"Ars bene honesteque vivendi"


Giuseppe Verdi, 1813-1901.


  • The Significance of Verdi:

Verdi occurs several times in CantoKentigerni, just as Shakespeare does. This is because I believe Verdi to be the most important dramatist, after Shakespeare, who should be accessed by as many interested people as possible. Verdi takes the issues Shakespeare addresses and expresses them in sung musical drama, thus providing a fuller emotional element to the experience.  Both Shakespeare and Verdi were men of the theatre of their time, and both were successful in their careers both artistically and financially. Wagner also needs to be acknowledged, but I will deal with him in another section. He is fundamentally different from Shakespeare and Verdi in so many ways, yet occurs also in my poem.

  • The Purpose of These Additional Notes on Verdi:

Verdi has influenced me for many years, but I had not understood how deeply until I had completed my walk-through of Shakespeare in 2012. I had struggled with Macbeth, Othello, and Falstaff in Shakespeare, because Verdi’s music kept intruding, and it was by chance that I had a conversation on Verdi’s Manzoni Requiem in January of 2013 which led me to watch/listen to the DVD by Karajan. I was overwhelmed by this experience. Verdi had completely captured my imagination and I felt obliged to absorb him as seriously as I had absorbed Shakespeare, by listening/experiencing his entire output in a chronological walk-through, which I began in February and ended in November of 2013. I felt this was a necessary condition of writing about him in my poem. So I replicated my reference to Shakespeare in the hope that these additional notes might be beneficial to readers of the poem. Like the Shakespeare notes, there is no effort to present any scholarly treatise on Verdi, but rather to present my response to his work and to various commentaries which I found helpful, all within the context of the poem.

  • The Lay-Out of These Notes:

These Notes are divided into four distinct sections, as listed above. The first two sections cover all of Verdi’s operas plus the Manzoni Requiem, the third section covers some of the operas of Verdi’s immediate predecessors in Italian Opera, and the fourth section is devoted to Manzoni and his influence on Verdi. Clicking on any section takes you to the listings of the Notes included in the section, which can be accessed individually, as in the Shakespeare Note.

  • Verdi’s Life:

There are several biographies of Verdi available in English. I used an excellent brief one by Julian Budden, a more comprehensive one by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, and an intriguing one by Frank Walker. There is also a very good DVD by Castellani. Knowing something of Verdi’s life is useful for appreciation of his operas, but not necessary. I provide my explorations to show how I approached Verdi.

  • Verdi’s Operas:

I used the Decca Collected Works Box Set, The EMI Box Set, and the RCA Box Set as my main listening sources, augmented by other CDs in my collection. As with Shakespeare, I used a standard text (The Complete Verdi Libretti by Nico Castel, which has an interlinear translation of the Italian plus phonetic guide) to refer to as I listened to the CD. I would listen to several versions of the CDs in order to hear differences in voice, phrasing and conducting. Only after this would I watch the opera on DVD.

As basic commentaries, I used Julian Budden’s The Operas of Verdi (3 volumes), with Baldini, Godefroy and Kimball as additional support. Other authors were used, depending on the opera.

Verdi created 28 operas plus The Manzoni Requiem.

  • A First Approach To Verdi:

People already familiar with Verdi may wish to link directly to a favourite opera to get a sense of what my notes are saying. For those who are new to Verdi, I would recommend beginning with La Traviata, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore. For everyone, I would recommend Macbeth, which is the Verdi opera which haunts me most of all. The theme here is still “listening”, but with a difference, for this is the voice in song, the musical voice, which creates a quite unique experience for the “ear of the heart.”

  • Some Influences on Verdi: Manzoni, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini:

I have provided a link to these men who influenced the younger Verdi and who are necessary background for a fuller appreciation of his work.

  • Concluding the Walk-Through:

The output of Verdi is simply astonishing, as is his life as a human being. This is noted by everyone, especially in this bicentenary year of his birth. There is really not a single opera that is not worth experiencing, although the early works are clearly developmental. For me, the big break-through comes with Macbeth, although Ernani ranks highly with some commentators, and clearly, Rigoletto is a major musical turning point as well. All of the operas written after this are, in my mind, masterpieces in their own right. Overall there is a growth in Verdi’s mastery of drama, voice and orchestra. While he was seldom completely happy with the performances which he supervised, there is no doubt in my mind that the best performances I have experienced would have pleased him. It is also a source of great joy and anticipation that, like Shakespeare, Verdi is open to multiple interpretations, and new voices keep arriving, bringing special talents to these extraordinary operatic roles which he has created.

I believe Manzoni influenced Verdi significantly, as did his father, his father-in-law Barezzi, his mother, his first wife and children (who died), his second wife Strepponi, and his final love, Teresa Stolz. All of these people need to be considered when we look seriously at Verdi. He nevertheless remained a very private person, and we know very little about him.

I believe that, like Shakespeare, he believed in the supremacy of imagination/dream/love over commodity/”construtto”/meme. And I feel this overwhelms us in Falstaff in an absolutely remarkable way, as a final summing up of Verdi’s thinking.

What strikes me most about this great artist and extraordinary individual, are the following

  • a continuous creator, living into his eighties and still productive, parallel to Haydn, but really in a class of his own in productive longevity
  • a total commitment to every opera, which is entirely its own universe
  • The towering achievement of Macbeth, equaled only by Falstaff (! In my opinion!)
  • A patriot
  • An elected lawmaker
  • A deeply hurt young widower
  • A deeply hurt young father who loses both children in infancy
  • A deeply hurt son
  • A deeply grateful recipient of his father-in-law Barezzi’s affection and financial support
  • A successful businessman
  • A successful investor
  • An agnostic
  • An anti-cleric
  • A universal brother (Shakespeare, Schiller, Hugo)
  • A Manzoni disciple
  • A lover of three women – Margherita, Strepponi, Stolz
  • Childless after early deaths of children

All of these points have relevance to Verdi and to his work. His dramatic response to so many human issues which confront all of us in one form or another lives on in his work, and remains available to all of us digitally today.