Was It Worth Observing the Wagner/Verdi/Britten Anniversaries?

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I spent a considerable amount of time in 2013 listening to and writing about the music of Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, both of whom saw the observances of the bicentennials of their births. Because they are among the most important composers of all, it was a rewarding opportunity for music lovers and newcomers to opera. 

Their 200th birthday year inspired me, in 2009, to go back and study their operas, letters and lives. For four years, I traveled to sites associated with Wagner and Verdi, read all I could and tried to discover them as if I knew nothing about them before. This was a fascinating enterprise and I have not tired of their works yet.

I think that there was one unfortunate consequence of their both being born in 1813: it inevitably led to comparisons between Wagner and Verdi that did neither of them any good. In books, articles and academic conferences, Verdi was depicted as the better man, but if you are being compared to an egotistical, self-serving, fiscally reckless anti-Semite, the bar is set rather low. His music was described, as it has been for more than a century, as overly emotional and lacking sophistication.

In contrast, Wagner was held up as the better orchestrator, melodist and a visionary who created art of the future that we must still endeavor to comprehend. Wagner was indeed a genius, despite his numerous flaws as a man, but I think Verdi was no less brilliant.

While Wagner had a gift for inspiring his followers to worship him, Verdi’s choice was to inspire Italians to throw off foreign occupiers and create the Republic of Italy after centuries of being a peninsula full duchies, city-states and papal lands at odds with one another. This is the greater achievement. Similarly, while Wagner built a theater in Bayreuth as a shrine to himself and his music, Verdi built a hospital for agricultural workers and a retirement home for musicians. Verdi was a much better man and not because Wagner had little to commend him in personal terms.

One of the best examples of a study of the Wagner/Verdi contrast was Clash of the Titans, produced by WNYC’s Aaron Cohen. He made some of the points that I and others have done, but supported them with musical examples that are more illuminating about these composers than anything mere words could accomplish. Listen to it here:

But what of the music? I think what gets lost when you leave the assessments to musicologists, critics and reviewers, is that the analysis centers on the printed scores of their operas. But Verdi and Wagner were dramatists who used music and words to create riveting theater. This was their greatest innovation and legacy. It also has been, to some degree, their undoing.

I think the chief reason that Verdi is considered inferior to Wagner by many “serious” operaphiles is because many productions of his works do him little justice. Most Wagner productions, including some of the foolish atrocities that appear in Bayreuth, give serious consideration to the composer’s ideas even if they ultimately reject or corrupt them. The problem with the famously awful Wagner productions (and there are not all that many) is that directors feel they cannot present Wagner’s ideas as the composer envisioned them.

In contrast, with one exception (La Traviata), the powerful ideas and complexity of Verdi operas are considered incomprehensible and irrelevant by non-Italian stage directors who do not read music and are not steeped in Italian language and history. They are embarrassed by the rich emotional vein in Verdi more than similar feeling in Wagner. Rather than explore the ideas and emotions in Verdi, these directors apply a “concept” that only reveals their own shortcomings instead of those of Verdi. 

Among Italian stage directors, there is often a different problem: Because the language and issues are second-nature to them, they seldom make an effort to really explore these works in ways that would make them more meaningful to audiences. In addition, Verdi productions created by Italians often have scenery and costumes whose beauty is more valued than the stage direction. If it looks good, the thinking goes, then we don’t have to worry about what is supposed to be happening. All stage directors must be asked to apply more seriousness and rigor to Verdi’s glorious operas.

Where Verdi triumphed in 2013 was that he had the services of remarkable Italian musicians who seriously understand his art and know how to sing and act his marvelously theatrical roles. I had particular pleasure last year from the work of Maria Agresta, Marco Armiliato, Daniela Barcellona, Barbara Frittoli, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Daniele Gatti, Fabio Luisi, Ambrogio Maestri, Riccardo Muti, Gianandrea Noseda and, bless him, Leo Nucci, who almost singlehandedly upholds a tradition of Verdian performance at an age when just about every other singer apart from Plácido Domingo has retired. All of these artists approached Verdi italianamente, to borrow a term from the late conductor Anton Guadagno.

One of the most important Verdi/Wagner bicentennial events was the publication, at the end of 2013, of encyclopedias devoted to both composers by Cambridge University Press. I have been working my way through the Wagner first and it is full of fascinating information and provocative commentary that stimulate further thought. 

Great Britten

The real winner last year was Benjamin Britten, who would have turned 100 on November 22. Because his operas don’t come around as often as they should—and only Peter Grimes and Billy Budd are presented with any regularity—2013 offered a great opportunity to discover the man who is arguably the United Kingdom’s most important composer. I have read a lot of writings about him and especially enjoyed a new biography by Neil Powell.

One statistical review [PDF] of worldwide musical performances in 2013 showed that Britten was the 22nd most performed composer in concert halls in 2012 but shot to number four in 2013, behind Mozart, Beethoven and Bach and ahead of Schubert and Brahms. In concert halls last year, Wagner came in 20th and Verdi 30th. As might be expected, Britten was the most performed composer in the U.K. in 2013. 

Much credit for this revival goes to the Britten-Pears Foundation, which carefully planned and successfully advocated for the renewed interest in Britten. American conductor James Conlon has done an outstanding job at the Los Angeles Opera and elsewhere in seeing to it that Britten’s operas are being heard in excellent performances. Tenor Nicholas Phan has done himself and Britten a great service by specializing in, and recording, a lot of the song repertory.

There is still so much to discover and admire in Verdi, Wagner and Britten. Their works are masterpieces because they speak to us on the most human and universal terms while offering the chance to hear amazing music. I will redouble my efforts with them, and all composers, to always listen with fresh ears and approach productions with optimism and unjaded eyes.

Yes, there will be big composer anniversaries in 2014, including Strauss and Rameau, but I now know to approach these composers in new ways. This, to me, was one of the most important legacies of the big commemorations of 2013.