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   Chapter 4 SUCCESS AND INTRODUCTION INTO ENGLAND

Verdi: Man and Musician By Frederick James Crowest Characters: 23631

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Verdi's position assured-Selected to compose an opera d'obbligo-The terms-I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata-Its dramatis person? and argument-Reception at La Scala-A new triumph for Verdi-I Lombardi in London, 1846-Ernani-Political effect of Ernani-Official interference-Verdi first introduced into England-Mr. Lumley's production of Ernani at Her Majesty's Theatre-The reception of the opera-Criticism on Ernani-Athen?um and Ernani.

Now, at the age of twenty-nine years, was Verdi's future practically assured. His ambition had been to produce an opera that would win the applause of his countrymen. This was attained sooner, perhaps, than Verdi expected it. With this desire more than fulfilled, the son of the obscure innkeeper of Roncole was being talked of in the same breath as the maestri Donizetti, Mercadante, and Pacini. Would that his beloved wife and children could have been with him to have shared this success!

A great honour was now to be his. By the vote of the La Scala Theatre direction, Verdi was chosen to be the composer of the opera d'obbligo for the Carnival time-that new opera which an impresario is bound, by the terms of his agreement with the municipality, to find and produce during each season. Merelli conveyed the news to Verdi, tendering him a blank agreement form and saying, "Fill it up; all that you require will be carried out."

Verdi consulted Signora Giuseppina Strepponi, the young and attractive tragédienne who had performed so admirably as Abigail in Nabucco (she afterwards became Madame Verdi). Her advice to the composer was to "look out for himself," but to be reasonable, suggesting similar terms to those paid to Bellini for Norma. Verdi asked, therefore, eight thousand Austrian liri (£272 sterling), and the bargain was struck.

Within eleven months Verdi was on La Scala boards with his fourth opera, a work which deserves lengthy notice because of the hold it has always had over English audiences. Signor Solera had prepared what, from an Italian point of view, was an excellent libretto, based upon a poem by Grossi, covering the epoch of the First Crusade. The dramatis person? of I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata ran:

Pagano, Arvino, sons of Pholio, the Prince of Rhodes; Viclinda, wife of Arvino; Griselda, daughter of Arvino; Acciano, tyrant of Antioch; Sofia, his wife; Oronte, his son; Prior of the city of Milan; Pirro, armour-bearer to Arvino; monks, priors, people, armour-bearers, Persian ambassadors, Medes, Damascenes, and Chaldeans, warriors, crusaders, ladies of the harem, and pilgrims.

The scene of the first act is laid in Milan; the second in and near Antioch; the third and fourth near Jerusalem.

Briefly, its story or argument is this. Pagano and Arvino are the sons of one of the Lombard conquerors of Rhodes. Pagano, deeply enamoured with Viclinda, and enraged at her preference for his brother, attacked, wounded him, and then fled his country. As the curtain rises, the monks and the people are seen assembled before the Church of Ambrose, in the island of Rhodes, to celebrate the return of the pardoned culprit. He arrives, and his injured brother cordially forgives and embraces him. But in the heart of the latter the same unquenchable feelings still rankle. He once more meditates the destruction of his brother and the possession of his sister-in-law. At night he invades, with an armed band, his abode; but in the dark he mistakes his victim, and kills his own father instead of his brother. Remorse takes possession of his heart, and he flies to a wilderness in Palestine to expiate his crime, and under the garb of a hermit he acquires a great reputation for sanctity. Years of repentance have elapsed; it is the moment when all Christian knights and princes have been summoned to the First Crusade, and Arvino and his followers have landed in Palestine, obedient to the call of Peter the Hermit. Here he soon hies to the holy recluse (Pagano) in his mountain retreat, seeking from the hermit counsel and consolation in his sorrows, for the Saracen chief of Antioch, in the conflict, has carried away his daughter. Pagano, concealed by his garb, promises a termination to his brother's sorrows which he knows he can effect; for Pirro, formerly his squire and confidant, now a repentant renegade, has promised to yield Antioch, where he holds a command, to the Christian bands. In that city Griselda is immured; she is in the harem of Oronte, but protected by his mother, Sofia (secretly a Christian), and passionately loved by her son, who, under the double influence of love and conviction, determines to become a convert to her faith. Griselda forgets her Christian friends, and listens but too fondly to the vows of her Saracen lover; but Antioch is betrayed to the Christians, led by Arvino and Pagano; all the Saracens are put to death; and Griselda, by her lamentations over the fate of her true lover, brings down on her head the wrath of her father. In the retreat where she has taken refuge from his anger, her lover, Oronte, who has escaped from his enemies, reappears in the disguise of a Lombard. The lovers fly together, but being pursued by the Christians, Oronte receives a fatal wound; Pagano comes and takes him to his cell, and there the Saracen prince dies a Christian convert; whilst Griselda in her despair, through divine interposition, is consoled by a vision of Paradise. Pagano, who has become the guardian spirit of his injured brother, accompanies him to the siege of Jerusalem, and is wounded to death in defending him. As he dies, he removes his cowl and reveals his name. His death forms the final catastrophe of the opera.

On the 11th February 1843, crowds were flocking to the Milan Theatre to hear I Lombardi-the new opera by the composer who had driven the remembrance of Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini from the heads of the Milanese. Unusual interest was aroused because the authorities, suspecting political suggestions, had sought to stop the representation of the opera. The people even brought their provisions with them, and when the moment for the performance came, a frightful odour of garlic pervaded the theatre! The patriotic subject pleased everybody, and the rendering had not proceeded far before undoubted expressions of approval issued from all parts of the house. The feverish audience detected readily exact analogies to their own political circumstances. Verdi, "saviour of his country," as some would have it, had kept up the sentiment of the Nabucco music-a sentiment which had an unmistakable revolutionary flavour and ring, soon to be mightily emphasized-and the issue was never in doubt. Soloists, chorus, and orchestra quickly had their feelings echoed by the Milanese public at large.

Another triumph. Moved by the stirring music and the unstinted exertions of the principal singers, Signora Frezzolini and Signori Guasco and Derivis, the auditors were so overcome that they re-demanded number after number. The clamouring for the quintet was such that the police interfered and would not suffer it to be repeated; then the chorus, "O Signore dal tetto natio," in the fourth act brought the listeners once more to their feet; nor would they be appeased until they had heard it three times.

If only for its fortuitous association with the awakening of Lombardo-Venetia to a sense of national unity and independence, this opera must always be interesting. But I Lombardi abounds in vocal treasures, and contains some of Verdi's best early work. Take, for instance, the lovely tenor cavatina "La mia letizia infondere," and the cabaletta "Come poteva un angelo," which Oronte sings in scene 2 of the second act, and which Signor Gardoni used to render with much charm and beauty of voice. Little wonder that such melodies and music predisposed the Italians towards the new young musician.

I Lombardi was certainly an advance upon Nabucco. Apart from its political associations, it contained vocal and instrumental attractions which the public were justified in expecting from the composer of Nabucco. It met with a succés d'estime only on its production in London, but this had more to do with party feeling in operatic matters at the time than with the actual merits of the work. The new and striking properties which distinguished Nabucco were still more marked in I Lombardi-so much so, indeed, that it has survived many operas and can be listened to with pleasure to-day.

In the 1846 season-Tuesday the 12th March-Mr. Lumley gave the subscribers of Her Majesty's Theatre I Lombardi, with the artists Grisi, Mario, and Fornasari, and scenery and dresses which at the time were considered unsurpassed. It was the first performance of Verdi's new opera in this country.

"Here was again a success!" writes Mr. Lumley; "nay, a great and noisy success-but yet a doubtful one. After the comparative unanimity with which Nabucco had been received, it seemed necessary for the forces of the opposition to recommence the attack against a school which now threatened to make its way with the town. Party spirit on the subject was again rife. Whilst, by the anti-Verdians, I Lombardi was declared to be flimsy, trashy, worthless, the Verdi party, and the adherents of the modern Italian school, pronounced it to be full of power, vigour, and originality. The one portion asserted that it was utterly devoid of melody-the other, that it was replete with melody of the most charming kind; the one again insisted that it was the worst work of the aspirant-the other, that it was the young composer's chef d'?uvre. And in the midst of this conflict-so analogous to the old feud between the parties of Gluck and Piccini-public opinion, as usual, seemed undecided and wavering, uttering its old formula of, "Well, I don't know." The music, too, was weighed down by a rambling, ill-constructed, uninteresting libretto; and it is really difficult, under such conditions, to sunder the merit of the musical "setting" from the merit of the text. I Lombardi, however, was played frequently, and to crowded houses."[11]

I Lombardi speedily travelled over Europe. As we have seen, it soon reached England, and having been adapted for the French stage, it was produced on the 26th November 1847 at the Grand Opéra of Paris under the title of Jérusalem. In its new garb, it was a failure, despite splendid singing and effective scenery. What a farcical proceeding, then, to attempt to foist this version upon the Italians under the name of Jerusalemme!

It is not surprising that Verdi was now sought after by impresarii and managers, ever on the outlook for talent and a work that may restore the too often distorted fortunes of a theatre. More than one European manager was beseeching him; but eventually the management of the Fenice theatre secured Verdi's next opera. This proved to be Ernani, produced on the 9th March 1844. Verdi chose his own subject, and entrusted Victor Hugo's drama to Piave, who subsequently became the composer's permanent librettist. The result was a tolerably good book, which Verdi set in happy vein. Its first night decided its fate. Ernani was received with unstinted admiration and approval. The artists who created the parts were Signora Loewe (Elvira), who quarrelled with Verdi about her part; Signor Guasco (Ernani); and Signor Selva (Silva), the latter a singer whom the noble who owned the Fenice thought unworthy to appear on his boards, despite Verdi's recommendation, because he had been singing at a second-rate theatre!

During the nine months following the first performance of Ernani, it was produced on no less than fifteen different stages.

One or two episodes-amusing, if vexatious-attended its production. The police got wind of some exciting element in the opera, and stepped in at the last minut

e, objecting to several numbers, and refusing to allow a sham conspiracy to be enacted on the stage. Verdi had to give way and face the additional work and trouble; yet, after all, the Venetians got political capital out of the work, and when the spirited chorus, "Si ridesti il Leon di Castiglia," burst forth, their patriotic feelings overcame them. Another incident had to do with artistic principle. In the last act Silva had to blow upon the horn; but a susceptible aristocrat could not bear the idea, and remonstrated with the composer, urging that it would desecrate the theatre!

Ernani, as we have remarked, was the work by which Verdi was first introduced to the British public; and it is, therefore, of especial interest to English readers. It involved a dispute among musical people such as has only been equalled by the famous Gluck and Piccini feud (1776) just referred to, or that great controversy engendered by Wagner's music and doctrines, the wrangle that gave us the term "music of the future," that spiteful innuendo which the enemies of the master invented to indicate the fit location of his music, and which epithet Wagner himself adopted as exactly describing an art and teachings which a debilitated and distempered age was too feeble to understand.

No one was more concerned in this musical stir than the zealous and assiduous Mr. Lumley, who had his heart and fortune in the affairs of the opera-house, Her Majesty's Theatre:-

Industrious importer! who dost bring

Legs that can dance, and voices that can sing,

From ev'rywhere you possibly can catch 'em;

Let others try, they never yet could match 'em.

The stumbling-blocks were the bigoted lovers of the old school, who, dissatisfied with all that had been given them, were, like that hero in fiction, always clamouring for "more," which, when obtained, they always pronounced unsatisfactory. "The season," states Mr. Lumley, "was announced to open with the Ernani of Verdi, a composer as yet unknown to the mass of the musical English public. But he had been crowned triumphantly, and had achieved the most signal successes in Italy. Ernani was generally pronounced, at that period, one of the best, if not the best, of his many applauded operas. It would have been strange if the announcement of the first production of one of Verdi's works upon the Anglo-Italian stage had failed to excite the attention and interest of the musical world. At all events, it was the duty, as well as the policy, of the management to bring forward the greatest novelty of the day. Novelty sure to be called for with indignant remonstrance if not laid before the subscribers, however it might be scouted (according to custom) when it did make its appearance.

"After some unavoidable delay, the season opened on the 8th March (1845) with the promised opera of Ernani. That it excited the general enthusiasm awarded to it so lavishly in Italy cannot be asserted; that it was a failure may be emphatically denied. The general result of this first introduction of Verdi to the English public was a feeling of hesitation and doubt; or, as some one drolly said at the time, the 'Well, I don't know's' had it! The English are tardy in the appreciation of any kind of novelty, and the reception of Verdi's opera was only in accordance with the national habit. It is well known that a taste for this composer's music has survived all the opposition of an earlier period, and that he is now generally popular among the musical amateurs in this country. Whatever their intrinsic merits, his operas have achieved a widely-spread success, as provincial theatres and music-halls can testify throughout the land; and there can be no doubt that, whatever his alleged shortcomings in some respects, he has at command passion, fire, and strong dramatic effect.

"On the first production, then, of Ernani, the public seemed as yet unprepared to give a verdict of its own as to the merits of the young composer, now first placed in England on his trial."[12]

The principal singers at this first representation in England were-Madame Rita Borio, prima donna; Moriani, the tenor; Signor Botelli, baritone; and Fornasari, as the old Castillian noble. The audience, if not the critics, were delighted with the work. The characters so musically individualised, the new and attractive orchestration, the motivi distinguishing the singer, the perfect ensemble, the well-proportioned whole opera-all these thoroughly Verdinian characteristics were seized upon and admired. "Encore followed encore from the rising of the curtain.... Solos, duets, and trios were applauded with equal fervour, but the concerted pieces created the most surprise and admiration.... The ensembles possess a novelty and an impassioned fervour unprecedented."[13]

In a retrospect of the season's opera, a talented critic wrote of Ernani as follows:-"We were then introduced to a composer engaging in Italy surprising popularity, one whose works have been brought out at almost all the great continental theatres, whose productions in his native country met with the most enthusiastic admiration-Verdi. It cannot, therefore, be wondered at that the present able management of Her Majesty's Theatre should have fixed upon the works of this composer to bring before the English public. Ernani did full justice to its brilliant reputation. It presents the real type of the lyrical tragedy, where feeling finds its appropriate expression in music. Musical judges allotted to it the palm of sterling merit, but the leaning of public taste was against the probabilities of its obtaining here the high favour it has elsewhere enjoyed.

"The meritricious sentimental style of the modern school to which, of late years, we have become so accustomed was a bad preparation for the full appreciation of such work as this. Ernani, however, at first only half understood, gradually worked its way into the public favour, and was given a greater number of times than any opera of the season; finally, it might be pronounced completely successful; but yet, on the whole, the result of the production of this opera was not such as to encourage the management to substitute another work of this composer, I Lombardi, for more established favourites. We are sorry for this; we grieve to see in the English musical public so little encouragement for novelty in art, and an unwillingness to patronise works which have not received the sometimes questionable fiat of approbation from the audiences of former seasons, not a whit more infallible than the present. English audiences will rarely judge for themselves in matters of art. They wail that Fashion should have openly set her seal on works which should claim a fair and unbiassed judgment.

"At present Verdi is the only composer of real and sterling merit in that land of song (Italy); for though Rossini still lives, his pen is idle, or only occasionally employed on short compositions of a totally different nature from those with which he has for years delighted the world.... Donizetti, his successor, is silent. Should Ernani or any other work of this young composer be brought forward next year (1846), its success will probably be far more decided; for attention has become awakened on this point, and a purer musical taste is gradually forming in England, as elsewhere."[14]

Ernani was brought forward in the following year, when one among the few critics not antagonistic towards Verdi wrote as follows:-

"It was with much pleasure that we heard Ernani again. This opera is of that stamp which constantly gains upon the mind. The two finales of the first and second acts are chef d'?uvres of composition. When the ear has become sufficiently accustomed to their sounds to follow the varied melodies introduced to them with such wonderful skill, the effect is indescribable. The sensations called forth by such music as this, when listened to with unswerving attention, are far more profound, though of a different nature, than those elicited by the hearing of the most pleasing melody. Combinations of the human voice and of instruments must always, if skilfully managed, produce a powerful effect, and this is especially the case with these two finales, in which every bar has a meaning, and in which consequently, at each hearing, some fresh beauty is revealed.... The duet between Ernani and Elvira, the trio at the end of the opera, and the aria 'Ernani involami' are also deserving of much admiration."[15]

Ernani was conceived in much the same vein as Nabucco and I Lombardi. It was on the continental Italian opera lines, as seen in the operas of his countrymen before him. The personality of Verdi was somewhat more emphatic, but the national model had not been left either in form or in expression. "Full of plagiarisms as was every number of that opera," records one of the divided, distracted critics, "it took more or less with the public because of the large amount of tune with which it abounded, whilst the constant succession of passage after passage in unison excited some degree of curiosity on account of its novelty."[16]

Undoubtedly Ernani was an advance upon Nabucco and I Lombardi. In 1848 this opera came again under the notice of the censor of the Athen?um, but it did not tend to alter his views respecting Verdi musically.

"It is not many years," we read, "since Signor Verdi was in this country, among the myriad strangers who are attracted by the 'season,' struggle vainly for a hearing, and retire unnoticed.... For new melody we have searched in vain; nor have we even found any varieties of form, indicating an original fancy at work as characteristically as in one of Pacini's or Mercadante's or Donizetti's better cavatinas. All seems worn and hackneyed and unmeaning.... 'Ernani! Ernani! involami,' is a song of executive pretension, written apparently for one of those mezzo-soprano voices of extensive compass which poor Malibran brought into fashion. There is a good deal of what may be called pompous assurance, both in the andantino, and in the final movement, and an accomplished singer could doubtless work an encore with it. Signor Verdi's concerted music strikes us as a shade worthier and more individual than his songs.... We cannot conclude these brief remarks, incomplete for obvious reasons, as a judgment, without saying that flimsy as we fancy Signor Verdi's science, and devoid as he seems to be of that fresh and sweet melody, which we shall never cease to relish and welcome, there is a certain aspiration in his works which deserves recognition, and may lead him to produce compositions which will command success."[17]

This could hardly be styled encouraging criticism on a work which had, and has since been received with the greatest success throughout Italy, in Paris, and in London, and which has enjoyed a legitimate and fairly enduring popularity, remembering always how changeable a thing opera at its best is. Adolphe Adam, writing of Ernani in Paris, has said, "Of all the operas of Verdi represented in Paris, Ernani is the one which has obtained the most success. I cannot say why, for I am quite as fond of the others, and I do not think this success is to be attributed especially to the excellent execution it has received."[18] The obvious and only conclusion being that the music itself was the true operating force.

[11] Reminiscences of the Opera, p. 148.

[12] Reminiscences of the Opera, p. 102.

[13] Illustrated London News, 15th March 1845.

[14] Illustrated London News, 23rd August 1845.

[15] Illustrated London News, 21st March 1846.

[16] Musical Recollections of the Last Half-Century, vol. ii. p. 162.

[17] Athen?um, 26th February 1848.

[18] The Life and Works of Verdi (Pougin-Matthew), p. 169.

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