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Seven Questions about Verdi

Carl Grapentine, host

In celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi, we posed seven questions about the composer to various people. The differing opinions seem to add more dimension to one’s understanding of the composer’s art, not less. This time it was Carl Grapentine’s turn:

Q. When did you start really getting into Verdi, and what was it that did it for you?

I knew the big, famous melodies like the Triumphal March from “Aida” growing up, and I gradually learned more. But one performance stands out in my memory: The Met on tour in Detroit in 1979. It was “Otello” with Jon Vickers and Sherrill Milnes with James Levine conducting. The electricity was overwhelming! Another revelation was seeing “Falstaff” for the first time.

Q. What recordings were most influential?

I’ve become a collector of “Falstaff” recordings. Most everything is available these days but that wasn’t always the case. My favorites: Geraint Evans with Solti conducting; Tito Gobbi with Karajan conducting; and Bryn Terfel with Abbado conducting.

Q. Has Verdi made a lasting impact on music? On culture, or on our world?

Most definitely. He was born in 1813 into the world of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. By the time he died in at the age of 87, it was the 20th century! Italian opera had changed from Bel Canto to an art much more concerned with the dramatic content. And Verdi was the transitional figure.

Q. 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?

Verdi’s style changed so much from the early operas to the last ones. It’s easy to call the early ones more “boom-chuck,” as you say. But a good conductor can bring out the qualities that would eventually come to fruition in the more symphonic style of “Otello” and “Falstaff.”

Q. You’re a connoisseur of the scratchy old recordings…Have today’s voices or approach to singing, and approach to Verdi really changed so much? How?

We often decry the current lack of great Verdi voices, especially the quintessential Verdi baritones. And I agree: there is a paucity of those voices. One theory is that opera training and performance is much more varied over the last generation or two. It used to be that opera was Verdi and Puccini and that was about it. Today we have performances of a greater range of early opera, Mozart opera, and German opera. It’s much more varied and interesting. But there are simply fewer singers concentrating on Verdi. It’s a good news/bad news situation.

Q. 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?

Verdi wrote a LOT of operas! Surely, some are better than others. But surely there are beautiful moments in all of them.

Q. In your work, have you learned anything recently about the composer that surprised you?

A few years ago when LOC presented “Macbeth” with Thomas Hampson in the title role, I was entrusted with the pre-opera lectures. I became fascinated by the fact that “Macbeth” is sort of a hybrid. It’s early Verdi, but he made several additions and revisions for the Paris production 18 years later! So it’s an interesting mix of early Verdi with some “later Verdi” touches added. And, by the way, I adored the recent CSO/Muti performance of “Macbeth.”

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