Saturday, March 06, 2010

Learning to Love Verdi: Transcending his Time

(reflections on recently seeing productions of AIDA and SIMON BOCCANEGRA via HD broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, and AIDA last night performed by the Atlanta Opera. Also have heard STIFFELIO and ATTILA on the Metropolitan Opera's live radio broadcast.)

When I think of art, fiction, theatre and opera of the early - to - mid nineteenth century, I think of overripe scenery, plots contrived to force characters into sacrificing themselves for romance, and militaristically grand music that chugs along with "oom-pa" accompaniment overlaid with strings. Women are portrayed as collateral damage in conflicts between martial men. Verdi worked within the conventions of his time, but I'm struck by how he transcends them.

In the hands of good musicians, Verdi's music is "transparent" and "modern." So said conductor Ricardo Muti, in an interview broadcast with ATTILA this afternoon. The "oom - pa" accompaniment doesn't have to be hokey.

Last night at the Atlanta Opera, I was thinking "modern" -- specifically, Bartok, "Music for Strings, Celesta, and Percussion" -- when the strings began their quiet statement of Aida's personal theme, immediately layering in occasionally dissonant counterpoint. The opening of the third act has a Phillip Glass-y ostinato that suggests to me, at least, the flowing of the Nile mentioned in the libretto. Other times, there were lovely stretches when accompaniment dropped down to just one instrument (a flute, a clarinet) or dropped out all together. These quiet orchestral moments were, for me, even more thrilling than the rousing martial music. There was more contrast of color and texture than I would expect from music of this time -- which may be Verdi, or it may give the lie to my conception of mid-19th century music.

While Verdi does choose stories that place women in the middles of conflicts of soldiers and men in authority, he chooses to emphasize the qualities of mercy. SIMON BOCCANEGRA and STIFFELIO both end with men of authority who choose forgiveness and mercy. Even Attila the Hun comes across as a man of action who has qualities of integrity and faithfulness; he is almost naive in his trust for the woman who seeks to kill him.

Last night's production of AIDA, unlike the Met's and an earlier Atlanta production that I've seen, left me thinking more for the regrets of jealous princess Amneres. The light lingered on her, after it faded on the tomb beneath her where her friend Aida and her fiance Radames have perished.

I've seen other Verdi operas on the Met HD series, and some at the Atlanta Opera. I've liked them all, but without being swept away. One reason is that I always feel like the story takes love for granted. Radames sings how "celestial" Aida is with great high notes, and that's fine, but, so far as we know, they hardly have had any contact with each other. My friend Mike leaned over to whisper to me after the duet last night, "All this trouble, just for hormones." Contrast that to the inchoate but affecting relationship of Peter Grimes to the school teacher.

I've heard often how Verdi had to persist to get his operas past government censorship, how he encouraged the unification of Italy during his lifetime, and how he declined offers of political power and authority.

I've also heard that his operas are unremittingly grim, except for a forgettable first comedy, and his final opera, FALSTAFF. I saw that in Atlanta, and remember little, except that I much preferred his version to Shakespeare's MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, and that it ended with a full - cast hymn to forgiveness and the pleasure of life that choked me up.

He's an artist whose work I should get to know more.


Susan said...

In addition to hormones, I thought divided loyalties played a huge role-- individual, family, and state. During one of the Aida-Rademes duets, the line, "You are my only country" kept running through my mind, which I recognized at intermission as one of the pivotal lines in LeCarre's spy/thriller novel, THE RUSSIA HOUSE--and in the movie. In the movie, Sean Connery's character speaks this line to Michelle Pfeiffer's character just before he goes on to commit what may-- or may not be, given the cynical, endgame context of the Cold War-- treason. Maybe this is what brings Aida back in the end, and the sad truth that pharoh's daughter will have to live with.

W. Scott Smoot said...

True. Thanks for reminding me, also, of RUSSIA HOUSE. With script by Tom Stoppard, it begins with a tour de force of screen writing: the interrogation of Sean Connery's character, heard three times, once while we see what he describes, once while we see his interrogation, and once while others listen to the tape of the interrogation. Each repetition, a new layer of ambiguity is revealed. The rest of the script is also highly charged. Didn't have enough action for 13-year-olds, so didn't do so well at the Box Office.