HomeGroupsTalkZeitgeist
Hide this

Results from Google Books

Click on a thumbnail to go to Google Books.

The Complete Operas of Verdi: A Critical…
Loading...

The Complete Operas of Verdi: A Critical Guide (original 1969; edition 1988)

by Charles Osborne

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations
862140,249 (4.06)None
Waldstein's review
Charles Osborne

The Complete Operas of Verdi:
A Critical Guide

Victor Gollancz, Paperback, 1988.

8vo. 487 pp. Introduction by the author [pp. 11-13]. Appendix, Bibliography and Index [pp. 469-487].

First published, 1969.
First published in Gollancz Paperbacks, 1985.
Second impression, November 1988.

Contents*

Introduction

1. Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio [1839]
2. Un giorno di regno [1840]
3. Nabucco [1842]
4. I Lombardi alla prima crociata and Jerusalem [1843]
5. Ernani [1844]
6. I due Foscari [1844]
7. Giovanna d'Arco [1845]
8. Alzira [1845]
9. Attila [1846]
10. Macbeth [1847; revised version, 1865]
11. I masnadieri [1847]
12. Il corsaro [1848]
13. La battaglia di Legnano [1849]
14. Luisa Miller [1849]
15. Stiffelio and Aroldo [1850; revised version, 1857]
16. Rigoletto [1851]
17. Il Trovatore [1853]
18. La Traviata [1853]
19. I vespri sicilliani [1855 in French as Les vêpres siciliennes; revised version in Italian, 1861]
20. Simon Boccanegra [1857; revised version, 1881]
21. Un ballo in maschera [1859]
22. La forza del destino [1862; revised version, 1869]
23. Don Carlo [1867 in French as Don Carlos; revised versions in Italian, 1884 (4 acts) and 1887 (5 acts)]
24. Aida [1871]
25. Messa da Requiem [1874]
26. Otello [1887]
27. Falstaff [1893]
28. Miscellaneous Works and Last Years [String quartet, Quatro Pezzi Sacri, etc.]

Appendix: The Unpublished Overture to Aida
Some Books Consulted
Index

* In square brackets: the year of the world premiere which in almost all cases coincides with the year of completion, or at any rate is close enough to put the work in question in the right historical perspective; some relevant information as regards revisions is also given. The two chapters which have two names in their titles refer to different versions of the same opera.

==========================================

This book is nowadays a classic reference to Verdi's complete oeuvre. So far as I know, for more than forty years it has never been out of print. Reportedly it was the first book to explore all of Verdi's operas and to be written by somebody who had actually seen the works on the stage. As Mr Osborne himself tells us in his fascinating preface, the only similar study in English before his was that of Francis Toye. But this was first published in 1931, when to take Verdi seriously still was "beyond the musical pale", and this effectively prevented Toye from dealing with the early works in as much detail as they deserve. By the late 1960s the climate had changed radically: it was no longer shameful to admire even Verdi's earliest efforts, the LP and the so called "Verdi craze" had made it possible to see onstage operas that a generation ago were collecting dust on the shelves. Mr Osborne's remark that to study an opera in score only is "to have no clear idea of its value as a piece of musical theatre" should remind us that all of Verdi's operas, or any others for that matter, were composed exclusively for the stage, not for making recordings and films, valuable as many of these are. That said, I somewhat disagree with Mr Osborne here. If you can read scores fluently, and if you study them carefully together with the libretto, there is no reason why you should not be able to evaluate quite accurately given work. But I digress!

It's only fair to say in the beginning that on this second reading, if not of the whole book at all events of large parts of it, I have found in Mr Osborne's study unpleasant tendencies that I had not noticed before. It is a curious mish-mash of perceptive observations and nasty slights, the latter particularly contemptuous as regards Puccini and Wagner. Small wonder that Mr Osborne's later books on these two composers, first published in 1981 and 1990 respectively, are largely failures, as informative and comprehensive as they are prejudiced and presumptuous. A quote from the last paragraph of Mr Osborne's introduction will make clear what I mean by describing his prose as ambiguous. It also makes clear why his book on Mozart's operas (1978) is an even greater success than the one on Verdi's.

Verdi's incredible achievement was that, over a period of nearly sixty years, he led Italian opera from relative Donizettian innocence to post-Wagnerian wisdom. And he conducted this humanising process entirely alone. A born man of the theatre, he created an operatic language in which the drama is carried by, yet gives form to, the melody. In this he shows himself to be as much a revolutionary as Wagner. He differs considerably, however, from his great German contemporary (they were born in the same year), in his breath of sympathy and his artistic discretion and judgment. In the greatness of his vision, Verdi's affinities are not with Wagner but with Mozart and Shakespeare. With Mozart he also shares a melodic fecundity, with Shakespeare a renaissance humanistic philosophy, and, with both, that unsimulatable compassion for mankind which, though it may be felt by many, only the very greatest artists seem able instinctively and unconsciously to infuse into their creations. If Verdi's music contains an implicit message, it is Terence's "Humani nil a me alienum puto."

Stirring and immensely stimulating passage. Yet reading between the lines, it seems to me, that it also implies that Wagner's music, at least in comparison with Verdi's, lacks humanism and compassion, to say nothing that it is, mind you, also lacking in "artistic discretion and judgment". This is a farrago of nonsense. Mr Osborne really should have known much better. At least he should have remembered Alan Walker's wise words, if he ever read them, that to use one composer or work as a stick to beat another with is the lowest form of criticism. Apparently it has never occurred to Mr Osborne that Verdi and Wagner are two sides of the same coin. They have climbed the same mountain. They merely used different slopes which reveal different vistas. But it's the same peak they reached. That is all. I venture the bold suggestion that one cannot really appreciate either of them except in combination. Verdi and Wagner complement each other, they are neither opposite sides nor, still less indeed, measuring rods. A lively appreciation of both composers is one of the things that makes Bernard Shaw a great music critic. But this, unfortunately, is something Mr Osborne conspicuously lacks.

The sad thing is that this ridiculous attitude is confirmed, if only occasionally, throughout the book. He finishes his chapter on Falstaff by praising it to the skies at the expense of Wagner's own last work, Parsifal. The passage is so ludicrously biased, to say the very least, that it is worth quoting. After dismissing comparisons with Wagner's Die Meistersinger, Mr Osborne continues:

A more proper comparison would be with Parsifal, the last opera of that other genius born in the same year as Verdi. The temperamental contrast is immense: on the one hand, fin de siecle sickliness and piety, and sentimental homoerotic religious earning; on the other, the timeless gaiety, silvery coldness and golden warmth of old age, and the ironic laughter. Both Parsifal and Falstaff are works of genius, but the world could more easily afford to lose the five hours of Parsifal than the less than two hours of Falstaff.

It beggars belief that Mr Osborne could publish such astonishing crap. Yet he did. Needless to say, his "description" of Parsifal makes it clear that he either never listened carefully to the work, or he did but was so full of foolish prejudices that he completely missed the point. I am no fan of Verdi's Falstaff and I have a number of problems with Wagner's Parsifal, but that doesn't make it less clear to me that the world needs both works. Small wonder, indeed, that Mr Osborne should have written so much nonsense in his book on Wagner: his idiotic preconceptions apparently "matured" for years in his head; "homoerotic religious earning", indeed! And, of course, the love duet from Otello is ''like distilled Wagner: the essence without the long-windedness.'' Truly, a colossus like Verdi doesn't need so cheap a ''defense'' as that.

What's more, on at least two occasions Mr Osborne uses Verdi for beating Puccini, too. These are real gems:

Verdi never "plugs" his tunes a la Puccini.

...while the tuneful phrase to which Bardolph's ardently burning nose
[...] inspires Verdi, and which is never heard again, would have lasted Puccini (and, I think, it did) for at least an entire aria.

Small wonder, again, that Mr Osborne would later degrade Puccini's dramatic use of leitmotivs on every possible occasion. The most fanatical crusader could not have been more fervent in his quest to save the holy cross. A composer of Verdi's greatness, I repeat, doesn't need that kind of stuff at all.

But this is not all. Leaving aside such musical assassinations of Puccini and Wagner, obviously composers Mr Osborne could never sympathize with, which makes his opinions completely irrelevant, he is not always at his best about Verdi, either. But let me first discuss the strengths of his book. They are many and considerable.

I hasten to add that I don't in the least mind Mr Osborne's passionate defense of Verdi's works which some may describe, and despise, as partisanship. I find it delightful. Mr Osborne generally makes very fine cases that, for example, early masterpieces like Nabucco and Ernani have a lot more to offer than gorgeous tunes, not even taking into account their revolutionary break-up with the "bel canto school" of Donizetti and Bellini whose best works don't even hint at such emotional intensity. It is more than pleasant to see La Forza del Destino described, not as a "flawed masterpiece", but as a "complex masterpiece". For all weaknesses of its pretty silly libretto, it is one of Verdi's most ambitious creations. It has seldom received such appreciation as it deserves*. It goes without saying that Mr Osborne is quite capable of discerning that Verdi's "holy trinity" – Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata – is infinitely more than a bunch of tuneful trifles, something for which they are taken distressingly often by people who should know better. In fact, all three operas are more like music dramas, important steps in Verdi's extraordinary evolution of style and, last but certainly not least, some of the most perfect fusions of sublime music and dramatic action.

Nor would I deny that Mr Osborne's musical analyses are often extremely perceptive and may well make you reconsider whole operas as well as separate numbers you thought you knew well. To take La Forza... again, his suggestive remarks about the choral writing and the "almost Dostoevskian monks" (surely a reference to Padre Guardiano, not to the richly comical Fra Melitone) betrays that the opera was written for Russia and has a more than passing resemblance to Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov (and Melitone does, indeed, have something in common with Varlaam). Another searing observation is that Aida, "for all the pomp and ceremony, is really an intimate opera", indeed "the most intimate of "grand" operas, and at its heart one senses Verdi's profound melancholy." Never has Mr Osborne spoken a truer word – except perhaps his unfortunately true statement that Aida "has almost become a victim of its own popularity."

Then, when Verdi is discussed, there is the question of his famous high notes. Here again Mr Osborne is unusually illuminating. Most of these high notes, amazingly, are not Verdi's at all. The final "pensier" from "La donna e mobile", Manrico's stupendous "Di quella pira", "the caballeta to end all cabalettas", the famous "e follia" from Rigoletto's Shakespearean monologue "Pari Siamo". All these are significantly lower in Verdi's original scores, sometimes a whole octave. Also highly commendably, Mr Osborne's defends vigorously some of Verdi's most daunting coloraturas, such as Gilda's in "Gualtier Malde" or Violetta's in "Sempre libera", arguing convincingly what should be obvious to anybody who listens carefully following the libretto: these "vocal fireworks", when performed with taste and without ostentation, carry their own dramatic significance (Gilda's innocence and Violetta's flirtatiousness). Much venom has been spilled on "La donna e mobile" for being "vulgar" and "cheap" and I don't know what. Mr Osborne simply observes, quite rightly, that the aria is perfectly appropriate to the lecherous character of the Duke and even better suited to the dramatic situation (for he is about to hop into bed with the sultry Maddalena); it is certainly true that to "complain of it in terms of pure music is to misunderstand the art of opera." Moreover, and this is Mr Osborne's perspicacity at its best, it is dramatically essential that the tune should be catchy and instantly identifiable: for it is this tune, played in the background, which later suggests Rigoletto the horrible truth. And so on and so forth. There are numerous such examples.

It is also worth noting that Mr Osborne once and for all demolishes the foolish claim, that somehow still persists, that there was anything Wagnerian in Verdi's operas, and that, indeed, his use of leitmotivs is somehow derived from Wagner. Nothing is further from the truth. As cleverly pointed out by Mr Osborne, Verdi's first use of the leitmotiv technique was the horn call in Ernani. And that was in 1844, when only two of Wagner's "middle-period" operas had been composed and Verdi had in all probability heard neither of them. Even in his late masterworks – Aida, Don Carlo, Otello – Verdi's association of short musical motifs, or longer melodies, with certain characters or events is nothing like Wagner's, much less derivative.

And, of course, Mr Osborne's apparently having a more catholic taste for literature than for music (he is the author of books on Kafka, W. H. Auden and Agatha Christie), his historical background on Verdi's librettos is exemplary. Whether from Hugo's Le Roi s'amuse to Rigoletto or from Dumas' La Dame aux camelias to La Traviata, the long and complicated road from literature to libretto is followed scrupulously and, again, with a number of shrewd points. I was very impressed to learn, to take but one example, that Otello's glorious opening lines, the famous "Esultate", not only has no analogue in Shakespeare's original, but it was actually Verdi's idea. His deep involvement with some of his most notable librettists (Boito, Piave) is often underestimated. Not so here, as Mr Osborne provides a lot of information, often in the form of long quotes from Verdi's fascinating letters (full of common sense and unassuming self-assurance). It is true of course that sometimes, especially in his early years and to use Harold Schonberg's pungent style, Verdi set to music a lot of "literary trash", but from the early 1850s on he was much more careful with his choices; certain amount of trash there invariably is, but there is also a great deal of substance. And even when the libretto is pretty terrible, the music often makes one forget it completely

(Il Trovatore is the classic example for confused and dull libretto to which is set a music of astonishing beauty, variety and power. Yet Mr Osborne defends even that, arguing that people who declare the story ''incomprehensible'' suffer from ''certain mental laziness''. He is right. The libretto is not incomprehensible. It merely is incredible and boring. But what a music!)

Two last positive points about Mr Osborne's book must be mentioned. He is fabulously comprehensive and he does a superb job following Verdi's development as a composer.

In addition to all operas, there is a chapter about Verdi's mighty Requiem which shows the same thorough and meticulous approach to the history of composition and the musical structure. Of even greater interest is Mr Osborne's final chapter on miscellaneous works. These are mostly choral pieces that are seldom performed today, yet it is fascinating to learn that Verdi composed more music outside his operas than is generally recognised; his compositions even include a string quartet (and a fine one at that). The appendix seems to have been added later, after the first edition, for here Mr Osborne corrects himself that the original overture of Aida has remained completely unplayed. In fact, it was performed by Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra on March 30th, 1940. Mr Osborne doesn't mention that of course, but since he wrote the appendix the performance has even been released on CD. It's a curiously rambling nine-minute or so long piece, rather different than the well-known three-minute prelude which is usually performed today. One cannot but admire Verdi's fine sense of artistic discretion here.

As far as Verdi's extraordinary development as a composer is concerned, this is surely one of the greatest stories in the history of music. Charles Osborne has told it wonderfully, but I cannot resist outlining some of the major points here.

I have always believed that statistics can be revealing. So here are some. Verdi lived for 87 years, 54 of which span the time between his first and last opera. In other words, Giuseppe was 26 years old when his first opera had its premiere and he was in his 80th year by the time of his last "first night". For these 54 years of composition he produced 26 operas and one outstanding Requiem (some 80 minutes long), plus a number of minor miscellaneous compositions. For the sake of convenience, Verdi's life and work, inextricably intertwined of course, can be separated into four periods.

Verdi's first opera was a modest success, his second one was a complete failure. The reason for the latter was that he had to write a comedy in a time of great personal tragedy: his wife and his two children had just died. No wonder that Un giorno di regno was a flop. So much for the first and rather unremarkable period of Verdi's career. He was so distraught in the early 1840s that he seriously contemplated giving up composition altogether. Fortunately for posterity, he didn't.

In 1842 Verdi became famous almost overnight. The reason was Nabucco, the earliest of his operas to remain in the standard repertoire and an outstanding achievement for a composer not yet 29-years-old who had composed nothing of any consequence before. Though the fame of the opera was partly due to the nationalistic associations of the famous choir Va Pensiero, the unification of Italy being then very much in the air, Verdi's career as a composer was launched with a vengeance and no turning back was possible.

Between 1842 and 1850 – what a productivity in mere eight years! – Verdi composed no fewer than 14 operas. He later jokingly referred to this period as "my galley years". It is true, of course, that none of these operas is on par with his later masterworks. Then again, none of them is entirely without something memorable in it, and indeed some of them (Nabucco, Ernani, Luisa Miller, Macbeth) are regularly revived in front of frenzied audiences. By no means was this a waste of time on Verdi's part. He was only too well aware that what he was producing was but a shadow of what he could. But he first had to learn his craft, and that's what he did conscientiously during those eight years. As every great composer, Verdi was no intellectual. His music was largely intuitive and must have stemmed from the depths of the unconscious. Yet he had a keen eye about his own shortcomings and he well knew how to improve them. He also had an enormous amount of common sense and quite a flair for business dealing. He knew his worth and he always got the best price for his work.

Then came the years between 1851 and 1853. They saw something unprecedented in the history of music, or at least in the history of opera. For mere two years Verdi composed what are probably the three most popular operas ever. There could hardly be a man in the Western hemisphere who has never heard "La donna e mobile" from Rigoletto, the so-called '''Brindisi'' from La Traviata or the "Gypsy Chorus" (aka the "Anvil Chorus") from Il Trovatore, including quite a number who have never set foot in the opera house, let alone spent a few hours listening to a complete opera recording at home. But the important point is that these three sublime masterpieces were an enormous step forward for Verdi in his quest for allying drama and music; the leap from Luisa Miller is indeed almost incalculable. No one has ever surpassed him here. He never surpassed himself, either.

Now the most famous composer in Italy, if not in whole Europe, Verdi could allow himself to take his time and compose one opera every few years. The "galley years" were over. Not counting revisions and the like, for the 18 years between 1853 and 1871 Verdi composed six operas, each of them, like the preceding three, unique in character. None of these has ever been entirely forgotten, even though their popularity ranges from famous (Aida) to rather obscure (I Vespri Siciliani). Whatever faults the librettos might have, there is no doubt that works like La Forza del Destino and Don Carlo are among the finest written for the stage, ever. More importantly, Verdi never stopped to evolve towards music drama in which, as opposed to opera, separate musical numbers (arias, duets, ensembles) are all but indistinguishable; the action is continuous and so is the music.

Sixteen years passed until Verdi's next opera. Indeed, nobody expected such a thing. He did meanwhile produce his glorious Requiem, but during those years it was a common knowledge that Verdi, now an Italian national hero, had retired. But that was until he met Boito who, finally, supplied him with what is generally considered to be the finest opera libretto ever penned: "Otello". Though his creativity was greatly stimulated, Verdi's age and his great respect for Shakespeare made him spend more time on Otello than on any other work of his. But he produced a genuine masterpiece, generally recognised as one of the finest music dramas – for this is no opera at all. Six years later came Falstaff, again inspired by Shakespeare and Boito, which was a most unexpected thing indeed: Verdi's only second comedy, the previous one being composed 53 years earlier! Though never a popular favourite with the audience, Falstaff is highly regarded by connoisseurs as a work that does justice – or even greatly surpasses, if you believe Mr Osborne – Shakespeare's original. Verdi was to die only eight years later.

As Harold Schonberg has wisely remarked in The Lives of the Great Composers, and Mr Osborne would surely agree, the musical history of no other country has ever been dominated to such degree by a single man; Wagner in Germany at least had Brahms as something of an opponent, if only in the realm of "absolute" music. Verdi had nobody. Notable Italian composers of instrumental music during the nineteenth century are all but non-existent and the numerous opera ones are long forgotten. For four decades, from the early 1850s all the way until the early 1890s, when the so-called "verismo school" (that is Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano and, above all, Puccini) appeared, Verdi was alone on the top. There were some hints of competition in the late 1860s and early 1870s, from Boito and his Mefistofele or from Ponchielli and his La Gioconda, but these were one-opera men of slight importance, a pale moonlight compared to the burning Verdian sun.

Yet, despite so many immense advantages, despite such comprehensive and perceptive overview of Verdi's stunning achievement, it is not seldom that Mr Osborne's writing falls short of his own standards. For one thing, he is rather often quite perfunctory, passing with literally a few words scenes that deserve much more. One painful example is Act IV (from the five-act version) of Don Carlo. Mr Osborne rightly spends more than a half page on Philip's great monologue and the following scene with the Great Inquisitor, but then the scene with Elisabeth is skipped in a single sentence as if its only dramatic purpose is to pave the way to one of Verdi's finest quartets. This is not serious. The scene is very important dramatically, for it is now that the Queen realises that her husband is very well aware of her affair with his own son (but not hers), and very fine musically, finishing as it does with the King's terrifying cry "Ah! la pietà di adultera consorte!" ("Ah, mercy for the adulterous wife!"), his raising a trembling hand and her losing consciousness. In addition to a fuller discussion, Mr Osborne might also have offered some information, as he does at few other places, about the cuts which often accompany the scene not only in the theatre but also on record. The tremendous final trio of Ernani is dimissed with being ''one of Verdi's finest; expressive, and of great melodic and harmonic beauty.'' Not exactly a worthy analysis! As a general rule, there are too many ''magnificent'' ensembles and too many ''affecting'' arias, and Verdi's ''humanity'' is a little too often ''Shakespearean'' and his melodic gift is a little too often ''Mozartean''.

Sometimes Mr Osborne gets so carried away with his own infallibility as regards Verdi's characterisation, that he accuses him rather unjustly. As regards the Duke's recitative and aria "Ella mi fu rapita... Parmi, veder le lagrime" from Rigoletto, I was appalled to read that "for once Verdi's grasp of character falters." Guess why. Because the music, and the text indeed, gives no indication about insincerity, and such a genuine copy of Don Juan as the Duke must, of course, be insincere when he talks about such deep feelings for the gentle sex. There are two possible reasons for Mr Osborne to write such rubbish: either he is perfectly ignorant of some basics of human nature, or, which is more probable, his prudish attitude prevents him from appreciating Verdi's true genius, revealed here to the full. ("Humani nil a me alienum puto" indeed!) Instead, Mr Osborne loftily tells us that the Duke may at this moment be sincere, "or at any rate deluded into thinking himself sincere". Well, what exactly is the difference between "being sincere" and "deluding yourself into being sincere"? Never mind. The fact is that there is an easy explanation of this conundrum, and it is an explanation which completely refutes Mr Osborne's claim that Verdi's characterisation falters at this point.

The most probable explanation for giving such a rake such a heartfelt music is the simplest one: that he honestly mistakes his lust for love. Whether there is any difference between these two states is for the present discussion of no consequence at all. The Duke honestly believes that his feelings are genuine, and for the moment they certainly are. He has no idea that, having gone to bed with a certain young lady once or twice, all these feelings shall vanish into thin air. The women he seduces may not be very smart, but their keen feminine instincts would instantly feel any insincerity. He may succeed with one or two but with number three he wouldn't reach the bed if he is not entirely sincere. His charm is so devastating and his conquests so successful because, very much like Don Juan, he is always 100% sincere about his feelings – at least until after the coitus. By giving his character so enchanting an aria of a man in love, Verdi not only didn't lose "his grasp of the character" (as Mr Osborne said in his later book dedicated on Rigoletto alone), but he improved the character a great deal; he made it much more coherent and believable; he made it as finished as any character of the proverbial rake can be. It is worth noting that this aria occurs before the Duke has all but raped Gilda, even before he has been told that his courtiers had kidnapped her and now she is his.

There are also places where Mr Osborne's self-consciousness and conceit, both of considerable magnitude, compelled him to write some stupefying nonsense, apparently under the impression that it makes any sense. Towards the end of his chapter on Otello he finely says that at this level of creation, by both Shakespeare and Verdi, comparisons are futile. Yet he continues with the totally irrelevant, not to say stupid, personal remark that sometimes Don Giovanni seems to him Mozart's greatest opera, and sometimes Cosi fan tutte seems to take the first place in the category. Then he continues:

Nowadays, after twenty years' acquaintance with Otello and a love of Shakespeare which goes back even farther, I find myself seriously contemplating the proposition that Otello is superior to Othello.

Mr Osborne seems to take opera as some kind of competition, what's better that what and who's superior to whom. This is plain stupid. Comparing Otello and Othello, by which I mean investigating how the text of the latter was adapted into the libretto of the former, is a most fascinating thing to do. But judging the works in relation to one another – that is a very different matter. It's a perfectly pointless thing to do. Masterpieces, in music or in literature, must be able to stand entirely on their own. They are complete in themselves. I certainly don't mind your criticizing established masterpieces, Mr Osborne. But I do wish you had better arguments than such superficial and, in the final run, intellectually pusillanimous comparisons.

Last but not least, sometimes Mr Osborne gets so impassioned about Verdi's early works that he makes some questionable judgments, again relying on his beloved comparisons. For instance, he flatly states that Macbeth is worthy of standing beside Shakespeare's original. Now I am not familiar with either work, but it might be worth noting that Deryck Cooke, writing five years before Charles Osborne, had stated with equal conviction that such reaction is merely a by-product of the "present Verdi craze". And Deryck Cooke, it might be mentioned, was a musicologist of great erudition and by no means a Verdi basher; indeed he had a tremendous admiration for Verdi's last two works, which he called "the only two great operas inspired by Shakespeare." With the exception, to some extent at least, of Nabucco and Ernani, I am almost completely unfamiliar with the early Verdi. But I do wonder how much of Mr Osborne's surprisingly positive, if necessarily qualified, admiration was due to some "theatre effect" after seeing and hearing something for the very first time in his life. Never mind.

In conclusion, Charles Osborne's The Complete Operas of Verdi is something of a mixed bag, even if its positives definitely outweigh its negatives. It's an excellent source of information about the often complex historical background of many works, especially as far as librettos, revisions and versions in different languages are concerned. It also contains a wealth of insight about the music and the texts, and particularly about the relationship between them. Yet Mr Osborne is sometimes perfunctory in his musical analyses, mostly in the cases of early operas but not only; sometimes he lapses into a dull description of what the music and the text tell you far more eloquently; sometimes he is high-handed and presumptuous, thinking that he knows everything about Verdi's characterisation and passing judgments which he cannot support convincingly; and sometimes he is absorbed in ridiculous comparisons of incomparable things and shameful attacks on composers every bit as great as Verdi, though very different than him of course. The book remains a classic and an essential read for everybody seriously interested in Verdi's complete oeuvre, but it's a classic seriously flawed at several fronts.

To be read with real benefit, Mr Osborne's study of Verdi's operas must be given the benefit of doubt. It is not, as some have suggested, a kind of Verdian Bible to be accepted without questioning the matter and the manner.

-------------------------------------------------​

* There are few exceptions, though. The legendary video recording of the 1958 live performance in Teatro di San Carlo in Naples is now available on DVD. For all its defects – fuzzy black-and-white picture, inferior mono sound, cardboard sets and fake beards – it puts to shame many a modern performance in excellent visual and aural quality. The casts includes Renata Tebaldi, Franco Corelli, Ettore Bastianini, Boris Christoff, Oralia Dominguez and Renato Capecchi. It has to be heard to be believed. If there is a better-sung and a better-acted La Forza..., I have yet to hear about it. A 1955 studio recording for DECCA with Tebaldi, del Monaco, Bastianini, Siepi, Simionato and Corena, under the baton of Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, is almost as fine, and in much better sound (early stereo) of course. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Jan 25, 2012 |
All member reviews
Showing 2 of 2
Charles Osborne

The Complete Operas of Verdi:
A Critical Guide

Victor Gollancz, Paperback, 1988.

8vo. 487 pp. Introduction by the author [pp. 11-13]. Appendix, Bibliography and Index [pp. 469-487].

First published, 1969.
First published in Gollancz Paperbacks, 1985.
Second impression, November 1988.

Contents*

Introduction

1. Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio [1839]
2. Un giorno di regno [1840]
3. Nabucco [1842]
4. I Lombardi alla prima crociata and Jerusalem [1843]
5. Ernani [1844]
6. I due Foscari [1844]
7. Giovanna d'Arco [1845]
8. Alzira [1845]
9. Attila [1846]
10. Macbeth [1847; revised version, 1865]
11. I masnadieri [1847]
12. Il corsaro [1848]
13. La battaglia di Legnano [1849]
14. Luisa Miller [1849]
15. Stiffelio and Aroldo [1850; revised version, 1857]
16. Rigoletto [1851]
17. Il Trovatore [1853]
18. La Traviata [1853]
19. I vespri sicilliani [1855 in French as Les vêpres siciliennes; revised version in Italian, 1861]
20. Simon Boccanegra [1857; revised version, 1881]
21. Un ballo in maschera [1859]
22. La forza del destino [1862; revised version, 1869]
23. Don Carlo [1867 in French as Don Carlos; revised versions in Italian, 1884 (4 acts) and 1887 (5 acts)]
24. Aida [1871]
25. Messa da Requiem [1874]
26. Otello [1887]
27. Falstaff [1893]
28. Miscellaneous Works and Last Years [String quartet, Quatro Pezzi Sacri, etc.]

Appendix: The Unpublished Overture to Aida
Some Books Consulted
Index

* In square brackets: the year of the world premiere which in almost all cases coincides with the year of completion, or at any rate is close enough to put the work in question in the right historical perspective; some relevant information as regards revisions is also given. The two chapters which have two names in their titles refer to different versions of the same opera.

==========================================

This book is nowadays a classic reference to Verdi's complete oeuvre. So far as I know, for more than forty years it has never been out of print. Reportedly it was the first book to explore all of Verdi's operas and to be written by somebody who had actually seen the works on the stage. As Mr Osborne himself tells us in his fascinating preface, the only similar study in English before his was that of Francis Toye. But this was first published in 1931, when to take Verdi seriously still was "beyond the musical pale", and this effectively prevented Toye from dealing with the early works in as much detail as they deserve. By the late 1960s the climate had changed radically: it was no longer shameful to admire even Verdi's earliest efforts, the LP and the so called "Verdi craze" had made it possible to see onstage operas that a generation ago were collecting dust on the shelves. Mr Osborne's remark that to study an opera in score only is "to have no clear idea of its value as a piece of musical theatre" should remind us that all of Verdi's operas, or any others for that matter, were composed exclusively for the stage, not for making recordings and films, valuable as many of these are. That said, I somewhat disagree with Mr Osborne here. If you can read scores fluently, and if you study them carefully together with the libretto, there is no reason why you should not be able to evaluate quite accurately given work. But I digress!

It's only fair to say in the beginning that on this second reading, if not of the whole book at all events of large parts of it, I have found in Mr Osborne's study unpleasant tendencies that I had not noticed before. It is a curious mish-mash of perceptive observations and nasty slights, the latter particularly contemptuous as regards Puccini and Wagner. Small wonder that Mr Osborne's later books on these two composers, first published in 1981 and 1990 respectively, are largely failures, as informative and comprehensive as they are prejudiced and presumptuous. A quote from the last paragraph of Mr Osborne's introduction will make clear what I mean by describing his prose as ambiguous. It also makes clear why his book on Mozart's operas (1978) is an even greater success than the one on Verdi's.

Verdi's incredible achievement was that, over a period of nearly sixty years, he led Italian opera from relative Donizettian innocence to post-Wagnerian wisdom. And he conducted this humanising process entirely alone. A born man of the theatre, he created an operatic language in which the drama is carried by, yet gives form to, the melody. In this he shows himself to be as much a revolutionary as Wagner. He differs considerably, however, from his great German contemporary (they were born in the same year), in his breath of sympathy and his artistic discretion and judgment. In the greatness of his vision, Verdi's affinities are not with Wagner but with Mozart and Shakespeare. With Mozart he also shares a melodic fecundity, with Shakespeare a renaissance humanistic philosophy, and, with both, that unsimulatable compassion for mankind which, though it may be felt by many, only the very greatest artists seem able instinctively and unconsciously to infuse into their creations. If Verdi's music contains an implicit message, it is Terence's "Humani nil a me alienum puto."

Stirring and immensely stimulating passage. Yet reading between the lines, it seems to me, that it also implies that Wagner's music, at least in comparison with Verdi's, lacks humanism and compassion, to say nothing that it is, mind you, also lacking in "artistic discretion and judgment". This is a farrago of nonsense. Mr Osborne really should have known much better. At least he should have remembered Alan Walker's wise words, if he ever read them, that to use one composer or work as a stick to beat another with is the lowest form of criticism. Apparently it has never occurred to Mr Osborne that Verdi and Wagner are two sides of the same coin. They have climbed the same mountain. They merely used different slopes which reveal different vistas. But it's the same peak they reached. That is all. I venture the bold suggestion that one cannot really appreciate either of them except in combination. Verdi and Wagner complement each other, they are neither opposite sides nor, still less indeed, measuring rods. A lively appreciation of both composers is one of the things that makes Bernard Shaw a great music critic. But this, unfortunately, is something Mr Osborne conspicuously lacks.

The sad thing is that this ridiculous attitude is confirmed, if only occasionally, throughout the book. He finishes his chapter on Falstaff by praising it to the skies at the expense of Wagner's own last work, Parsifal. The passage is so ludicrously biased, to say the very least, that it is worth quoting. After dismissing comparisons with Wagner's Die Meistersinger, Mr Osborne continues:

A more proper comparison would be with Parsifal, the last opera of that other genius born in the same year as Verdi. The temperamental contrast is immense: on the one hand, fin de siecle sickliness and piety, and sentimental homoerotic religious earning; on the other, the timeless gaiety, silvery coldness and golden warmth of old age, and the ironic laughter. Both Parsifal and Falstaff are works of genius, but the world could more easily afford to lose the five hours of Parsifal than the less than two hours of Falstaff.

It beggars belief that Mr Osborne could publish such astonishing crap. Yet he did. Needless to say, his "description" of Parsifal makes it clear that he either never listened carefully to the work, or he did but was so full of foolish prejudices that he completely missed the point. I am no fan of Verdi's Falstaff and I have a number of problems with Wagner's Parsifal, but that doesn't make it less clear to me that the world needs both works. Small wonder, indeed, that Mr Osborne should have written so much nonsense in his book on Wagner: his idiotic preconceptions apparently "matured" for years in his head; "homoerotic religious earning", indeed! And, of course, the love duet from Otello is ''like distilled Wagner: the essence without the long-windedness.'' Truly, a colossus like Verdi doesn't need so cheap a ''defense'' as that.

What's more, on at least two occasions Mr Osborne uses Verdi for beating Puccini, too. These are real gems:

Verdi never "plugs" his tunes a la Puccini.

...while the tuneful phrase to which Bardolph's ardently burning nose
[...] inspires Verdi, and which is never heard again, would have lasted Puccini (and, I think, it did) for at least an entire aria.

Small wonder, again, that Mr Osborne would later degrade Puccini's dramatic use of leitmotivs on every possible occasion. The most fanatical crusader could not have been more fervent in his quest to save the holy cross. A composer of Verdi's greatness, I repeat, doesn't need that kind of stuff at all.

But this is not all. Leaving aside such musical assassinations of Puccini and Wagner, obviously composers Mr Osborne could never sympathize with, which makes his opinions completely irrelevant, he is not always at his best about Verdi, either. But let me first discuss the strengths of his book. They are many and considerable.

I hasten to add that I don't in the least mind Mr Osborne's passionate defense of Verdi's works which some may describe, and despise, as partisanship. I find it delightful. Mr Osborne generally makes very fine cases that, for example, early masterpieces like Nabucco and Ernani have a lot more to offer than gorgeous tunes, not even taking into account their revolutionary break-up with the "bel canto school" of Donizetti and Bellini whose best works don't even hint at such emotional intensity. It is more than pleasant to see La Forza del Destino described, not as a "flawed masterpiece", but as a "complex masterpiece". For all weaknesses of its pretty silly libretto, it is one of Verdi's most ambitious creations. It has seldom received such appreciation as it deserves*. It goes without saying that Mr Osborne is quite capable of discerning that Verdi's "holy trinity" – Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata – is infinitely more than a bunch of tuneful trifles, something for which they are taken distressingly often by people who should know better. In fact, all three operas are more like music dramas, important steps in Verdi's extraordinary evolution of style and, last but certainly not least, some of the most perfect fusions of sublime music and dramatic action.

Nor would I deny that Mr Osborne's musical analyses are often extremely perceptive and may well make you reconsider whole operas as well as separate numbers you thought you knew well. To take La Forza... again, his suggestive remarks about the choral writing and the "almost Dostoevskian monks" (surely a reference to Padre Guardiano, not to the richly comical Fra Melitone) betrays that the opera was written for Russia and has a more than passing resemblance to Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov (and Melitone does, indeed, have something in common with Varlaam). Another searing observation is that Aida, "for all the pomp and ceremony, is really an intimate opera", indeed "the most intimate of "grand" operas, and at its heart one senses Verdi's profound melancholy." Never has Mr Osborne spoken a truer word – except perhaps his unfortunately true statement that Aida "has almost become a victim of its own popularity."

Then, when Verdi is discussed, there is the question of his famous high notes. Here again Mr Osborne is unusually illuminating. Most of these high notes, amazingly, are not Verdi's at all. The final "pensier" from "La donna e mobile", Manrico's stupendous "Di quella pira", "the caballeta to end all cabalettas", the famous "e follia" from Rigoletto's Shakespearean monologue "Pari Siamo". All these are significantly lower in Verdi's original scores, sometimes a whole octave. Also highly commendably, Mr Osborne's defends vigorously some of Verdi's most daunting coloraturas, such as Gilda's in "Gualtier Malde" or Violetta's in "Sempre libera", arguing convincingly what should be obvious to anybody who listens carefully following the libretto: these "vocal fireworks", when performed with taste and without ostentation, carry their own dramatic significance (Gilda's innocence and Violetta's flirtatiousness). Much venom has been spilled on "La donna e mobile" for being "vulgar" and "cheap" and I don't know what. Mr Osborne simply observes, quite rightly, that the aria is perfectly appropriate to the lecherous character of the Duke and even better suited to the dramatic situation (for he is about to hop into bed with the sultry Maddalena); it is certainly true that to "complain of it in terms of pure music is to misunderstand the art of opera." Moreover, and this is Mr Osborne's perspicacity at its best, it is dramatically essential that the tune should be catchy and instantly identifiable: for it is this tune, played in the background, which later suggests Rigoletto the horrible truth. And so on and so forth. There are numerous such examples.

It is also worth noting that Mr Osborne once and for all demolishes the foolish claim, that somehow still persists, that there was anything Wagnerian in Verdi's operas, and that, indeed, his use of leitmotivs is somehow derived from Wagner. Nothing is further from the truth. As cleverly pointed out by Mr Osborne, Verdi's first use of the leitmotiv technique was the horn call in Ernani. And that was in 1844, when only two of Wagner's "middle-period" operas had been composed and Verdi had in all probability heard neither of them. Even in his late masterworks – Aida, Don Carlo, Otello – Verdi's association of short musical motifs, or longer melodies, with certain characters or events is nothing like Wagner's, much less derivative.

And, of course, Mr Osborne's apparently having a more catholic taste for literature than for music (he is the author of books on Kafka, W. H. Auden and Agatha Christie), his historical background on Verdi's librettos is exemplary. Whether from Hugo's Le Roi s'amuse to Rigoletto or from Dumas' La Dame aux camelias to La Traviata, the long and complicated road from literature to libretto is followed scrupulously and, again, with a number of shrewd points. I was very impressed to learn, to take but one example, that Otello's glorious opening lines, the famous "Esultate", not only has no analogue in Shakespeare's original, but it was actually Verdi's idea. His deep involvement with some of his most notable librettists (Boito, Piave) is often underestimated. Not so here, as Mr Osborne provides a lot of information, often in the form of long quotes from Verdi's fascinating letters (full of common sense and unassuming self-assurance). It is true of course that sometimes, especially in his early years and to use Harold Schonberg's pungent style, Verdi set to music a lot of "literary trash", but from the early 1850s on he was much more careful with his choices; certain amount of trash there invariably is, but there is also a great deal of substance. And even when the libretto is pretty terrible, the music often makes one forget it completely

(Il Trovatore is the classic example for confused and dull libretto to which is set a music of astonishing beauty, variety and power. Yet Mr Osborne defends even that, arguing that people who declare the story ''incomprehensible'' suffer from ''certain mental laziness''. He is right. The libretto is not incomprehensible. It merely is incredible and boring. But what a music!)

Two last positive points about Mr Osborne's book must be mentioned. He is fabulously comprehensive and he does a superb job following Verdi's development as a composer.

In addition to all operas, there is a chapter about Verdi's mighty Requiem which shows the same thorough and meticulous approach to the history of composition and the musical structure. Of even greater interest is Mr Osborne's final chapter on miscellaneous works. These are mostly choral pieces that are seldom performed today, yet it is fascinating to learn that Verdi composed more music outside his operas than is generally recognised; his compositions even include a string quartet (and a fine one at that). The appendix seems to have been added later, after the first edition, for here Mr Osborne corrects himself that the original overture of Aida has remained completely unplayed. In fact, it was performed by Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra on March 30th, 1940. Mr Osborne doesn't mention that of course, but since he wrote the appendix the performance has even been released on CD. It's a curiously rambling nine-minute or so long piece, rather different than the well-known three-minute prelude which is usually performed today. One cannot but admire Verdi's fine sense of artistic discretion here.

As far as Verdi's extraordinary development as a composer is concerned, this is surely one of the greatest stories in the history of music. Charles Osborne has told it wonderfully, but I cannot resist outlining some of the major points here.

I have always believed that statistics can be revealing. So here are some. Verdi lived for 87 years, 54 of which span the time between his first and last opera. In other words, Giuseppe was 26 years old when his first opera had its premiere and he was in his 80th year by the time of his last "first night". For these 54 years of composition he produced 26 operas and one outstanding Requiem (some 80 minutes long), plus a number of minor miscellaneous compositions. For the sake of convenience, Verdi's life and work, inextricably intertwined of course, can be separated into four periods.

Verdi's first opera was a modest success, his second one was a complete failure. The reason for the latter was that he had to write a comedy in a time of great personal tragedy: his wife and his two children had just died. No wonder that Un giorno di regno was a flop. So much for the first and rather unremarkable period of Verdi's career. He was so distraught in the early 1840s that he seriously contemplated giving up composition altogether. Fortunately for posterity, he didn't.

In 1842 Verdi became famous almost overnight. The reason was Nabucco, the earliest of his operas to remain in the standard repertoire and an outstanding achievement for a composer not yet 29-years-old who had composed nothing of any consequence before. Though the fame of the opera was partly due to the nationalistic associations of the famous choir Va Pensiero, the unification of Italy being then very much in the air, Verdi's career as a composer was launched with a vengeance and no turning back was possible.

Between 1842 and 1850 – what a productivity in mere eight years! – Verdi composed no fewer than 14 operas. He later jokingly referred to this period as "my galley years". It is true, of course, that none of these operas is on par with his later masterworks. Then again, none of them is entirely without something memorable in it, and indeed some of them (Nabucco, Ernani, Luisa Miller, Macbeth) are regularly revived in front of frenzied audiences. By no means was this a waste of time on Verdi's part. He was only too well aware that what he was producing was but a shadow of what he could. But he first had to learn his craft, and that's what he did conscientiously during those eight years. As every great composer, Verdi was no intellectual. His music was largely intuitive and must have stemmed from the depths of the unconscious. Yet he had a keen eye about his own shortcomings and he well knew how to improve them. He also had an enormous amount of common sense and quite a flair for business dealing. He knew his worth and he always got the best price for his work.

Then came the years between 1851 and 1853. They saw something unprecedented in the history of music, or at least in the history of opera. For mere two years Verdi composed what are probably the three most popular operas ever. There could hardly be a man in the Western hemisphere who has never heard "La donna e mobile" from Rigoletto, the so-called '''Brindisi'' from La Traviata or the "Gypsy Chorus" (aka the "Anvil Chorus") from Il Trovatore, including quite a number who have never set foot in the opera house, let alone spent a few hours listening to a complete opera recording at home. But the important point is that these three sublime masterpieces were an enormous step forward for Verdi in his quest for allying drama and music; the leap from Luisa Miller is indeed almost incalculable. No one has ever surpassed him here. He never surpassed himself, either.

Now the most famous composer in Italy, if not in whole Europe, Verdi could allow himself to take his time and compose one opera every few years. The "galley years" were over. Not counting revisions and the like, for the 18 years between 1853 and 1871 Verdi composed six operas, each of them, like the preceding three, unique in character. None of these has ever been entirely forgotten, even though their popularity ranges from famous (Aida) to rather obscure (I Vespri Siciliani). Whatever faults the librettos might have, there is no doubt that works like La Forza del Destino and Don Carlo are among the finest written for the stage, ever. More importantly, Verdi never stopped to evolve towards music drama in which, as opposed to opera, separate musical numbers (arias, duets, ensembles) are all but indistinguishable; the action is continuous and so is the music.

Sixteen years passed until Verdi's next opera. Indeed, nobody expected such a thing. He did meanwhile produce his glorious Requiem, but during those years it was a common knowledge that Verdi, now an Italian national hero, had retired. But that was until he met Boito who, finally, supplied him with what is generally considered to be the finest opera libretto ever penned: "Otello". Though his creativity was greatly stimulated, Verdi's age and his great respect for Shakespeare made him spend more time on Otello than on any other work of his. But he produced a genuine masterpiece, generally recognised as one of the finest music dramas – for this is no opera at all. Six years later came Falstaff, again inspired by Shakespeare and Boito, which was a most unexpected thing indeed: Verdi's only second comedy, the previous one being composed 53 years earlier! Though never a popular favourite with the audience, Falstaff is highly regarded by connoisseurs as a work that does justice – or even greatly surpasses, if you believe Mr Osborne – Shakespeare's original. Verdi was to die only eight years later.

As Harold Schonberg has wisely remarked in The Lives of the Great Composers, and Mr Osborne would surely agree, the musical history of no other country has ever been dominated to such degree by a single man; Wagner in Germany at least had Brahms as something of an opponent, if only in the realm of "absolute" music. Verdi had nobody. Notable Italian composers of instrumental music during the nineteenth century are all but non-existent and the numerous opera ones are long forgotten. For four decades, from the early 1850s all the way until the early 1890s, when the so-called "verismo school" (that is Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano and, above all, Puccini) appeared, Verdi was alone on the top. There were some hints of competition in the late 1860s and early 1870s, from Boito and his Mefistofele or from Ponchielli and his La Gioconda, but these were one-opera men of slight importance, a pale moonlight compared to the burning Verdian sun.

Yet, despite so many immense advantages, despite such comprehensive and perceptive overview of Verdi's stunning achievement, it is not seldom that Mr Osborne's writing falls short of his own standards. For one thing, he is rather often quite perfunctory, passing with literally a few words scenes that deserve much more. One painful example is Act IV (from the five-act version) of Don Carlo. Mr Osborne rightly spends more than a half page on Philip's great monologue and the following scene with the Great Inquisitor, but then the scene with Elisabeth is skipped in a single sentence as if its only dramatic purpose is to pave the way to one of Verdi's finest quartets. This is not serious. The scene is very important dramatically, for it is now that the Queen realises that her husband is very well aware of her affair with his own son (but not hers), and very fine musically, finishing as it does with the King's terrifying cry "Ah! la pietà di adultera consorte!" ("Ah, mercy for the adulterous wife!"), his raising a trembling hand and her losing consciousness. In addition to a fuller discussion, Mr Osborne might also have offered some information, as he does at few other places, about the cuts which often accompany the scene not only in the theatre but also on record. The tremendous final trio of Ernani is dimissed with being ''one of Verdi's finest; expressive, and of great melodic and harmonic beauty.'' Not exactly a worthy analysis! As a general rule, there are too many ''magnificent'' ensembles and too many ''affecting'' arias, and Verdi's ''humanity'' is a little too often ''Shakespearean'' and his melodic gift is a little too often ''Mozartean''.

Sometimes Mr Osborne gets so carried away with his own infallibility as regards Verdi's characterisation, that he accuses him rather unjustly. As regards the Duke's recitative and aria "Ella mi fu rapita... Parmi, veder le lagrime" from Rigoletto, I was appalled to read that "for once Verdi's grasp of character falters." Guess why. Because the music, and the text indeed, gives no indication about insincerity, and such a genuine copy of Don Juan as the Duke must, of course, be insincere when he talks about such deep feelings for the gentle sex. There are two possible reasons for Mr Osborne to write such rubbish: either he is perfectly ignorant of some basics of human nature, or, which is more probable, his prudish attitude prevents him from appreciating Verdi's true genius, revealed here to the full. ("Humani nil a me alienum puto" indeed!) Instead, Mr Osborne loftily tells us that the Duke may at this moment be sincere, "or at any rate deluded into thinking himself sincere". Well, what exactly is the difference between "being sincere" and "deluding yourself into being sincere"? Never mind. The fact is that there is an easy explanation of this conundrum, and it is an explanation which completely refutes Mr Osborne's claim that Verdi's characterisation falters at this point.

The most probable explanation for giving such a rake such a heartfelt music is the simplest one: that he honestly mistakes his lust for love. Whether there is any difference between these two states is for the present discussion of no consequence at all. The Duke honestly believes that his feelings are genuine, and for the moment they certainly are. He has no idea that, having gone to bed with a certain young lady once or twice, all these feelings shall vanish into thin air. The women he seduces may not be very smart, but their keen feminine instincts would instantly feel any insincerity. He may succeed with one or two but with number three he wouldn't reach the bed if he is not entirely sincere. His charm is so devastating and his conquests so successful because, very much like Don Juan, he is always 100% sincere about his feelings – at least until after the coitus. By giving his character so enchanting an aria of a man in love, Verdi not only didn't lose "his grasp of the character" (as Mr Osborne said in his later book dedicated on Rigoletto alone), but he improved the character a great deal; he made it much more coherent and believable; he made it as finished as any character of the proverbial rake can be. It is worth noting that this aria occurs before the Duke has all but raped Gilda, even before he has been told that his courtiers had kidnapped her and now she is his.

There are also places where Mr Osborne's self-consciousness and conceit, both of considerable magnitude, compelled him to write some stupefying nonsense, apparently under the impression that it makes any sense. Towards the end of his chapter on Otello he finely says that at this level of creation, by both Shakespeare and Verdi, comparisons are futile. Yet he continues with the totally irrelevant, not to say stupid, personal remark that sometimes Don Giovanni seems to him Mozart's greatest opera, and sometimes Cosi fan tutte seems to take the first place in the category. Then he continues:

Nowadays, after twenty years' acquaintance with Otello and a love of Shakespeare which goes back even farther, I find myself seriously contemplating the proposition that Otello is superior to Othello.

Mr Osborne seems to take opera as some kind of competition, what's better that what and who's superior to whom. This is plain stupid. Comparing Otello and Othello, by which I mean investigating how the text of the latter was adapted into the libretto of the former, is a most fascinating thing to do. But judging the works in relation to one another – that is a very different matter. It's a perfectly pointless thing to do. Masterpieces, in music or in literature, must be able to stand entirely on their own. They are complete in themselves. I certainly don't mind your criticizing established masterpieces, Mr Osborne. But I do wish you had better arguments than such superficial and, in the final run, intellectually pusillanimous comparisons.

Last but not least, sometimes Mr Osborne gets so impassioned about Verdi's early works that he makes some questionable judgments, again relying on his beloved comparisons. For instance, he flatly states that Macbeth is worthy of standing beside Shakespeare's original. Now I am not familiar with either work, but it might be worth noting that Deryck Cooke, writing five years before Charles Osborne, had stated with equal conviction that such reaction is merely a by-product of the "present Verdi craze". And Deryck Cooke, it might be mentioned, was a musicologist of great erudition and by no means a Verdi basher; indeed he had a tremendous admiration for Verdi's last two works, which he called "the only two great operas inspired by Shakespeare." With the exception, to some extent at least, of Nabucco and Ernani, I am almost completely unfamiliar with the early Verdi. But I do wonder how much of Mr Osborne's surprisingly positive, if necessarily qualified, admiration was due to some "theatre effect" after seeing and hearing something for the very first time in his life. Never mind.

In conclusion, Charles Osborne's The Complete Operas of Verdi is something of a mixed bag, even if its positives definitely outweigh its negatives. It's an excellent source of information about the often complex historical background of many works, especially as far as librettos, revisions and versions in different languages are concerned. It also contains a wealth of insight about the music and the texts, and particularly about the relationship between them. Yet Mr Osborne is sometimes perfunctory in his musical analyses, mostly in the cases of early operas but not only; sometimes he lapses into a dull description of what the music and the text tell you far more eloquently; sometimes he is high-handed and presumptuous, thinking that he knows everything about Verdi's characterisation and passing judgments which he cannot support convincingly; and sometimes he is absorbed in ridiculous comparisons of incomparable things and shameful attacks on composers every bit as great as Verdi, though very different than him of course. The book remains a classic and an essential read for everybody seriously interested in Verdi's complete oeuvre, but it's a classic seriously flawed at several fronts.

To be read with real benefit, Mr Osborne's study of Verdi's operas must be given the benefit of doubt. It is not, as some have suggested, a kind of Verdian Bible to be accepted without questioning the matter and the manner.

-------------------------------------------------​

* There are few exceptions, though. The legendary video recording of the 1958 live performance in Teatro di San Carlo in Naples is now available on DVD. For all its defects – fuzzy black-and-white picture, inferior mono sound, cardboard sets and fake beards – it puts to shame many a modern performance in excellent visual and aural quality. The casts includes Renata Tebaldi, Franco Corelli, Ettore Bastianini, Boris Christoff, Oralia Dominguez and Renato Capecchi. It has to be heard to be believed. If there is a better-sung and a better-acted La Forza..., I have yet to hear about it. A 1955 studio recording for DECCA with Tebaldi, del Monaco, Bastianini, Siepi, Simionato and Corena, under the baton of Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, is almost as fine, and in much better sound (early stereo) of course. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Jan 25, 2012 |
In this volume, every Verdi opera is explored from four points of view: Verdi's life at the time each was written; the story, and the way it links with the music; the libretto and librettist, and Verdi's relations with his publishers; and the music itself, analyzed with examples from the score.
  antimuzak | Nov 19, 2005 |
Showing 2 of 2

Quick Links

Swap Ebooks Audio
1 pay

Popular covers

Rating

Average: (4.06)
0.5
1
1.5
2
2.5
3 2
3.5 1
4 3
4.5
5 3

Is this you?

Become a LibraryThing Author.

 

Help/FAQs | About | Privacy/Terms | Blog | Contact | LibraryThing.com | APIs | WikiThing | Common Knowledge | Legacy Libraries | Early Reviewers | 92,141,455 books! | Top bar: Always visible