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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