the anniversary of Verdi's death, La Selva was to conduct Verdi's Requiem at Carnegie Hall.

The Vienna State Opera and the Bavarian State Opera mounted Verdi festivals this month. Even the tiny Sarasota Opera in Florida has joined in. It will present Verdi's first opera, "Oberto,'' in March.

While most classical singers try a variety of composers, many center their lives on Verdi.

"Verdi's operas have always been the core of my career, having sung 16 of them and conducted 12,'' said Domingo. "Verdi inspired me to bring the bel canto style of singing to every other kind of music.''

Domingo, one of the most versatile tenors ever, has even become famous singing Wagner, whose works drove much of Verdi's music off the map in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

For many years, the only Verdi operas heard on the biggest stages were "Aida'' and the three hits in a row that opened from 1851 to '53, "Rigoletto,'' "La Traviata'' and "Il Trovatore.''

"The gang of three, as I call them,'' said Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, whose 941-page Verdi biography was published in 1993.

Now, virtually every Verdi opera is performed somewhere each year. There was a scholarly conference earlier this month in Parma, Italy, and another scheduled for New York University starting Jan. 29.

"What's astonishing,'' Phillips-Matz said, "is these very old operas are finding a new public.''


"The immediacy, the driving lunatic urgency and the huge, huge vitality,'' she said. "Every measure of his music is alive and you don't have to wait for it. It's alive before it gets to your seat.''

But in the era of post-Wagnerism, Verdi was dismissed for decades.

"The music's only Verdi,'' poet Alfred Noyes once said.

La Selva remembered his student days at Juilliard, in 1948.

"They didn't even think of him from a compositional standpoint,'' the conductor recalled. "He was an oom-pa-pa composer. Now, of course, it's completely the opposite. Verdi is still conquering.''

And so are the singers who learn his scores.

"There's an enormous amount of baggage for Verdi as a singer,'' said Renee Fleming, the top American soprano of this era, "because some of the greatest passages in recorded memory and in the audience's memory is in that repertoire. I truly think twice before I step into any of those shoes because it's a daunting prospect. Verdi doesn't work unless it is sung extraordinarily well. The orchestra can't carry a Verdi performance like it could in Mozart and some others. And it hasn't been the time to put together a stellar cast.''

Yet, stars want to sing Verdi, even if they can't be surrounded by ideal casts. Many of the plots are old-time love triangles. There are rulers fighting for their countries. None of the gods-and-dwarfs and myths that dominate Wagner.

"Verdi is different from other composers in that he has the unique ability to combine drama, great music and great theater,'' baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky said. "As Verdi's style matured, his music became more contemporary, more sophisticated. He left behind the conventional 19th century opera structure of traditional arias, recitatives and formal choruses. He eventually absorbed some of the characteristics of Wagner's music, showing his own, complete mastery of the genre.''

On stage, it's not so easy to master.

"I wonder if he knew the trauma he had put in the head of every soprano who has sung `O patria mia.' I wonder how he would feel about that?'' said soprano Deborah Voigt, currently appearing in "Aida'' with Luciano Pavarotti at the Met. '' `Aida' is not a fun evening for me. It's a hurdle to get over.''

Still, there are those moments.

"I find myself getting so wrapped up in it,'' she said during rehearsals earlier this month. "I found myself crying a little bit on the stage and then thinking, wait a minute. I have to sing.''

And in Verdi, a voice is not enough in most cases.

"I waited for quite a while before I did a lot of Verdi,'' said Ramey, one of the greatest Verdi basses. "I was almost 40 years old before I did much Verdi. I felt it required not only a mature voice and technique, but also maturity in your artistry as well.''

While Puccini followed with popular works such as "La Boheme,'' "Tosca,'' "Madama Butterfly'' and "Turandot,'' his music is more of the tear-jerking variety.

Wagner overwhelmed.

Mozart awed.

Verdi grabbed.

"It's out of his heart. It's out of his soul,'' Phillips-Matz said.

And how did he do it?

"You put your hand over your heart,'' she said, "and write.''

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