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Verdi in America

Verdi in America: Oberto' through 'Rigoletto'

George W. Martin
Volume: 86
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 496
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    Verdi in America
    Book Description:

    The operas of Giuseppe Verdi stand at the center of today's operatic repertoire, and have done so for more than a century. The story of how the reputation and wide appeal of these operas spread from Western Europe throughout the world has long needed to be told. This latest book by noted Verdi authority George W. Martin, ‘Verdi in America: Oberto through Rigoletto’, specifically details the changing fortunes of Verdi's early operas in the theaters and concert halls of the United States. Among the important works whose fates Martin traces are ‘Nabucco’, ‘Attila’, ‘Ernani’, Macbeth’ (in its original version), ‘Luisa Miller’, and one of Verdi's immortal masterpieces: ‘Rigoletto,’ denounced in 1860 as the epitome of immorality. Martin also explores the astonishing revival of many of these operas in the 1940s and onward (including ‘Macbeth’ in its revised version of 1865), and the first American productions-sometimes in small opera houses outside the main circuit-of some Verdi operas that had never previously managed to cross the Atlantic. Extensive quotations from newspaper reviews testify to the eventual triumph of these remarkable works. They also reveal the crucial shifts in tastes and expectations that have occurred from Verdi's day to our own. Independent scholar George W. Martin is the author of several books on Italian opera, including ‘Verdi, His Music, Life and Times, Verdi at the Golden Gate: Opera and San Francisco in the Golden Rush Years,’ and ‘Aspects of Verdi’.

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-782-7
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xxii)
    George W. Martin
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Verdi, like Shakespeare in our theater, is now so much a part of opera in the United States that we tend to forget that he was not always with us, not always popular, and that many of those hearing him for the first time in the late 1840s felt assaulted by his music. One outraged New York critic, reviewing the U.S. premiere of Ernani, wished to have cut on his tombstone, “he liked not verdi,”¹ and a member of a later audience who kept a diary noted, Verdi “keeps up a ceaseless torrent of forcible-feeble emphasis, passion, and vehemence till...

  6. Part One: Six Operas and the Havana Company, 1847–50

    • Chapter One Nabucco
      (pp. 13-29)

      Verdi’s only Biblical opera, Nabucodonosor, but commonly called Nabucco and first heard on March 9, 1842, at La Scala, gave that house the greatest success in its history—in the opera’s first year, sixty-five performances.¹ And by the close of 1845, at least thirty-two more opera houses in northern and central Italy had staged it, as well as theaters in the principal cities of Austria, Denmark, France, Hanover, Portugal, Prussia, Spain, Turkey, and Wurttemberg. Yet Nabucco took almost six years to reach the Western Hemisphere, not arriving until December 4, 1847, when staged in Havana, at the sumptuous Gran Teatro...

    • Chapter Two I Lombardi alla prima crociata
      (pp. 30-48)

      Though I Lombardi alla prima crociata (The Lombards on the First Crusade) was Verdi’s fourth opera in order of composition—following two lesser works and Nabucco—it was his first to be staged in the United States, at Palmo’s Opera House, in New York, on March 3, 1847. But before then, on at least three occasions in New York, excerpts had been sung in concerts. And the earliest of these, on May 12, 1846, was possibly the first public performance of any Verdi music in the United States. At the city’s Apollo Theater, the Italian artist Rosina Pico, just back...

    • Chapter Three Ernani
      (pp. 49-70)

      When the Italian Opera Company of Havana came on tour to the United States in April 1847, it surpassed all expectations. It not only at once set higher standards for vocal and instrumental performance, but on opening night in New York had a triumph with new music, the U.S. premiere of Verdi’s Ernani (1844). The company was the creation of the immensely rich Marty y Torrens, who had used his fortune (based on a monopoly of the sale of fish in Cuba) to build an opera house in Havana, the opulent Gran Teatro de Tacón (capacity 3,000), and to staff...

    • Chapter Four I due Foscari
      (pp. 71-90)

      Verdi’s sixth opera, I due Foscari, based on Byron’s verse play The Two Foscari, had the bad luck to be brought to the United States in tandem with its predecessor, Ernani, and continually to be judged the weaker work or even a failure. Some reasons are clear; among them, a difference between the operas in style and subject, with Foscari the less flashy, more introspective, and unusual for its day: no young lovers, no sexual attraction or jealousy, and the chief character an old, old man. Moreover, the Havana company’s codirector, Bottesini, stated in a letter to his father that...

    • Chapter Five Attila
      (pp. 91-112)

      When the Italian company of Havana next came on tour to the United States, April–September 1850, it again brought with it Ernani and Foscari, and, in place of I Lombardi, two of Verdi’s more recent operas, Attila (1846) and Macbeth (1847). It was, as before, an extraordinary company, again led by Arditi and Bottesini, and now with an orchestra of fifty, chorus of forty, and with Tedesco only one of three star sopranos and no longer the brightest. It also claimed as its leading bass, Ignazio Marini, not only an outstanding Silva for Ernani and Oroveso for Norma but...

    • Chapter Six Macbeth
      (pp. 113-142)

      The Italian company from Havana, having come to New York in April 1850 prepared to excite audiences with the U.S. premiere of two Verdi operas, and having failed with the first, Attila, promptly went ahead with its second, Macbeth. The venture perhaps was riskier, for the play was popular in New York and everyone would have an opinion on how Shakespeare should be handled. In addition, with this opera, his tenth, Verdi had attempted something new in Italian opera of the day—offering in place of romantic youngsters (tenor and soprano) a middle-aged couple (baritone and soprano)¹—and had sought...

  7. Part Two: Four Operas, Three Resident Companies, 1850–60

    • Chapter Seven The Country’s Growth Stimulates Opera
      (pp. 145-159)

      As the history of Italian opera in the United States and more particularly of Verdi’s operas makes clear, the summer tours in 1847 and 1850 of the Italian company from Havana were crucial. The company not only was chiefly responsible for introducing a new and important Italian composer to the country but even in its performances of familiar Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti it raised expectations and forced standards higher: better singers, chorus, and orchestra. The touring company of 1850, as its competitor Max Maretzek of New York’s Astor Place company later conceded, was simply better than any American company and...

    • Chapter Eight I masnadieri
      (pp. 160-177)

      In the United States I masnadieri is possibly Verdi’s least-performed opera. Though the eleventh of his twenty-eight (not counting minor revisions) and completed after Macbeth, except for a rare concert performance, it turns up mostly in cycles of his operas. Moreover, in its U.S. premiere, in New York on June 2, 1860, it suffered an artistic disaster—“Of the dead why speak?” wrote one critic.¹ Thereafter, except for nine performances in San Francisco, the last in 1865, Masnadieri was not heard again until a concert performance in New York in 1975. Yet initially in Europe and South America it held...

    • Chapter Nine Jérusalem
      (pp. 178-186)

      If number of performances be the measure, then in the United States in the nineteenth century, of Verdi’s sixteen operas preceding Rigoletto, the most popular, after Ernani, was his twelfth, Jérusalem.

      That popularity, however, had two peculiarities. First, though unmistakably by Verdi, Jérusalem is more a French than an Italian opera, being a massive revision of his I Lombardi alla prima crociata (1843), one that he created for the Paris Opéra in the style of French grand opera. Set to a wholly new libretto, with an extensive ballet, the knightly crusaders, Christian pilgrims, and principals are no longer Lombards but...

    • Chapter Ten Luisa Miller
      (pp. 187-200)

      In the performance history of Verdi’s operas in the United States, Luisa Miller, his fifteenth, has two claims to uniqueness: It is the only one of his thirty-two operas (counting six revisions as new works) to have had its premiere in Philadelphia, and the only one to have had its first production sung in English. Moreover, another singularity: The Walnut Street Theatre, in which the opera was first heard, is the oldest in the English-speaking world continually in use, and the only site of a nineteenth-century Verdi premiere in the United States still in use.¹ Though its interior has been...

    • Chapter Eleven Rigoletto
      (pp. 201-218)

      As with Luisa Miller, so, too, with Rigoletto: Verdi’s urge to strengthen the opera’s drama through a more flexible musical structure than then was common, in some part, delayed popular acceptance. For though today Rigoletto in the United States is one of his most popular works—in 125 years at the Metropolitan Opera, 1883–2008, among his works it ranked third (see appendix E)—it has not always stood so high. Indeed, despite quick success in most countries, in the United States, except in New Orleans, it won favor only slowly, hampered in part by its musical structure and by...

  8. Part Three: Seven Operas Premiered in the Late Twentieth Century

    • Chapter Twelve Opera on Tour and the Rise of Regional Companies
      (pp. 221-236)

      Before the country’s Civil War, 1861–65, any opera company attempting a tour traveled mostly by water, usually either by sea between the coastal cities (New Orleans to Boston), or if inland, up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers (New Orleans to Pittsburgh), making connections when needed (over the Appalachian Mountains) as often by canals or coaches as by railroads. Especially in the South and West, before the war, railroads frequently did not yet connect the larger cities because built primarily not to move people from place to place but to bring produce, coal, wheat, or cotton to market...

    • Chapter Thirteen Oberto
      (pp. 237-248)

      Though Verdi’s fifth opera, Ernani (1844), by 1848 had established him in the United States as the likely successor to Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, and three others of his early operas, Nabucco, Lombardi, and Foscari had been heard, his first, Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio (1839), did not achieve its U.S. premiere until 1978, a lag of 130 years. Considering how eager audiences were in the mid-nineteenth for “novelties,” including new operas,¹ the long delay is surprising, and the cause lies partly in the opera’s strangely truncated, early history.

      Verdi had composed Oberto (as the opera commonly and hereafter is...

    • Chapter Fourteen Un giorno di regno
      (pp. 249-260)

      Like Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, his second, Un giorno di regno (King for a Day), was swept aside by the success of those that soon followed, Nabucco, Lombardi, and Ernani. But unlike Oberto, Un giorno did not enjoy even a moderate run. Rather, though a comedy with a happy ending, it gave him his worst night in the theater. At the premiere at La Scala, Milan, on September 5, 1840, as custom then required of a new opera’s composer, he took his seat at the start in the orchestra, between the first double bass and cello, and there, because La...

    • Chapter Fifteen Giovanna d’Arco
      (pp. 261-278)

      Of all of Verdi’s operas, admired or deplored, possibly none has drawn so many directly contradictory judgments as his seventh, Giovanna d’Arco, which had its premiere at La Scala, Milan, on February 15, 1845. Though the audience liked the opera (seventeen performances), the critics sniffed and implied in sum that Verdi was “relatively speaking, a beginner, that he was improving certainly, but that with their guidance he could improve still further.”¹ Yet for twenty-five years Giovanna d’Arco had a steady success in Italy with productions elsewhere in Europe—a record disparagers often have slighted²—and today the disagreements among scholars,...

    • Chapter Sixteen Alzira
      (pp. 279-293)

      The only opera Verdi conceived to be set in the Americas, a conflict between Spanish invaders and the Inca people of Peru, was his eighth, Alzira.¹ And whatever its fate in Europe, if for no other reason than the novelty of local color and history, it might have expected to find an audience in the New World. That it did not—only two productions in the nineteenth century, in Peru and Chile, and none at all in North America—today seems the result of an unhappy mix of reasons, notably: a very moderate success in Italy, Spain, and Portugal, where...

    • Chapter Seventeen Il corsaro
      (pp. 294-310)

      Like Verdi’s eighth opera, Alzira, his thirteenth, Il corsaro, failed to hold the stage and even in Italy was not performed for a hundred years (1864–1963), a failure all the more surprising because between the two he had won success with Attila and Macbeth. Yet as with Alzira, his Corsaro was dismissed as uninspired, uninteresting, and uniquely even unworthy of him. Writing in 1930, the English critic Francis Toye, probably the dominant voice on Verdi for his generation of English-speaking readers and audiences, declared: “With the exception of Alzira, this is the worst opera ever written by the composer.”...

    • Chapter Eighteen La battaglia di Legnano
      (pp. 311-325)

      This opera, with its cumbersome title, The Battle of Legnano, though praised more often than most of its thirteen predecessors for its musical sophistication, is performed in the United States almost as seldom as Verdi’s I masnadieri. This is a puzzle, for unlike its fellow, its scenic demands are not great,¹ and though needing a well-rehearsed men’s chorus, its musical demands are not insurmountable. Its high notes for the soprano, if beyond reach, can be finessed, and for singers easily tired, some second verses here and there can be cut. Moreover, even uncut, the opera is short, only 107 minutes,...

    • Chapter Nineteen Stiffelio
      (pp. 326-342)

      Among Verdi’s operas Stiffelio, which immediately preceded Rigoletto and was first staged in Trieste in 1850, is in several respects unusual, and in one, unique. To take the last first: Unique, because the only one of Verdi’s operas whose orchestral score, in main part, was lost for almost a hundred years, during which time the opera could not be staged or even studied with any assurance that the reader was in touch with what Verdi intended. For its initial decade, however, it had existed in a severely censored form, had played in several theaters, and from that period some vocal...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 343-346)

    Two questions remain: How much of a change has the Verdi Renaissance of the twentieth century’s second half made in Verdi’s position in our operatic world? And how much of that change is likely to be permanent? At least for the United States, a rough answer to the first must be: a sizable rise in esteem and performance. And to the second, though more speculatively: at least for the next half century, much of that rise will be permanent.

    Before sharpening the argument, however, note the sand on which the thesis builds. Roughly speaking, since Puccini’s death in 1926, no...

  10. Appendixes

    • Appendix A The Operas, Their World, Western Hemisphere, and U.S. Premieres
      (pp. 347-348)
    • Appendix B The Swift Spread of Ernani
      (pp. 349-352)
    • Appendix C Dollar Values and Populations
      (pp. 353-354)
    • Appendix D The San Carlo Touring Company: Repertory and Number of Performances, 1913/14 through 1928/29
      (pp. 355-356)
    • Appendix E Number of Performances of Verdi’s Operas at the Metropolitan, 1883/84 through 2008/9
      (pp. 357-358)
    • Appendix F An Arrangement, a Reduction, and the Score as Written: Stiffelio
      (pp. 359-362)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 363-444)
  12. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 445-456)
  13. Index
    (pp. 457-472)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 473-475)