I was lucky to be granted an interview by Giuseppe, as he was known as an intensely private man, who regards journalists, biographers, as well as his neighbors in Busseto, as intrusive people, against whose prying attentions he needed to protect himself. So I guessed that I got the interview because he considered me as a not so well-known journalist, not a nosy and gossipy type, therefore I could not do any harms. But still I thought that in any case I must be careful not to ask too deep questions about his personal affairs.
So following the appointment, I met him after the opera performance of Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) at the Bolshoi theatre in Moscow. We sat in a café near the Karl Marx square during a chilly night in April.
I opened the conversation:
“ I am bewildered that you would come to Moscow to watch one of your opera, what makes you come here you of the blue?”
“The Bolshoi theatre in Moscow has a long history of hosting many historic opera premier. Sadly a massive fire broke out in 1853 and ruined the building completely, the theatre had to be closed for a three-year-long overhaul, and opened its doors after renovation right in time for the coronation of Tsar Alexander II. Then it was hit by a bomb in 1941, and got renovated several times because of various damages and the final reconstruction lasted for six years and in 2011 the refurbished theatre opened its doors once again. So I am glad to be here to witness the new Bolshoi hosting Un Ballo in Maschera.”
“I found that Alessandra Premoli and Davide Livermore directed the opera performance very well, with impressive digitally enhanced stage set by Gio Forma and video design by D-wok.
There were the flying and preying crows in the digital background of the stage dominated in black and white, haunting the people with the ominous fortune foretold by the witch Ulrica.
The performance tonight exposed me to a new experience. It makes opera more attractive, may bring younger audiences, gives wider alternatives to creative artists and technicians, and will probably take costs down.”
“I can only ask for more. It can be really beautiful, but equally it can detract. It comes down to what the production is really. It would certainly be appropriate for some but overall I definitely prefer traditional opera. However some modern productions may benefit from this. Surely no one could say it should always, or never, be used.”
“ You are known of your greatness, to find a way of speaking to limitless crowds, and your method to adsorb yourself completely into your characters. You never composed music for music’s sake, every music note has a precise dramatic implication. The most astounding scenes in your work are those in which all the voices come together in a visceral mass, like the voices at the end of “Un Ballo”, overcome by the spiritual greatness of a dying man.”
“The scene is about the dying Riccardo as he admits to Renato : ‘You must listen to me, she is pure: in the arms of death, while God hears my words, I swear it (Ella è pura: in braccio a morte Te lo giuro, Iddio m’ascolta)’. The dying Riccardo confirms that, although he was in love with Amelia, Renato’s wife, she never broke her marriage vows. Then he shows Renato the order for the couple’s repatriation to England, a gesture to show that he forgives Renato and the conspirators. The crowd bewails the loss of their generous-hearted governor as Renato is consumed by remorse.”
“One of your most successful opera is La Traviata, which means “the fallen woman” or “the one who goes astray” and in context it connotes the loss of sexual innocence. It represents the thinking of a time when sexual activity outside of marriage was considered immoral and unmarried couples living together were the subject of scandal.
That time in Paris in the world of the rich and powerful, social conventions bound everyone to a righteous lifestyle on the surface, but beneath that existed another world where the nobility could enjoy the excess of their wealth including the company of women, the courtesan who were expected to entertain him, and also go to the theater and opera with him.”
“ The story of this opera is “a subject for our time.” I was determined to use the opera to arouse sympathy for society’s outcasts, the sort of people we might go out of our way to avoid on the streets. Like Alexandre Dumas “The Lady of the Camellias” upon which novel and play the opera is based, I wanted to protest the exploitation of women, and I gave the opera a contemporary setting.”
“Indeed in La Traviata you not only put a cry story on stage, you set it all to contemporary music : the waltzes and polkas were that time the sounds that accompanied the libidinous pleasures of booze and sensuality. The most famous of those is the Brindisi drinking song in the first act, Alfredo’s waltzing “Libiamo” – “let’s get drunk”, basically. It is a famous duet with chorus, one of the best-known opera melodies and a popular performance choice for many great tenors.
Giuseppe, imitating Alfredo in Brindisi, the drinking song :
“Libiamo, libiamo ne’lieti calici Let us drink from the goblets of joy
che la belleza infiora. adorned with beauty,
E la fuggevol ora s’inebrii and the fleeting hour shall be adorned
a voluttà. with pleasure.”
“It required a strong character to live the life that you live; to preserve at your golden years that freshness of interest, that intensity of purpose. To produce an opera means to negotiate with an impresario, secure and edit a libretto, find or approve the singers, compose the music, supervise rehearsals, conduct some of the performances, deal with publishers, and more. What drives you to be so passionate to produce operas?”
“The explanation may be partly found in my humble origin, my simple upbringing. My father kept a little inn and grocery shop in the village of Roncole. He was not rich, but prosperous enough to be able to give his son a thorough musical education. My father arranged music lessons before I was four. When only eleven, I succeeded my teacher in the post, at a salary of thirty-six francs a year! I had a hundred francs when I left six years later, but I was then walking every Sunday and festival day from Busseto, three miles distant, for my general education.”
“At Busseto there lived a musical amateur, named Barezzi. He took you, opened his home to you in his warehouse, and allowed you the treat of practicing on a piano. Barezzi had a daughter who also played piano. The usual results of this situation you fell in love with each other, and were married in 1835.”
“I was so poor at this time that he had to pawn my wife’s trinkets for the rent. Margherita gave birth to two children, Virginia and Icilio. Both died in infancy while I was working on my first opera Oberto at the age of 26. Premiered at Milan’s La Scala in November 1839, Oberto enjoyed a fair success and the theatre's impresario Bartolomeo Merelli was impressed enough to offer me a contract that would guarantee two more works. “
“You live a life with more moments of tragedy than most of us could take. As a young man you lost both of your children in infancy, and your wife Margherita died soon after in 1840 because of encephalitis. That happened when you had just accepted an engagement to write a comic opera, Un giorno di regno (King fo a Day) and you went on with it while your heart was breaking. It was a failure and we can hardly wonder that the opera was a failure.
With your personal life shattered and your professional life disrupted by grief, you have been drawn sitting moody and silent for a whole year and more, writing nothing, seeing nobody, as if declaring that life was not worth living.”
“I was alone! Irredeemably alone! …My family had been wiped out!... And to keep the commitment I’d made, at that very painful moment in my life, I had to write Un giorno di regno which was not liked….. Tormented by my family woes, which the failure of my work only exacerbated, I was convinced that art would never bring me solace, and I decided to stop writing music!....”
“Then in a dreary winter’s day in 1841 after a chance meeting with Bartolomeo Merelli, La Scala's impresario, he gave you a copy of Temistocle Solera's libretto for Nabucco. “
“I took it home, and threw it on the table with an almost violent gesture. ... In falling, it had opened of itself; without my realising it, my eyes clung to the open page and to one special line: 'Va pensiero, sull' ali dorate' meaning ‘Go, thought, on golden wings’.
I ran through the verses that followed and was much moved, all the more because they were almost a paraphrase from the Bible, the reading of which always had delighted me. I read it enthusiastically one passage after another. Then, resolute in my determination to write no more, I forced myself to close the manuscript and went to bed. But it was no use- I couldn’t get Nabucco out of my head. Unable to sleep, I got up and read the libretto, not once, but two or three times, so that by the morning, I know Solera’s libretto almost by heart. Nevertheless, I still refused to compose the music, taking the manuscript back to the impresario next day. But Merelli would accept no refusal and he immediately stuffed the papers back into my pocket and, not only threw me out of his office, but slammed the door in my face and locked himself in.
Then gradually I worked on the music, this verse today, tomorrow that, here a note, there a whole phrase, and little by little the opera was written, so that by the autumn of 1841 it was complete. “
"Then needless to say what happened next , Nabucco premier at La Scala on the evening of 9 March 1842 was a huge success, and this work became your first immortal creation. For you it was a turn from despair to “Viva Verdi, Viva Verdi……”
Like the wording in 'Va pensiero, sull' ali dorate', which was inspired by Psalm 137:
‘or let the Lord inspire a concert
That may give to endure our suffering’
This is an imaginary interview in memory of Giuseppe Verdi