Sunday, March 01, 2009

Verdi with a Vengeance

I've recently finished reading an excellent handbook for listening the the music of the great composer Giuseppe Verdi (or Joe Green, as we Americanos might like to call him). Verdi with a Vengeance is by William Berger, who did a similar treatment of Wagner that I have not read, but if this book is a hint I would enjoy it. It includes synopses of all the operas -- including several I had never even heard of. Any opera fan knows "La Traviata" and "Il Trovatore" and "Otello" and "Falstaff" and "Rigoletto" and "Aida," perhaps the grandest of the grand operas. I hasd even heard of "Luisa Miller" and "Nabucco," with its great chorus "Va Pensiero," which became a patriotic hymn for Italians under Austrian domination. In opera the hero or principal character is usually a tenor, but Verdi often made his heros baritones, which set the stage for guys like Leonard Warren and Sherrill Milnes and Robert Merrill and BrynTerfel. But "Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio," "Alzira," "Il Corsaro" and "La battaglia si Legnano" has never come across my radar screen and I was happy to know something of them.

One of the first opera excerpt records I bought on LP as a youngster was Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera," but I didn't realize just how thoroughly political it was -- involving a regicide and all -- until I read this book. It had to be set in Boston in the colonial period with a mere colonial governor (rather than a king, heaven forfend!) being done in, not the most likely possible setting for an Italian opera (with all those Italian names!) to get past the censors.

Anyway, Berger, of whom I know almost nothing but this book, is an informed and sprightly guide, hardly above a sardonic comment or two when the plot is especially ridiculous (as most opera plots are) and ready to tell you when a piece is not Verdi's best work, but thoroughly in love with the music, which is the important thing in opera and able to explain (though words can never quite do it justice) why certain passages tug at your heartstrings and bring a tear to the eye. There's also a short synopsis of Verdi's life and a chapter on Italian opera that sets Verdi's work in context. Highly recommended.

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