October is, for many people, the month of everything Italian. In America, especially New York, this is due in part to the mid-month celebration of Columbus Day. Christopher Columbus may have been a controversial figure, but he was one who changed the world. Italy has produced by far the most geniuses and innovators in all fields and has been an ongoing crucible of creativity for more than 4,000 years.
Just in the area of music, Italy has given us the musical scale (thanks to Guido d’Arezzo, a 10th century monk), fantastic stringed instruments from Cremona, and the unifying thread of every article I write for this page--opera! Even if Italy has produced some figures to be ashamed of (Savonarola, Benito Mussolini, Silvio Berlusconi, Guido Barilla), the extraordinary achievements of this nation far outweigh the bad stuff.
This October, I plan to devote a lot of coverage to Italian topics—especially the man of the month, Giuseppe Verdi. The bicentennial of his birth comes on October 10 and WQXR, along with much of the world, is celebrating this magnificent man and his legacy. I hope that, as part of the tributes, the breadth and depth of what he did not only as a composer but as an incomparable public figure will be given its due. The more I study him and learn about him, the more I love him.
This year, in which Richard Wagner also turned 200, the two titans of 19th century opera have been compared endlessly with the implicit suggestion that one must be declared the winner. We are fortunate to have had both. The program, “Clash of the Titans,” which you can hear on Wednesday at 8 pm, does a good job of contrasting the two men.
Knowing that 2013 would be the year of bicentennials for which I needed to be prepared, I began in 2010 to read, study, watch and listen to everything I could about Wagner and Verdi. I decided to approach each man on his own terms rather than make comparisons. You have seen a lot of Wagner coverage from me, and there will be more, but in the near future, expect to discover things you might not have known about the man known to everyone in an around Busseto and Parma, where he spent most of his life, as “Peppino” (Joey).
One of the most remarkable, but least remarked upon, events leading up to this Verdi year has been the release of a series of DVDs by Unitel Classica called Tutto Verdi that contains performances of every one of his operas. In the course of a pleasurable, if intense, marathon, I have watched 22 of them—all except Un Ballo in Maschera, Don Carlo, Falstaff, La Forza del Destino and Jerusalem.
Eighteen of the 22 operas I watched were produced at the Teatro Regio di Parma, whose discerning (that is to say, wildly opinionated) audience considers itself the arbiter of everything Verdi. Such a distinction might draw outcries from Milan, where the La Scala audience is covetous of its links to Verdi. Theirs is the theater that gave the most premieres (7) of his operas, including his breakout success of Nabucco (1842). Verdi died in Milan and is buried there at the home he built for retired musicians on the Piazza Michelangelo Buonarotti (not too far from Piazza Wagner, by the way).
Part of what I like in the Tutto Verdi series is that it provides extended exposure to the style and aesthetic prevailing in an important regional Italian opera house that just happens to think of the nation’s greatest composer as the hometown boy. I find it interesting that audience taste holds more sway in Parma than in most theaters. They are less likely to tolerate anything especially experimental (Rigoletto does not live in Las Vegas or on the Planet of the Apes). Some of the productions might seem quite conservative but, in our day and age, that is almost a radical choice. There were not necessarily large budgets for these stagings but, as a general observation, the storytelling was straightforward and the costumes quite attractive.
Almost every performance in the series is from the past decade and, as such, offers a window into the current state of Verdian singing. The most compelling figure in the series is the veteran baritone Leo Nucci (born 1942) who, at this point in his career, has turned his portrayals into insightful distillations born of decades of experience and consideration. Musically he still has a lot to offer and his acting is now incredibly moving.
Nucci is the youngest of a group of amazing singers who were born and raised in Emilia-Romagna, whose principal cities are Bologna, Parma and Modena and is also the native land of Verdi and Arturo Toscanini, the conductor most associated with him. These great singers include Renata Tebaldi, Carlo Bergonzi (from Busseto), Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti, Ruggero Raimondi and Nucci. A little-known but crucial figure in this equation was Ettore Campogalliani, the teacher of Tebaldi, Freni, Pavarotti and of Ferruccio Furlanetto who, though not from Emilia-Romagna, is a Golden Age Verdian singer.
When you watch Nucci in his Tutto Verdi performances as Nabucco, Macbeth, Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, Francesco Foscari (in I Due Foscari), Miller (in Luisa Miller) and Guido di Monforte (I Vespri Siciliani), you realize that he brings the experience of decades of collaboration with the artists listed above. His performances are anything but old-fashioned. They are vital, contemporary and essential, but also informed with the greatness of Verdian tradition. As a result, these videos should be considered precious documentation that I commend not only to audience members but young artists.
In some international opera houses, whose decision-makers are as obsessed with fresh blood as vampires, there seems to be little space for senior artists who still have much to say and the means to say it. I heard Leo Nucci as Nabucco in London last spring and he was quite wonderful. Kudos to the people at Covent Garden for engaging him.
Even if not every production in the Tutto Verdi series achieved the same heights, there is a lot to admire. One of the pleasant surprises was Un Giorno di Regno, a comedy that was Verdi’s second opera and a failure at its premiere in Milan. It is not top-shelf Verdi but, I ask you, who can name the second opera by Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Wagner, Tchaikovsky or Strauss? Nonetheless, with Anna Caterina Antonacci in the cast, the excellent Donato Renzetti conducting, and the wonderfully versatile Pier Luigi Pizzi directing and designing scenery and costumes, the Teatro Regio di Parma did not stint in giving this work its due. I had a good time watching and listening. Pizzi also did a good job on I Vespri Siciliani, in which Nucci is joined by Daniela Dessì and Fabio Armiliato.
Renzetti, who did a splendid job conducting Pizzetti’s Murder in the Cathedral last April in San Diego, also leads an excellent I Due Foscari and Luisa Miller in Tutto Verdi. He is a conductor I would listen to any time, one who has taught several talented young maestros.
Speaking of great conductors, one of the gems in this collection is the Macbeth with Nucci and Sylvie Valayre conducted by the late Bruno Bartoletti, the indispensable maestro for decades at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Teatro Comunale in Florence. Dating from 2006, this Macbeth shows Bartoletti capturing the drama, pathos and psychology of one of Verdi’s first masterpieces. Bartoletti also led the rarely-heard Giovanna D’Arco, about Joan of Arc, starring Svetla Vassileva and the grand old baritone Renato Bruson as Giacomo. Bruson will be singing and directing Falstaff in Busseto in a couple of weeks. He starred in the same role in the 1982 production led by Carlo Maria Giulini that, in effect, put opera on the map in Los Angeles.
The Tutto Verdi series, in its goal of being complete, makes it possible to not only hear but see performances of works one seldom encounters outside of Parma, such as Oberto; Alzira (in a 2012 concert version in Dobbiaco); Attila; I Masnadieri (in a performance from the Teatro San Carlo in Naples); Il Corsaro; and La Battaglia di Legnano.
One does not have to be a Verdi completist like me to find a lot to enjoy in Tutto Verdi. The rarities are worth knowing to expand your sense of the composer’s output. The seven operas with Nucci are fascinating on so many levels, not the least of which is that his younger colleagues respond to his work not by being in awe but by allowing themselves to dig deeper and bring their performances to a higher plain than they imagined they were capable of.
What would Peppino say?