Verdi Reception

Reviewed by Matthew Franke


Published by Brepols, 2013   |   330 pages

Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) enjoys a unique position among opera composers. Between 1839 and 1893, he completed no less then twenty-six original operas. As the most popular and prolific Italian composer living during the Italian wars of independence and unification (1859–61, 1866), Verdi became a national celebrity, and his music an emblem of the newly-created Italian nation-state. At the same time, Verdi did much to promote Italian opera abroad: he wrote two new operas in French and premiered major works in Paris, St. Petersburg, and Cairo, and his operas were performed across Europe and the Americas during his lifetime. His most famous operas—RigolettoIl trovatoreLa traviataAïda, andOtello—maintain an unshakeable position in the modern global operatic repertoire; according to operabase.com, his operas are performed more often than those of any other composer, living or dead.

Verdi’s operas were popular in their time, and they survive today, because they combine thrilling music with tragic stories about universal themes: the loss of innocence, the workings of fate, vengeance, jealousy, and political ambition. The plots often derive from famous Romantic authors (Alexandre Dumas fils, Victor Hugo, Friedrich von Schiller, and Lord Byron), as well as Shakespeare; still, as in Il trovatore, they can collapse into lurid melodrama, complete with an incinerated baby and fratricide. But however much audiences today may snigger at such stories, they stay for the music. Verdi grew up in the age of bel canto opera (representative composers include Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, and Gaetano Donizetti) and traces of its florid, highly ornamented melodies for solo voice echo throughout his works. French grand opera was also a major influence, and its hallmarks all appear in Aïda, an Italian opera with massive choral processions displaying the pomp of empire, an exotic setting, a ballet scene, and a plot which forces characters to choose between duty and love (they choose love, and are buried alive as a punishment).

Verdi Reception, a collection of fourteen scholarly articles in English, Italian, French, German, and Spanish, appeared in the flurry of scholarly activity celebrating the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth, during which conferences were hosted by New York University, Cornell University, Université de Rennes, and the Centro Studi Opera Omnia Luigi Boccherini. Edited by Lorenzo Frassà and Michela Niccolai, the volume treats a topic so broad that a different collection of editors and contributors could easily have addressed the same subject and achieved vastly different results. Consequently, the editors’ role in this volume cannot be ignored. The selection (and arrangement) of these essays articulates their specific vision of modern scholarship about Verdi’s reception and directions for future development.

The book is divided into two parts: one addressing Verdi’s reception, the other his influence. Each of these parts, of course, could easily have been the topic of a book, but comprehensiveness was not the goal of this collection. Instead, the focus is on providing just enough information so that the reader can begin to discern the main lines of future scholarly research. These essays sketch Verdi’s reception and influence in a variety of times and places (1920s Germany, fin-de-siècle Paris and Russia, etc.) and offer a “panorama of reception in various countries” (including locations rarely explored by opera scholars, such as Greece, Poland, and Serbia).

The casual way in which Verdi Reception combines analysis of Verdi’s reception with the study of his influence on other musicians is worth noting. Few musicologists have spent much time exploring the connections between reception—which is commonly understood to encompass the audience’s or readers’ reactions to a text—and influence, the affect that a text has on other creative artists. Indeed, musicology has seen something of a split between studies of operatic reception (Wilson, 2007; Kreuzer, 2010), and studies of musical influence (Huebner 1999, Baragwanath 2011). Combining the two approaches in a single volume—even when, as here, the combination is more a juxtaposition than a fusion—is stimulating: rarely does one find a study of Verdi’s reception in Russia in the same volume as an essay on Igor Stravinsky’s perception of Verdi.

Verdi Reception is similarly stimulating in its attempt to provide a “panorama of reception,” although no treatment could possibly cover the topic in exhaustive detail. The result is kind of geography of musical reception, the eight individual studies fusing into a single larger study which illustrates a variety of aspects of Verdi’s reception: from Verdi’s only trip to Spain, his role as a national icon in fascist and republican Italy, the performance history of his operas in Eastern Europe, to an analysis of Franz Werfel’s novel about the composer (1924).

At the same time, there are notable omissions from the panorama, the most significant of which concern the reception of Verdi’s operas in prominent European states such as Germany, Austria-Hungary, the United Kingdom, or France during his lifetime. Some of these gaps can be explained through the editors’ desire to complement recent scholarship, such as Kreuzer’s detailed study of Verdi’s reception in Germany (2010) and Gartioux’s collection of French reviews of Verdi (2001). Yet other gaps remain. Instead of a complete panorama, Verdi Reception contains a series of highly informative snapshots which do not always connect at the edges. These omissions, however, are not in the end evidence of a flaw in the editors’ concept for the volume. Rather, they derive reasonably from how broad the topic is, and open up avenues for future research.

The second half of the book addresses Verdi’s “legacy.” This section of the book does not aspire to and cannot achieve the same panoramic sweep attempted in the first part. This part relies chiefly on focused case studies, rather than the broad summaries of reception and performance history found in Verdi Reception’s first part. The issue of Verdi’s legacy, like his reception, is tremendously broad. The six essays explore his legacy both as music and in terms of the institutions that have allowed this legacy to continue: they focus in turn on Verdi’s influence on other composers (Stravinsky and Luigi Dallapiccola), his own use of music to depict foreign cultures in Aida, ways that Verdi’s operas have been staged, and the role of technology in disseminating Verdi’s music.

Verdi Reception provides a handy and coherent summary of the state of modern European scholarship on Verdi’s reception and influence in Europe (only two of the contributors are based in the United States; a single article addresses Verdi in an American context). Further, the volume is stimulating both as a piece of finished research, and in its implications for future work, with its fusion of a diverse range of methodological approaches across musicology and cultural studies. Verdi Reception has much to offer readers interested in cultural and musicological approaches to nineteenth-century opera, in Verdi’s reception and legacy, and in the reception of artworks across cultural boundaries.

Matthew Franke will be a Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at Roanoke College this Fall. He recently completed his dissertation in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focuses on the translation and reception of French opera in late nineteenth-century Italy.

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