Glimmerglass’ ‘Traviata’ Tells Verdi Story
By ROBERT MOYNIHAN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
Independence personified, he was an artist of the highest rank in the 19th Century, a period of creative superlatives – what came to be known with the changed and now abused word, “genius.” He died in the first months of the 20th – within days of the departure of Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and, thanks to the fawning Disraeli, Empress of India.
Victoria and Verdi both have fame. However, the composer continued to grow and produce operatic masterpieces while the famous Queen driveled into increasingly somber oddities, filling her estates with gimcracks, loading her sentences with eccentric curlicues.
Of the two, Verdi is far more worthy of tribute – though outside of Italy is outdistanced in common English-speaking recognition. Each was marred by grief – Victoria for her Prince Albert, Verdi for his wife and two children, dead within three years after marriage.
For a time, he surrendered to despair, writing nothing, then moved to the saving precincts of creativity, increasing his production of masterpieces with strenuous, even feverish, activity in the most difficult of all musical forms, opera.
He was tenacious – a strong word but too weak a term opposing the obstacles of operatic art. He fought inadequate orchestras, singers ill-suited to their roles or dismal of voice, even a leading soprano too corpulent to play an expiring tubercular in “La Traviata.” Her assumed death brought laughter from the first audience. Verdi’s own judgment of this production was simple: “Fiasco.” It had to be staged later for improved performances and due recognition.
Verdi’s place as a recognized superlative composer now approaches a century. Until the 1920s, however, Wagner eclipsed him at the Metropolitan Opera and on most of the continent. Verdi was considered inadequate and too much of an easy theatrical mark – with melodies too accessible that countered the grotesque mythological inventions of Wagner’s Bayreuth. British critical writing sneered at the Italian’s “guitar-like accompaniments.” One critic reported that “liking Verdi is incompatible with good taste.”
Asked about that composer, Wagner’s son, Siegfried, remarked: “Such things are not discussed.” The Germanic blanket was so heavy in the Met’s 19th century that the company’s first production of “Aida” was in German.
The change in criticism and public acceptance came from an unlikely source, Franz Werfel, author of several novels – his most famous, “The Song of Bernadette.” In 1924, he edited a German edition of Verdi’s letters, wrote a short biography introducing the text, and revised “La Forza del Destino” for popular production in Germany. In the next decade, presentations of Verdi in that country nearly equaled the number of Wagnerian productions.
“Traviata” itself touches Verdi’s own life and his view of the demimonde – a term coined by the elder Dumas – a “half-world” of the forbidden, of shadowed status. His son exploited the class divisions with “Dame of the Camellias,” and Verdi seized the novel’s plot, never fully admitting its biographical similarities to the losses and passions of his own life.
Verdi lived with his mistress, Giuseppina Strepponi, once a brilliant soprano and herself a member of the demimonde. He saved her from a failing voice, poverty, unwanted pregnancies, and further exploitation. The theater and opera had been accurately described as a carnival and circus of opportunism, an illicit though tolerated avenue of oppression and sexual victimage.
She wrote: “I have always been cheated and deceived. For every bad thing, I have always had to pay an enormous penitence.” In another note: “I have no health. I am earning nothing.” Her past vocal art? “Useless efforts of a dying voice.”
The composer had his own view of existence – and it was open, accepting, not bound by formula or convention. The relation was long, lasting from 1846 until Strepponi’s death in 1897. Despite Verdi’s earlier anti-clericalism and hatred of gossip, a curate performed the simple 1859 marriage ceremony. Two witnesses were the church bell ringer and a coachman who took them to the rite.
What is the crossing between art and life? Dispossession, pain, but the possibility of renewal rises through persistent effort. This sensitive and intelligent singer had been “cheated and deceived.” Verdi also had been tormented and wrote about his audiences: “I accept whistles – I am not asked to give back anything for its applause. We poor nomads, charlatans – whatever – are forced to sell our efforts, our ideas. Then for 3 lire the audience buys the right to whistle or applaud us.”
Reflecting on his own youthful marriage and losses within months, Verdi wrote about the main character in “Traviata”: “Great god, to die so young.” He demanded in his productions of the final scene that there be “No cough.”
Royalty may survive through generations of the favored, then lapse into embarrassing inconsequence. However, the struggle of human life and the assault on its obstacles achieve the highest rank of man and artist, a self-earned nobility.
That was Verdi.
Robert Moynihan, retired SUNY Oneonta English professor, lives in Cooperstown.