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

Monday, January 13, 2014 - 06:00 PM

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.

Tags:

More in:

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Comments [19]

marilyn from cambria heights, NY

Was It Worth Observing the Wagner/Verdi/Britten Anniversaries? Does anyone have tho even ask that question? It was positively a duty to observe the 200th of Verdi and Wagner and common decency to show respect to Britten on his 100th. Will Mr B. be honored on his 200th? Maybe. Will Mr W. and Mr V. be honored on their 300th, 400th, 5ooth, etc? As long as people have ears that function as more than just ornaments on the sides of their heads those two men will be honored forever. There is no question about that!

Jan. 22 2014 05:00 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Caro Fred,
Could not find on amazon which book deals with Naples. I am writing about the people of Vesuvius, historical figures, immigrants and am now researching the music, songwriters, poets, etc. Your book might be helpful and I can use all the help I can get. Loved Toto, saw most of his films. What beautiful memories, hope I live to complete my labor of love.
Best wishes

Jan. 18 2014 08:46 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Thank you Fred. I found on you tube dimitri H. singing Core'ngrato in perfect Neapolitan. You might find on youtube Francesco Albanese singing Neapolitan and other songs. I refer to him as The Other Tenor in the book I am writing.
Tante belle cose

Jan. 18 2014 07:37 AM
Fred Plotkin from Dreaming of Napoli

Signora Concetta, I love Neapolitan song and wrote a bit about it in one of my books. Very hard to sing well. What is particular is that it is, more than anywhere else in Italy, a strictly local style that people there sing but other Italians strain to imitate. And it is not music of the past. One of the most famous songs, "Femmina", was composed by the actor Totò, and there are people in Naples writing in that style today. Magnificent city and also one of the world's opera capitals....less so today, but it still is valid and the Teatro San Carlo is one of my favorites.

Jan. 17 2014 02:25 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Caro Signore Fred,
I am guilty of ignoring Britten, my bad. As for Wagner not moving me to tears, Wotan's farewell to Brunhilde is moving, again a father, daughter moment. Very moving, my bad. As for tears, I really do not cry too often even if I am of Italian descent. Neapolitan songs CAN make tears well up. I know your specialty is opera but have you ever listened to some Neapolitan tear jerkers? I am writing about them.

Jan. 17 2014 07:23 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Caro Signore Fred,
I am guilty of ignoring Britten, my bad. As for Wagner not moving me to tears, Wotan's farewell to Brunhilde is moving, again a father, daughter moment. Very moving, my bad. As for tears, I really do not cry too often even if I am of Italian descent. Neapolitan songs CAN make tears well up. I know your specialty is opera but have you ever listened to some Neapolitan tear jerkers? I am writing about them.

Jan. 17 2014 07:23 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

To pick up on Mr. Bateson's comment about Brahms's admiration for Johann Strauss, Jr., in a Columbia Records Bruno Walter interview --- I think the one with Arnold Michaelis --- he told the anecdote about Mrs. Strauss approaching Brahms for his autograph that Strauss wanted. (I think the meeting was in a restaurant). Brahms wrote a few bars of the "Blue Danube Waltz" on a menu, and wrote "I'm sorry to say not by Brahms." and gave that to Mrs. Strauss.

Jan. 16 2014 10:34 AM
John Bateson from Pittsburgh, PA

I'll be brief, but my general opinion is that Wagner was a man who went around Europe saying, "I'm a genius, I'm a genius," until enough people said, "Alright already, you're a genius." While the music may be thrilling, it inevitably deals with things beyond human scale. Personally, I think the most trenchant statement about Wagner was made by Mark Twain who said, "Wagner's music isn't as bad as it sounds." Still, when he was good, he was great.
In contrast Verdi wrote about real people, sometimes unattractive people such as Rigoletto. Also, while Verdi was accepting of the vocal traditions of his time, he was able to enlarge upon them to create great vocal music. One product of this was such works as the Brindisi from La Traviata, the Anvil chorus from Ill Travatore, Finally, Verdi did not build a shrine unto himself as did Wagner. I bless him for that.
So, IMHO I'll take Verdi over Wagner. As for the greatest composer of the 19th Century, it's neither. That honor IMHO belongs to Johannes Brahms, who never wrote an opera, though he did talk about it from time to time. Much is made of his rivalry with Wagner, though Brahms did admire Wagner's Die Meistersinger. Interestingly, both men admired the work of Johann Strauss the younger, a personal friend of Brahms. Finally, all these men stand in the light of a far greater composer; none other than Johann Sebastian Bach. Like Brahms, Bach wrote no opera, but with the St. John and St. Matthew Passions wrote the greatest of dramas. My blessings to all, even those who would disagree with me.

Jan. 16 2014 01:59 AM
Robert Berger from New Rochelle,NY.

Wagner and Verdi - apples and oranges ! I love Verdi's music, but Wagner is a more original and compelling composer as far as I am ocncerned.
His music is like a drug -intoxicating but not physically harmful .
It goes straight to the solar plexis .

Jan. 15 2014 07:59 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York City

Signora Nardone, It sounds like we are in agreement on the general thrust of my article: that it made no sense to compare Verdi and Wagner and, had they both not been born in the same year, it likely would not have happened much in 2013. That is why, to me, Benjamin Britten came out the winner. We could discover him on his own terms. I don't think there was much we learned last year about Wagner and Verdi as individuals and artists that we did not know. There were few illuminating new productions. The easy crutch of trying to decide which one was better did them, and us, little good. They are both magnificent as composers, even if we might prefer one to the other (and I would rather not make such a declaration). What I respected about "Clash of the Titans" that few other studies did was identify the similarities in these two composers rather than their differences and then find how, within these similarities, they were distinctive.

Jan. 15 2014 10:48 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

FRED PLOTKIN you have made the contributions to the art form and the wide differences between Wagner and Verdi in music and politics and their own personalities deftly clear. Unfortunately while the singers and instrumentalists and conductors strive to do their best to represent the lyricists and composers of the operas, many of the stage directors, set and costume designers are hell bent to sensationalize their own efforts to gain fame and monetary benefits. I knew personally Friedelind Wagner, the granddaughter of Wagner and the more anti-semitic than Wagner himself daughter of Franz Lizst, Cosima. Friedelind was the only grandchild that was not pro- Hitler. She came to some of my performances and we got to talk about what Wagner might have been like if he lived in our era. She believed Wagner was too much concerned with the widespread prevalence of anti-Semitism in his lifetime and too jealous of competition to be the kind of person to make for warm lifelong friendships. There will always be strong competition where there exists some great valued position. I am an opera composer ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"] and the director at the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute of Boonton, NJ. where I teach voice and train artists in all the Wagner and Shakespeare roles. One may hear my singing LIVE from the main hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium of CARNEGIE HALL, four solo concerts by downloading, FREE, 37 out of the nearly 100 selections that I have sung there by going to RECORDED SELECTIONS on my websites www.WagnerOpera.com, www.ShakespeareOpera.com and www.RichardWagnerMusicDramaInstitute.com There are composers whose contribution to music is solid and deserving of hearings. One such is ARNOLD SCHOENBERG who was born in Vienna on September 13, 1874. Surely he deserves mention, even if this occasion, this year, marks ONLY his 140th birthday year. I will be singing the tenor music from his "DAS LIED VON DER ERDE." I am a Wagnerian romantischer heldentenor and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute. I will sing the four song cycles that are most often performed in their orchestral garb: Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder," Mahler's "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen," Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" and Schoenberg's "Gurre-Lieder" at the New Life Expo at the Hotel Pennsylvania in NYC on Saturday March 22nd at 6 PM. I have sung four three-hour-long solo concerts in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall including programming the Wagner and the first named Mahler song cycle.

Jan. 15 2014 09:45 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

QXR is beating this debate to death. Wagner and Verdi were giants. Wagner;s music was magnificent but he did not make tears well up in my eyes. But Verdi's did. Rigoletto's Piangi, Piangi, fanciulla piangi. Macbeth's Love Honor Respect. You are not supposed to feel sorry for this monster, but you feel pity for Macbeth and how he consumed himself with ambition, etc. So,on this note I think QXR should stop trying to create a controversy.

Jan. 15 2014 07:29 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richa

I am an opera composer ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"] and the director at the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute of Boonton, NJ. where I teach voice and train artists in all the Wagner and Shakespeare roles. One may hear my singing LIVE from the main hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium of CARNEGIE HALL, four solo concerts by downloading, FREE, 37 out of the nearly 100 selections that I have sung there by going to RECORDED SELECTIONS on my websites www.WagnerOpera.com, www.ShakespeareOpera.com and www.RichardWagnerMusicDramaInstitute.com

Jan. 14 2014 03:00 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Thank you for your praise of Leo Nucci. His Macbeth is the gold standard. He is not appreciated enough by the opera world.

Jan. 14 2014 11:46 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

The play about Verdi and Wagner meeting is called "One Winter's Afternoon" written by Guy Meredith. Verdi was played by Paul Rhys and Wagner was played by Kenneth Cranham. Also portrayed were Boito, Ricordi, Cosima, Teresa Stolz, Minna, Giuseppina, Liszt, Mathilde Wesendonck, and Angelo Mariani. It was directed by Cherry Cookson and presented on the Sunday program "Drama on 3".

Jan. 14 2014 10:15 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

The bicentennial prompted me to listen to two operas by the Masters that are not as commonplace: "La battaglia di Legnano" and "Das Liebesverbot". While following the full scores to both it struck me how much early Verdi was inspired by Bellini and Donizetti and early Wagner by Weber and Rossini, at least in some parts. The BBC aired a play on 8 December 2013 lasting 1 1/4 hours about Verdi and Wagner meeting each other which, of course, they never did. I wish I remembered who wrote it. In it, Wagner was approached first to write "Ai"da" and replied by saying "It's not my style". Verdi's reaction after hearing "Lohengrin": "Noise, pure noise." And yet, when Verdi read about the death of Wagner, he said he said he was "A master, a genius." One of the lines stuck with me. Wagner asked Verdi if he ever read Schopenhauer, to which Verdi replied, "Thankfully, no!" That points out a connection and a difference, I think. Mature Wagner was motivated by philosophy and Verdi always was motivated by drama. But even this is an oversimplificationm since Wagner without doubt wrote dramatic music and Verdi through Falstaff was at least a bit philosophical when he muses thanks to Shakespeare and Boito, World of crime, thieving world...there's no virtue left..." and yet ends with "everyone is cheated". If nothing else, the

Jan. 14 2014 09:54 AM
Bernie from UWS

I take a slightly different view of the Wagner productions that we saw at Bayreuth, Cologne and elsewhere. In general, Wagner encourages directors to take more risks, be bolder and go deeper because his operas are steeped in mythology. There ar layers to unpack, a rich fabric of ideas and ambiguity to explore. Verdi can certainly inspire some interesting approaches - witness the many approaches to Rigoleto that directors have experimented with. But it's harder to make something more complex out of Verdi's storylines. There's just no "there there." But that shouldn't stop directors from trying.

Jan. 14 2014 07:47 AM

"Tenor Nicholas Phan has done himself and Britten a great service ..."

I was lucky to hear Mr. Phan in Central Park in 'Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings', one of my favorite pieces. I'm grateful for the Britten centennial.

DD~~

Jan. 13 2014 08:44 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

That underwhelming "Clash of the Titans" program just won't die, will it?

Jan. 13 2014 07:47 PM

Leave a Comment

Register for your own account so you can vote on comments, save your favorites, and more. Learn more.
Please stay on topic, be civil, and be brief.
Email addresses are never displayed, but they are required to confirm your comments. Names are displayed with all comments. We reserve the right to edit any comments posted on this site. Please read the Comment Guidelines before posting. By leaving a comment, you agree to New York Public Radio's Privacy Policy and Terms Of Use.

Follow WQXR 

Sponsored

About Operavore

LISTEN TO THE OPERAVORE 24/7 STREAM

Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream, blog and weekly radio show devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and Amanda Angel. The stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings. The Operavore radio show on WQXR, features opera news bulletins from the around the globe, previews of new recordings, and interviews with the players and personalities on the scene.

Follow Operavore 

Feeds