To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi, we thought we’d give him a toast—or five. The prolific opera composer wrote a number of toasts, or brindisi, as he would say in Italian, in his works, often conveying complex emotions, portents of tragedy, and sincere hopes and wishes through them. Moreover the toasts themselves are rather festive, full of wishes of well-lived lives with plenty of wine, love, and happiness. We can't think of a better way to honor Verdi, than raising a glass to these works.
1. A Toast to Love: La Traviata
The most famous toast by Verdi, and perhaps in the entire opera repertoire comes in the first act of La Traviata, as the tenor Alfredo sings “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (10:15). The phrase translates to “drink from the joyful cup,” but it’s really a thinly veiled pledge of love to the evening’s hostess, Violetta. As the brindisi continues, Alfredo wishes his fellow guests “thrilling sweetness,” beauty and other dreamy pleasures. He closes with the romantic notion that "wine will warm the kisses of love."
2. The Ironic Toast: I Masnadiere
At the beginning of Act II in lesser-known Verdi opera I Masnadiere, Amalia, the heroine, is praying at a gravesite as a banquet commences offstage. The devastated heroine is promised to marry a man she doesn’t love, while that man leads the unseen toast: “Let pleasure guide us from cups to kisses … to weep for the dead is senseless grief … Let wine and pleasure shine and cheer us.” The toast becomes an ironic statement behind the mourning Amalia (at 42:30).
3. The Rare Female-Led Toast: Macbeth
Lady Macbeth, better known for her ruthless ambition than her skills as a hostess, nevertheless puts together a lively brindisi in Act II of Macbeth, “Si colme il calice,” (Fill the cup). In the aria, she sings of death to sorrow and for love to reign. Pierpaolo Polzonetti notes in his article, "Feasting and Fasting in Verdi’s Operas," that it’s unusual for the Verdi to write a toast for a female character. The inspiration may have come from the original Shakespeare play, where Lady Macbeth addresses the guests at the banquet.
4. A Toast to Life's Pleasures: Il corsaro
Il corsaro, might pose the most existential of brindisi. As the opera opens, a chorus of pirates—who all have seemingly embraced their treacherous occupation—are boisterously drinking off stage. They raise their glasses (4:20) to pleasure: “We don’t care if blood drips from our conquering hands. Let the cheer of our cups drown the curses of the dying mariner.”
5. A Toast to Patriotism: I Vespri Siciliani
Like Il corsaro, the opera I Vespri Siciliani begins with a toast sung by a male chorus. In this case it’s a group of victorious French soldiers who stationed in Palermo. They sing (11:00) of their beautiful country, and encourage their countrymen to drink intoxicating wine in her honor. This is juxtaposed with the aggrieved Sicilians, who desperately want to overthrow their occupiers.