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October 2013
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Seven Questions about Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi

Q. and A. with Henry Fogel

In celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi, we are posing seven questions about the composer to various people. That opinions differ isn’t surprising, but they do add dimension to one’s understanding of the composer’s art, and of his impact.

Our first commentator is Henry Fogel:

When did you start really getting into Verdi, and what was it that did it for you?
When I was in high school I had a friend from an Italian family, and he dragged me one Saturday afternoon to the Met, in the mid 1950s.  The performance was Verdi’s “Aida,” and I was hooked. It was my first opera, and it just overwhelmed me. I was just beginning to like classical music at the time, but this experience did it. He and I started going, as standees (for $2) quite regularly. In those years I saw “Otello,” with Mario del Monaco, Renata Tebaldi, and Leonard Warren – that so overwhelmed me that I saw the production with that cast three times.  That and the “Aida” got me started on Verdi, and every Verdi opera I saw after that just continued the love affair. Recordings broadened by knowledge, particularly of early Verdi.

What recordings were most influential?
The “Aida” with Milanov, Bjoerling, Warren, and Barbieri, was a major influence. But some Met broadcasts from those years, which I taped off the air so I could re-play them, also made an impact. A hair-raising (in a good sense) “Ernani” with Price, Bergonzi, Tozzi, and MacNeil, conducted by Thomas Schippers, made me aware of the incredible level of inspiration in early Verdi. That broadcast has now been reissued on a new series of Met Broadcasts on the Sony label, and I heard it a few weeks ago and found it to be every bit as good as I remember. But an even earlier broadcast, from 1954, with Milanov, Del Monaco, Warren, and Siepi, with Mitropoulos conducting, when I heard it in later years, strengthened my admiration for early Verdi. That RCA “Trovatore” with Milanov, Bjoerling, Warren, and Barbieri is another classic that made a lasting impression on me.

Has Verdi made a lasting impact on music? On culture, or on our world?
It depends what you mean by a “lasting impact.” I don’t think he directly influenced a generation of composers, nor that he changed the direction of music – both of which are things you could say about Liszt, Berlioz, Wagner, Beethoven, and many other composers.  But his music has made an impact by its very strength of inspiration, of imagination, and the way it speaks to humanity across cultural and political borders. Verdi makes an emotional impact in every culture, every country; his music resonates with our deepest feelings. The issues he dealt with – father-daughter love and tensions; patriotic needs versus romantic love (or sexual attraction); the corruption of those with too much power – these are all basic human issues that his music illuminates.

Verdi seems especially vulnerable to poor interpretation. He’s been criticized for doing nothing more than a lot of “boom chuck chuck,” yet with some conductors, that rather frivolous music never happens. Why is he so misunderstood after 200 years?
I think that there will always be those, in any art form, who decry simplicity, who insist that any art work must be complex, and must at every turn challenge the listener or viewer.  I think that was true two hundred years ago, and is true today.  Those people immediately respond to an artist’s popularity by finding fault. (After all, that makes them feel “smarter” than the rabble).  But in fact the people who dismiss Verdi that way are in the minority. Virtually every great musician that I’ve ever known admires Verdi enormously. Look at the non-Italian conductors who have regularly performed Verdi’s music: Karajan, Maazel, Fritz Busch, Levine, Solti, Mitropoulos, Bohm, Colin and Andrew Davis, Barenboim, Mehta, the list is endless. Yes there are passages with a rather simple orchestral accompaniment. But if you listen carefully, the Verdi scoring is clearly very well thought out and remarkably imaginative.

You’re a bit of a connoisseur of scratchy old recordings…Have today’s voices or approach to singing, and approach to Verdi really changed so much? How?
We have definitely lost something in the past forty years or so. It isn’t just the “scratchy old” recordings; great Verdi singing went into the 1960s. But somehow, we have lost the singers with the vocal weight and grandeur of style that was present in the past.  I own an Italian video of “La forza del destino” from the 1950s, with Tebaldi, Corelli, and Bastianini in the lead roles.  Today, you could not find three singers on that level, with the vocal presence and sheer impact of sound and style, to equal that. But on that same night in the 1950s, I could have cast three more “Forzas” in three competing opera houses on the same level. Instead of Corelli I could have cast Tucker, Del Monaco, Bergonzi, or DiStefano. Instead of Bastianini I could have cast Warren, Gobbi, or Merrill – or even the wonderful Italian baritone Gian-Giacomo Guelfi who didn’t sing much in America.  And instead of Tebaldi I could have cast Milanov, Cerquetti, Callas, or the great Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer, who had a big career but not on records, in part because of the competition at the time. We’ve lost, I think, the sense of abandon, the sense of generosity of phrasing, that makes for great Verdi singing. Whereas today we have better Mozart singing, and far better Rossini singing, and baroque opera is performed at a level never imagined fifty years ago — in the core Italian repertory I do think we’ve lost something.  At the Verdi Immersion people who come will hear what I mean – every recording I chose is a classic example of great Verdi singing.

Verdi has a number of operas that are lesser-known. Are they not as good? Why do you think they’re not performed as often.
I suppose they are not as good in the sense that the greatness of Verdi’s greatest operas set a standard that the second tier of Verdi operas cannot live up to.  He wrote either 26 or 28 operas, depending on how you count some of the re-writes – no opera house will keep two dozen operas by the same composer in the repertoire. So the best have dominated.  Those not at that level do not have the consistent, beginning-to-end level of musical inspiration, perhaps; and his sense of dramatic structure and integration of music and drama grew the more he wrote.  But if he had died at forty and not written so many of his masterpieces, I firmly believe that more of his early operas would be in the repertoire.  Just recently, Chicago Opera Theatre did “Giovanna d’Arco” and people were stunned at the beauty of the music (they were also stunned by the peculiarities of the libretto, one of Verdi’s weakest).  At the Immersion people are going to hear many excerpts from the lesser known operas, as well as many from the known masterpieces.

In preparation for your Verdi immersion, have you learned anything about the composer that surprised you?
I wouldn’t say “learned,” because I’ve had a half-century love affair with Verdi.  But I will say that in preparing for the immersion, I re-discovered just how good the music in the lesser known operas is. I will include two excerpts from “I Due Foscari” because in the end, I couldn’t choose between them. A soprano aria from “Aroldo” will be sung by Montserrat Caballe that will leave the audience, I believe, breathless.  The trio that ends act 3 of “Ernani” is truly glorious music.  So it is that consistent level of inspiration, that was present from his first opera, “Oberto,” that kept coming back to me and increasing even more my admiration for Verdi.


Henry Fogel has been billed as a master lecturer; he’s the Dean of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, a past president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and host of WFMT’s Collector’s Corner. Mr. Fogel will be hosting an all-day, WFMT Immersion on Giuseppe Verdi this Saturday.

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