Notes on...

Verdi’s works are more entertainment than art

They are simple, and need not affect your post-opera supper

21 May 2016

9:00 AM

21 May 2016

9:00 AM

Verdi has a peculiar if not unique place in the pantheon of great composers. If you love classical music at all, and certainly if you love opera, then it is almost mandatory to love him. The great and good of the musical world, the kind of people who sit on the boards of opera houses and other cultural institutions, go out of their way to advertise their adoration of Verdi, usually at the expense of the other considerable operatic composer who was born a few months before him in 1813, Wagner. In fact, Verdi’s status and stature are often established by comparing the two. Verdi was a decent man from a lowly background who, through hard work, built an oeuvre which, lacking pretensions to any kind of revolutionary methods or goals, nonetheless reveals human nature in its essence (at least according to Isaiah Berlin in a famous essay). Comparisons with Shakespeare are not uncommon — and given that Verdi set versions of several Shakespeare plays to music, they are inevitable.

And yet you have only to compare Macbeth and Macbeth to see that the play is in a different artistic class to the opera, exciting and sometimes moving as that is. Much the same can be said of Othello and Otello. Falstaff, utterly unlike any of Verdi’s other operas, is a far greater piece than The Merry Wives of Windsor, but that play is feeble and Nicolai had already composed a far superior version of it. Verdi’s art is almost always simple, which is perhaps one of its major charms. You can have a thoroughly enjoyable evening out watching Rigoletto, and feel no need to reflect on it afterwards or allow it to affect your post-opera supper. There are quite a few books on Verdi — an insignificant number compared with the libraries Wagner has called forth — but almost none of them attempts critical interpretation and evaluation, because his operas offer only a straightforward experience. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but given the complexities of living, and the way that the greatest art and the greatest artists try to come to terms with them, Verdi doesn’t even appear on the horizon. His attraction may lie in large part in his taking serious subjects and reducing them to alternately melancholic or elegiac cavatinas and bounding cabalettas. The results are undeniably energising, as they are in lurid soaps, but they are, by and large, entertainments rather than works of art, if that distinction is any longer permitted.

There are exceptions: Don Carlos is a masterpiece, offering depths, especially in the last two acts, which are not to be found elsewhere in Verdi, or only fragmentarily. It is also a sprawling, almost shapeless work, where interest, though often intense, is dissipated. When you think of the searching profundities of the supreme operatic composers — Monteverdi, Mozart, Wagner — and a few masterpieces by other composers, it is surely clear that they demand a level of concentration and post-performance thought which would be pointless with Verdi’s works, however lovable, singable or agreeably sad they may be. The one work of his which I can never grow tired of and never stop brooding on is the Requiem, about which endless nonsense — isn’t it theatrical? — is trotted out. The text offered Verdi the stimulus of attempting to cope with the grandest subject of all, and he rose to the challenge: in a great account it is both thrilling and terrifying, one of the noblest testaments of our culture.

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  • Yawn, always someone who wants to beat you with his self inflated ego.So next time you’re enjoying a Verdi opera, remember you’re a pleb and stop enjoying it immediately.

  • Central power

    Both Verdi’s and Wagner’s operas are a wonderful musical experience. As for the latter composer even native German speakers could not understand what was being sung(see Hanslick’s comments).Verdi was a deeply human being – and it is reflected in his work. Wagner was no different in his earlier works (Tanhauser, Der Fliegende Hollander, Lohengrin and Tristan). Unfortunately some parts of his latter libretti contain lots of maleficent verse (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, The Ring and Parsifal). Most of it was due to the odious influence of Cosima, his wife.

  • enoch arden

    It is quite stupid compare Wagner with Verdi. It is like comparing Richard Strauss with Johann Strauss. Or Wodehouse with Tolstoy. Different genres.

    • Tom Cullem

      Have you never heard the saying, “If its Richard give me Strauss?”

      • enoch arden

        Thanks. I shall remember.

      • Sue Smith

        Oh, I thought it should be ‘give me a horse’.

  • This is clearly written by someone beating a Wagnerian drum.
    As an opera lover, I enjoy Italian, German (especially Wagner) Russian and French opera.
    But I would never think of trying to decide if any is ‘better’ (whatever that might mean) than the others,
    All 19th century Italian Opera WAS intended as entertainment, pure and simple.

    Verdi should be compared with his predecessors (notably, but not exclusively, Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti) not with composers from different traditions.
    So, a really useless article this.

    • Sue Smith

      All theatrical music, and most concert music, is entertainment when it comes down to it. It is entertainment in the same way that collecting butterflies is science.

  • IainRMuir

    Time is a harsh critic but, somehow, they have done rather well for simple entertainment.

  • Tom Cullem

    Of the many puerile pieces of pseudo-intellectual puffery that pervades the world of art and music criticism, this one should now be bumped up to a special place.

    The Speccie really should be beyond giving a platform to this sort of vacuous aggrandizement of personal preferences dressed up as intellectual superiority.

    There are a good many people well-versed in opera and classical music who would rather have pencils stuck in their eyes than attend another Ring Cycle at Bayreuth.

    There are very few who would not be willing to attend a first-class performance of “Otello” again.


    • post_x_it

      I have seen Otello many times and love the work. It has plenty of dramatic and emotional depth along with gorgeous music. But, alas, I am still waiting for that “first-class” performance, due to the near-impossibility of casting the title role adequately. All the ones I have seen fall into one of two categories: the (usually Slavic) brute who has the volume and stamina but lacks elegance or expression in his singing and puts no effort into his acting, or the (usually Italian or Latin) spinto tenor who inhabits the role well but crashes and burns in the act II finale and can only simper and wheeze his way to the end. This is a great pity.
      I have a live recording from 1976 where Domingo comes pretty close to perfection, but when I saw him in the 90s his voice didn’t cope well.
      We shall see how Kaufmann tackles the role next season.
      On a different note, it is only a matter of time before the PC brigade decides that Otello may only be sung by a black person (as is already the norm on the theatre stage). This will, in effect, mean that no further performances of the work will be staged, unless an as yet undiscovered deus ex machina steps forward.

  • angus westmorland

    For any Opera, or Symphony or Choral work ,it has to be heard and absorbed by the human brain and the heart. Puccini is opera and entertaining and dramatic and entertaining. If you try and put the ‘Art ‘ on a high alter without really absorbing the sheer beauty of Verdi , Strauss, Wagner,then you will be missing s moment of musical truth. Art , entertaining , they are just words . If the music does not reach you then what is the point of music. ??