‘The stupidest operas ever’

His music is among classical’s best known, and best loved. Still, Verdi can’t seem to get our respect.
‘The stupidest operas ever’
Photo illustration by taylor shute; Hulton Archive/GETTY IMAGES

Giuseppe Verdi, the Italian composer who was born in 1813, will never be a forgotten man of music, since his works are in the repertory of every opera company in the world. But his bicentenary may be overshadowed by an accident of birth. He was born the same year as a man he barely knew, the German Richard Wagner, and not only are there more arguments over the racial and political implications of Wagner’s ideas, but there are more Wagner celebrations: conductor Valery Gergiev is recording Wagner’s complete Ring cycle, and London’s music world is holding a “Wagner 200” festival with no equivalent Verdi festival. “Performing Wagner is a much bigger occasion in general,” says Alexander Neef, general director of the Canadian Opera Company (COC).

Verdi also suffers in comparison to Wagner because he rarely tried to be a musical theorist, and even those who put on his operas sometimes treat him condescendingly as more of a showman than an idea man: the director of Covent Garden recently referred to Verdi as “rather like the Steven Spielberg of his day.” It could be that Verdi, who lived a long life, worked hard and made lots of money, is harder to talk about than an intellectual like Wagner. “Verdi wrote nothing for publication,” says Conrad L. Osborne, a long-time music critic for publications such as Opera News, “espoused no lofty ideology or philosophy, founded no Bayreuth, and sent no echoes down the corridors of 20th-century horror. He just wrote operas.”

Though he just wrote operas—plus a Requiem that remains one of the most popular choral pieces of all time—Verdi may claim to be the definitive opera composer, the one whose music is most likely to be known to people who have never set foot in an opera house. One of the first bestselling records was a duet from his La Forza Del Destino. In Italy, his music is a part of everyday life: Johannes Debus, musical director of the COC, says the slaves’ chorus from Verdi’s Biblical opera Nabucco “became not the national anthem of Italy, but kind of the secret national anthem. Everybody knows it.” In North America, the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore has been lampooned by everyone from the Marx Brothers to TV cartoon characters. And Verdi has the endorsement of another 2013 birthday boy, composer Benjamin Britten, who wrote of “a devotion to the music of Verdi that grows greater as I grow older,” and proclaimed that “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.”

With all this, Verdi has had problems being taken seriously as a composer, rather than just an entertainer. Unlike Wagner, who tried to give opera the logic of symphonic music by introducing themes that were developed over the course of the evening, Verdi spent most of his life writing in a populist Italian style that critics haven’t always been fond of. Neef says that in Verdi’s time, there were “a lot of German critics who were denouncing Verdi’s music as ‘hurdy-gurdy music.’ ” And while Verdi has become more respectable in the last century, he hasn’t been free from the idea that his music, and Italian music in general, just isn’t as smart as German music. When Scottish director David McVicar came to New York to stage Il Trovatore at the Met, he told the New York Times that “on a bad day I think Il Trovatore is one of the stupidest operas ever written.” Pierre Boulez, the influential French composer-conductor, simply referred to Verdi’s music with the words “stupid, stupid, stupid!”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to taking Verdi seriously is his selection of plots, which—except for his adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Othello and The Merry Wives of Windsor—have come to stand for everything crazy about opera. The composer liked adapting contemporary melodramas, and poured some of his best music into stories of long-lost daughters and absurd disguises, stories that are, as Osborne puts it, “now long gone from any thought of revival.”

Verdi didn’t seem to care about the plausibility of a plot if it had “strong situations that would motivate music, what he called the parola scenica,” says Peter Conrad, author of Verdi and/or Wagner, a joint history of the two men and their reputations. “He wanted contrasts, between people and between scenes, which energizes the action.” To accept Rigoletto, based on a Victor Hugo play featuring a hunchbacked jester with a daughter who is mistaken for his mistress, directors must accept that crazy plots don’t bother Verdi. Some of them try to make sense of these twists for a contemporary audience, like a new production of Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera, which recasts the title character as a Vegas stand-up comic. But others just make fun of the whole thing instead. In a controversial production in 2005, German director Doris Dörrie turned Rigoletto into a mash-up of Planet of the Apes and Star Wars, with the title character’s daughter dressed as Princess Leia.

When it comes to the music itself, too, some critics have trouble admiring Verdi’s as much as, say, Mozart’s. Except for the works Verdi wrote in his old age, much of his music has the orchestra playing predictable rhythms to accompany simple melodies, as in a popular song. Debus says that Verdi came in for criticism in his time, too, “because it’s always the same rhythm, it’s that kind of oom-pah-pah. It’s kind of a very powerful motor that sets everything in motion.”

And, like many Italian works, Verdi’s operas are mostly considered star vehicles for major singers. Debus says it’s the conductor’s job in Verdi “to find the right tempo, to know exactly where the singer breathes,” unlike in Wagner, where the orchestra does much of the storytelling. Verdi’s use of the orchestra became more innovative as he aged, but in all his works, as Britten wrote, “the voices dominate, and the orchestra is in the background.” Though Britten thought this balance was “perfectly right,” it may make Verdi less interesting to people who see pure music, rather than separate numbers such as arias and duets, as the highest ideal.

But bias against the non-symphonic, popular style of Verdi may not be as strong today. Osborne points out that whereas there used to be a dislike of the traditional opera form that stops the action for showy display pieces, it is “much less bothersome to most opera lovers now than it might have been 60 or 70 years ago, due to the revival of bel canto Romantic works, of Handel and the baroque.” Debus adds that the melodic, vocal style of Verdian opera is more accessible than most, and perhaps more democratic: “It’s a musical language that gives a broad majority of people a chance to understand it immediately. You don’t need any musical education to get it.”

What may really guarantee Verdi’s continued stardom, though, is his sense of what Peter Conrad calls “the rich individuality of specific characters.” Opera is not usually known for characters with depth: Puccini, Verdi’s successor as Italy’s leading composer, tended to write leads with easy-to-understand motivations. But all of Verdi’s mature operas, no matter how confusing the plots, have at least one character who transcends the clichés of melodrama and lets a singer play something more complicated than the usual operatic archetype. These include his pathetic yet dignified version of Falstaff, or the courtesan in La Traviata, the biggest showcase for a soprano’s ability to sing, act and die at the same time.

“Verdi expresses the universal feelings of all human beings,” Debus says, pointing to characters like King Philip, the character in Don Carlos who is both the villain of the piece and the most sympathetic character. “You can like Iago, the way he’s depicted in Otello,” adds Neef, who will feature Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) at the COC next year. “The villains in Verdi are never all bad, and the good guys are never all good. Wagner’s characters are usually more stereotypical.”

This ability to create multi-layered characters makes singing actors look to Verdi roles as the ultimate test of their abilities. When star tenor Placido Domingo recently shifted to the baritone repertory in his old age, he started with Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, whose plot makes no sense, but whose title role is an chance to portray a politician, a father, and a man of action, topped off with a spectacular death scene. So if it’s true that, as Osborne puts it, “musicians and students are always apt to be more fascinated by Wagner,” and more composers have imitated Wagner, Verdi may live as music’s equivalent of his own personal idol: “Wagner made musical modernism possible, while Verdi has no heirs,” says Peter Conrad. “But then neither did Shakespeare.”