Thursday, October 10, 2013

Master of Italian Opera

Joan of Arc
an opera by Guiseppe Verdi

Presented by Chicago Opera Theater

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the first production ever in Chicago of Giuseppe Verdi's opera, Joan of Arc (1845).   It was presented by Chicago Opera Theater which has a reputation for producing operas that are unique or rarely performed.  This was his seventh opera and, while he already had success with Nabucco in 1842 and Ernani the previous year Joan was not well-received by the critics and Verdi would not see another of his operas at La Scala for thirty-six years.  It is not clear why this opera is not performed more often, but the director, David Schweizer, suggested that it may be because its' libretto is not historical but is rather like a "fantasia" based loosely on the historical Joan of Arc and her relationship with the French King.  Putting aside any difficulties with the libretto the music is still Verdi.  It is early Verdi but the lyrical melodies and marvelous choruses for which he is famous are still present, at least in nascent form.  The opera is presented in three acts with a prologue.  The director's approach to the story was modern, but true to the spirit of the composer.  The music in the first half of the opera was somewhat derivative with overtones of Rossini, but the last half of the opera was filled with bold choruses and beautiful arias that left the audience, including myself, cheering  bravo by the finale.  
It seems appropriate to share this commentary today as it is the anniversary of Verdi's birth in Le Roncole, Lombardy in 1813.  He was Italy's greatest opera composer for the last half of the nineteenth century and was rivalled only by Germany's Richard Wagner on the world stage.  My personal favorites  include Rigoletto (Venice, 1851), Il trovatore (Rome, 1853), and La traviata (Venice 1853), which were produced in a period of prolific composition by Verdi.   He also spent some years outside Italy producing his operas: in Paris, for his French grand operas, Les vêpres siciliennes (The Sicilian vespers, 1854-55) and Don Carlos (1866-67), and in Russia on two trips for the premiere of La forza del destino (The force of destiny, 1861). In 1871 Aida, one of his most popular operas, was given a simultaneous premiere in Milan and in Egypt, whose ruler had commissioned it.
In 1874 after the death of Rossini, Verdi organized a composite setting of the Requiem Mass in his honor, but it was never performed. Instead, Verdi expanded his contribution (a setting of the Libera Me text) into a complete Requiem in honor of a writer and Risorgimento icon, Alessandro Manzoni. He toured with the work, in 1875, to Paris, London, and Vienna. To this day, it remains a pillar of the choral and orchestral repertory and a specialty of Ricardo Muti, the Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which is streaming on-line a live performance of the Requiem this evening.
Finally with his talented librettist Arrigo Boito, Verdi completed his two last operas, Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). His long composing career came to a close with the collection of religious works titled Quattro pezzi sacri (Four sacred pieces).  He had an amazing ability to create music that mirrors the emotions of the characters in his operas whether they be anticipation or love, anger or jealousy.  Celebration is another and it is often presented by his famous choruses as in Aida.  This is what endears his music to me personally and I look forward to the next production of a Verdi opera so that I may experience his musical genius once more. 


Brian Joseph said...

Opera is an art form that I need to delve into more. Though I am familiar with several Operas including Verdi, I do not think that I am immersed enough to even have favorites. I do not think that I have ever heard or seen Joan of Arc performed in its entirety. The experience of a live performance of an opera is of course, unequaled.

James said...

I would be surprised if you had seen Joan of Arc performed as it has never before appeared in Chicago and is rarely performed elsewhere.
I believe Opera is likely an acquired taste, even for musicophiles; however it is an amazing art form combining literature, music, and art all in grand productions.
My interest in opera goes back to my Mother who had a collection of popular operas on 78s, much as my love for books has a similar source.