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   Chapter 6 RIGOLETTO TO A DA—SECOND PERIOD OPERAS

Verdi: Man and Musician By Frederick James Crowest Characters: 53604

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Turning-point in Verdi's career-The libretto of Rigoletto-Production of Rigoletto in Venice, London, and Paris-Great success of the opera-Athen?um and The Times on Rigoletto-"La Donna è mobile"-A Second period style-Il Trovatore written for Rome-The libretto-Its reception at the Apollo Theatre-The work produced at the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden-Its cast and Graziani's singing therein-Lightning study of the Azucena r?le-Athen?um and The Times on Il Trovatore-La Traviata-The libretto and argument-The first performance at Venice a fiasco-Judgment reversed-Brilliant success of the opera in London-Piccolomini's impersonation of Violetta-Mr. Lumley's testimony-The Press and La Traviata-Athen?um and The Times criticism of La Traviata-Les Vêpres Siciliennes-Prima donna runs away-Reception of the opera in Paris and London-Verdi in Germany-The Times criticism-Simon Boccanegra a failure-Un Ballo in Maschera-Trouble with the authorities-Production and success of Un Ballo in Maschera-Its reception in London-The Times on the opera-La Forza del Destino unsuccessful.

We here reach a period in the composer's career where unmistakable signs of a change in Verdi's musical manner present themselves. Verdi was a born musician. So too, were Bellini and Donizetti, but Verdi, by industry and study, has done immeasurably more for Italy's art than these or any other of her sons. A musical progressivist, he has ever been on the art march. Not content with writing opera after opera of the normal Bellini stamp, we find him at this stage improving upon his model, and engaging in the construction of a series of opera compositions which, analysts declare, constitute a Second period in Verdi's artistic development. The first of these works was Rigoletto.

Verdi had entered into an agreement with impresario Lasina to write another opera for the Fenice Theatre, and Piave had prepared a libretto based upon Victor Hugo's drama, Le Roi s'amuse. Everybody knows the tragedy, and that it was suppressed lest the cap should fit, because the principal part of Fran?ois Premier showed a depraved libertine, whose capers were not unreflected in Royalty. The libretto provoked the Austrian supervision, and brought in the police. The original title of the book was La Maledizione, but this was dropped. It closely follows the French play, the locality and the personages only being changed. There is the deformed jester or fool of the Court, who is prostrated by a malediction from a father whom he has mocked, and who is punished for his witticism by Gilda, his daughter, being made the victim of his Sovereign. This unfortunate girl is then seen giving up her own life to save that of her betrayer, the Duke having been entrapped into a lone house to be assassinated by the jester's orders.

Eventually, all points being arranged, Verdi set to work upon Rigoletto, Buffone di Corte, which was produced with signal success on the 11th March 1851. That world-famed melody "La Donna è mobile" made an instantaneous hit, and has been hummed and sung to death in every quarter of the globe ever since. To make quite sure that the public should not get wind of this tune before the night of the performance, Verdi did not put it upon paper until within a few hours of the time when Mirate, the tenor, had to sing it.

As soon as it could be arranged, the opera was introduced at London and Paris, being brought forward at the Italian Opera, Covent Garden, for the 1853 season, and at the Théatre Italien in the French capital on the 19th January 1857. Rigoletto was a brilliant success in London; indeed, of three operatic novelties which Mr. Gye produced in that season, it was the only one that proved attractive or profitable. On this occasion the cast was:-Gilda, Madame Bosio; Duke of Mantua, Signor Mario; Rigoletto, Signor Ronconi; Sparafucile, Signor Tagliafico; while subordinate characters were represented by Mlle. Didiée (Magdalen), Madame Temple, Signor Polonini, and others. Mario's singing was splendid, and the acting of Ronconi was greatly admired. "Great as was the histrionic genius of Ronconi admitted to be, his Rigoletto has combined displays of comedy and tragedy that can only recall the well-known picture of Garrick between Thalia and Melpomene. Let us instance the scene in the Ducal palace in the second act" (wrote an eye-witness) "in which Rigoletto strives to smile with the courtiers, whilst his heart is breaking at the abduction of his child-an abduction in which he himself has been made, innocently, to assist. The expression of Ronconi's face in this scene, one-half of the face a court jester, the other half that of the bereaved father, can never be forgotten."[36]

In Paris a French translation of Rigoletto was equally well received.

The musical characteristics of Rigoletto were immediately discerned and discussed. The general drift of the criticism was that in Rigoletto melody was wanting, that there were no fine concerted pieces, and that the opera possessed everything save living properties. The truth was, Verdi was expressing himself in something of a new language that had yet to be learned.

Here is what an impartial critic thought of Rigoletto at the time of its production:-

"We have never been the champions nor the detractors of Verdi, and we recognise in Rigoletto a higher order of beauty than struck us even in Ernani and the Due Foscari, and an abandonment, at the same time, of his most palpable defects. Rigoletto cannot be ranked, however, as a masterpiece; it is full of plagiarisms and faults, and yet abounds with the most captivating music."[37]

The following is what the Athen?um had to say of Rigoletto, a work which, by the bye, was performed at the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden, as recently as last season, when it was received with well-nigh unbounded applause and real pleasure:-"Such effect as Rigoletto produces is produced not by its dramatic propriety of sound to sense. There is hardly one phrase in the part of the Buffoon which might not belong to Signor Verdi's Doge in I Due Foscari or to his Nabucco. The music of combination and dramatic action, again, is puerile and queer-odd modulations being perpetually wrenched out with the vain hope of disguising the intrinsic meagreness of the ideas, and flutes being used for violins, or vice versa, apparently not to charm the listener but to make him stare. Thus, the opening ball scene, accompanied throughout by orchestras on the stage, the abduction finale, the scene between Rigoletto and the courtiers, and the storm in the last act, are alike miserable in their meagre patchiness and want of meaning.... Signor Verdi is less violent in his instrumentation in Rigoletto than he was in his earlier operas; but he has not here arrived at the music of intellect and expression, which is French or German, as distinguished from the music of melody, which is Italian.... The air of display for Gilda in the garden scene, called in the published copies of the music a Polacca, though in common tempo, is as ineffective a mixture of commonplace and eccentricity as it ever fell to the lot of a prima donna to deliver."[38]

The Times spoke thus of Rigoletto:-"The imitations and plagiarisms from other composers are frequent, while there is not a single elaborate and well-conducted finale, or even morceau l'ensemble. In aiming at simplicity, Signor Verdi has hit frivolity. In other operas he has often, with a certain degree of success hidden poverty of idea under a pompous display of instruments; but in the present, abandoning that artifice, and relying upon the strength of his melodic invention, he has triumphantly demonstrated that he has very few ideas that can be pronounced original. In short, with one exception (Luisa Miller), Rigoletto is the most feeble opera of Signor Verdi with which we have the advantage to be acquainted, the most uninspired, the barest, and the most destitute of ingenious contrivance. To enter into an analysis would be a loss of time and space."[39]

And yet, after forty years or more of musical progress, a crowded fashionable house, to say nothing of the wisdom of the management, will assemble to give its time, attention, and money to listen to an opera which, if we are to believe these two sapient leading critics of a past age, was scarcely worth the paper upon which it was written! Both old and new journalism to-day appears to have everything to say in favour of Rigoletto! Instead of the opera dying, it has proved, we repeat, one of the most admired of Verdi's early works, and we who are living the years of this closing nineteenth century can see what a fitting connecting link Rigoletto forms between Verdi's First and Third period works. The composer bridges us quietly over from impulsive musical youth to a ripe artistic fulness which, natural as it all seems to us who can look back upon Verdi's gradual development towards perfection of style, must have bewildered his closely scrutinising contemporaries. No previous work of his had shown similar masterly force and originality. Apart from the evergreen "La Donna è mobile" air, such attractive numbers as the soprano romance, and the soprano, tenor, and bass duos in the second act, are beauties of the opera that will always tend to keep it on the stage; while no praise would be too much to bestow upon the quartuor in the last act, a piece of concerted music which competent judges are agreed would of itself be sufficient to stamp Verdi as a composer of rare fancy and imagination.

Since its style and merit were maintained in several works that followed it, this opera well lends itself as the starting-point of a Second era in Verdi's career as a leading composer for the Italian lyric stage.

Rigoletto was the first of a series of fine examples of dramatic art, which brought world-wide fame and ample profit to Verdi, lifting him, at the same time, into the first rank of operatic composers. In the face of its alleged defects-absence of melody and concerted pieces, together with a subdued, restricted orchestration-the audiences accepted it, the general feeling being that it stood unsurpassed by any Italian opera. Every habitué of the opera-house to-day is familiar with the sparkling beauties of Rigoletto, and fittingly enough, the opera finds a place in almost every season's programme. The strongest proof of its merits, however, is the fact that performances of the work, extending over a period of forty years, have neither diminished its attractiveness nor prejudiced a new and rising generation against either the book or the music. Several of Verdi's early operas have weathered the test of time and fashion bravely, especially if we remember the evanescent nature of opera generally; but not one, not the Trovatore among his early works, is more highly regarded by musical people to-day than is Rigoletto, the Court Jester.

With the composer's next opera we meet Verdi the melodic universalist.

It was at the Apollo Theatre in Rome that the Trovatore first saw the light on the 19th January 1853. Cammarano the Italian poet found subject in El Trovador, a brilliant drama by Guttierez, a talented Spanish author of only nineteen summers. The story, a revoltingly horrible one, is well known. A gipsy woman put to death by a nobleman on a charge of witchcraft, has a daughter to whom she bequeaths the task of avenging her death. The daughter steals the Count's younger child, and brings him up as her own, instilling into his mind a hatred of his own brother, whom he knows not to be such. The brothers become rivals in love; the reputed son of the gipsy (who has risen to distinction) being preferred by the object of their passion. The quarrel becomes deadly; the younger brother falls into the hands of the elder, who orders his execution. The gipsy witnesses the death of her supposed son; and when the axe has fallen, turns exultingly to the Count exclaiming, "My mother is avenged; you have murdered your own brother!" The lady who is beloved by the rival brothers, unable to save her lover's life, swallows poison. The epoch is the fifteenth century.

Undaunted by frailties of his collaborateur, the maestro went to work, and in a short time Il Trovatore was clothed in musical garb. What that harmonious garment proved the world well knows-too well, say some who, like the late Mr. Babbage, mathematician and calculator, have been almost driven to death by organ-grinders. Whatever was confused and improbable in the book was amply atoned for by the music, for Verdi set it to some of his most passionate-human melody and harmony.

The first representation was awaited with feverish excitement, akin to the musical sensibilities of the Italian people. The day proved wet and cold, but not sufficiently so to damp the ardour of the enthusiastic Romans. At early morn the theatre doors were besieged, and as the hour of the performance drew near the pitch of fervour was intense. Eventually the crowd got into the theatre, packing it from floor to ceiling with marvellous rapidity and dangerous discomfort. Then amid alternate periods of strained attention and agitation, the opera was performed. Each scene and situation brought down thunders of applause until the very walls echoed with the shoutings. Outside, the people took up the cry, and there arose such shouts of "Long live Verdi!" "Verdi and Italy!" "Italy's greatest composer!" "Viva Verdi!" as could be heard again inside the theatre.

The artists at this memorable performance were Signore Penco (Leonora) and Goggi; and Signori Grossi (Manrico), Baucarde, Guicciardi, and Balderi.

The spread of the Trovatore music was electrical. Theatre after theatre produced the work, so eagerly did subscribers and patrons clamour. At Naples three houses were giving the opera at about the same time.

It was at this time that Verdi was meeting with a determined opposition from a brother craftsman from whom better treatment might reasonably have been expected. "In Naples," states an eye-witness, "Mercadante reigned supreme. He would not listen to the sound of Verdi's name. He declared even Rigoletto was bosh,-you know I was then singing Gilda at the Teatro Nuovo;-he had the Court and the highest society for his patrons, and managed to set everybody against poor Verdi. Things went so far that he organised a cabal against him at Court, and when Trovatore-which by the way, after Rome, the people would have-was brought out at San Carlo, Mercadante had so ingratiated himself with the censor Lord Chamberlain, and I don't know who else, that they only allowed two acts of Trovatore to be sung, and there was a perfect revolution in the town until the third and fourth acts were accorded by the management. I was the first one to sing the full score at little Teatro Nuovo. The subscribers who were three nights at San Carlo were the other three nights at my theatre; and to my dying day I shall never forget the success it had! Happily Teatro Nuovo was the first in the field with the complete opera.... It is impossible to conceive the tricks and cabals against Verdi put up by old Mercadante. One would have thought that as he was old and nearing his grave, and as his last opera at San Carlo had been a failure, he would have had some consideration for the young and struggling artist; but, on the contrary, he kept Verdi out of Naples as long as he could. The people finally wouldn't stand it any longer; they weren't going to put up even with Mercadante at his best when there was a fresh new composer taking Italy by storm-when every Italian capital was singing his operas, and Naples, according to all, the very seat of fine arts, the only city deprived of hearing Verdi and acclaiming his works."[40]

Not only in Italy did the Trovatore "take." It went the round of the European capitals in an unprecedentedly short time, and nowhere was it admired more than in that stronghold of contrapuntal prejudice, Germany, where its alluring melodies proved simply irresistible.

In 1854 it was given at the Paris Théatre Italien, and the following year saw its production in London. The management of the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden, brought it forward on Thursday, 11th May, when it was received with warm applause, which increased with every representation. On this occasion the principal parts were filled by Madame Viardot[41] (Azucena), Mdlle. Jenny Ney (Leonora), Signor Tamberlik (Manrico) and Signor Graziani (Conte di Luna), who did full justice to Verdi's captivating music.

Referring to this remarkable performance, an experienced writer says:-

"The favourable impression Graziani had made in the Ernani induced the management to put him forward in another of Verdi's operas, Il Trovatore, a work which has brought more money into theatrical treasuries than any other production of modern times. If Graziani had sung nothing else in this opera than the air 'Il balen del suo sorriso,' as the Conte di Luna, he would have permanently established himself; yet whoever witnessed the clumsy manner in which he 'loafed' down to the footlights as the symphony of this air was being played-as he still does-could by no means have anticipated anything else than a manifestation of the most positive vulgarity, instead of hearing the beautiful voice and suave cantabile with which he invested that somewhat commonplace, yet not the less popular, invention. Mdlle. Ney was the Leonora on this occasion, and was singing and acting with care, according to the habit of German stage usage, but nothing more. The event of the evening, however, was Madame Viardot's Azucena, the part she had 'created' in Paris, and one of the most remarkable performances of its time. The savage, credulous, restless Spanish gipsy, strong in her instincts, but whose reason amounts to little beyond a few broken ideas of revenge, was manifested in every word, look, and gesture. Since Pasta and Rubini left the stage, nothing of nicer vocal finish, and nothing in dramatic utterance more true and beautiful than her delivery of the andantino, 'Si la stanchezza,' had ever been listened to. The Royal Italian Opera had never, indeed, heard such singing as hers in such music, which lay thoroughly within her compass, the middle portion of which had gained both body and sweetness. Tamberlik undertook the part of the Trovatore, and gained ground with his audience as the opera proceeded; but his magnificent voice gave unwelcome evidence of wear and tear in its diminished resonance, when he desired to use it to advantage in the most exacting passages."[42]

It will be allowed, we suspect, that no dramatic-lyric work is so well known, or has enjoyed a more amazing popularity than has Verdi's opera of The Troubadour. Whatever may be its merits and demerits, it is unquestionably a work which has delighted a generation fast passing away; while it bids fair to afford equal pleasure to a new and rising one, judging by the hearty reception given to the opera at recent performances. For long and long have ominous words been uttered predicting the decline and death of Il Trovatore, with all Italian opera of its kin. But behold it is alive and well! Thanks to the efforts of "apostles" of music like Hullah and others, musical education has gone on apace since Il Trovatore first appeared here; but with all this, and all the classicism which it has been fashionable to ape in music, there yet remains something in Verdi's opera that still attracts, not merely the "mob," but educated people. This suggests merit of some kind. What said critics forty years ago:-

"By the choice of his subjects," says the Athen?um, "we sometimes can gauge a composer, as well as by his melodies. Bellini may have known even less of the scientific processes of composition than Signor Verdi (whom report declares to be a thoughtful, cultivated gentleman, as anxious according to his measure of light for dramatic reality in opera as Herr Wagner himself), nevertheless Bellini contrived to appropriate two of the best Italian books ever written, those of Norma and La Sonnambula.... But in Il Trovatore, as throughout every opera by the master with which we are acquainted, these gleams of purpose and intelligence are relieved and contrasted against a general ground of commonplace, than which little more monotonous in its mannerism can be conceived. The dash which may be found in the cabaletta 'Ditale amor' with its staccati and its sighs and sobbings, and its snatch at high notes by way of brilliancy, is as old as Ernani. The cantabile for the tenor, in 3/4 time, and with a plurality of flats for key, has been written for tenor and baritone one hundred times, if once, by Donizetti. The movement of the stretto to 'Cruda Sorte' in Signor Rossini's Ricciardo e Zoraide, the employment of principal voices in unison, whether it be placed or misplaced, are anew resorted to here, with a coolness nothing short of curious, in one who believes that he has a mission and professes to write a 'system.'"[43]

The Times notice of Il Trovatore was more appreciative than usual. There was a desire to find something good in the musician, and although the criticism hardly conveys the idea that the work referred to would ever attain the extraordinary popularity which it has done, a popularity extending to this hour, yet it must, in justice, be noted that certain favourable points in the work did appeal to, and were duly chronicled by the critic. Not that we can admit that the notice was one to induce the composer to feel at ease. A spirit of antagonism to Italian art still reigns, and throughout it seems to ring out the old familiar theme, that no good thing could come out of Italy. Nor could it have greatly served Verdi's art-progress.

"Il Trovatore," to quote a few of its strains, "though it exhibits Signor Verdi in his best holiday attire, is hardly destined to raise him in the estimation of real judges.... The kind, and degree of merit, the direct influence of his music, and its chance of outliving an ephemeral reputation are questions apart.... He is neither a Rossini, nor an Auber, nor a Meyerbeer; far from it; but he is not, as some would insist, a nonentity, almost as far indeed from that as from the other.... The weaker part of the first act" (we are told) "is the trio, where the Count (Signor Graziani) surprises the troubadour in the presence of Leonora, which is rambling and incoherent, and after all but an apology for a trio, since the tenor and soprano are in unison almost throughout. The last movement is vulgar and commonplace, ill-written for the voices, and extremely noisy."[44]

This is what the Illustrated London News thought of Il Trovatore:-

"The production of Il Trovatore at the Royal Italian Opera has been attended with complete success.... On its first performance (on Thursday) it was received with warm applause, and on the Saturday and Tuesday following its reception was more and more enthusiastic. It is evident that the Trovatore will be a permanent addition to the répertoire of the theatre. We expected this. Verdi's latest opera had not only been received with acclamations in his own country; it had achieved triumphs in the principal theatres of Germany; and, last of all, in Paris; and it was not likely that London would reverse the judgment pronounced by the most authoritative tribunals of the Continent. Verdi has long been popular as a dramatic composer; and his popularity has been literal-gained by the voice of the multitude in opposition to that of criticism. While writers learned in musical lore have been labouring to prove that Verdi is a shallow pretender, his operas have been giving delight to thousands in every part of Europe."[45]

Wherever performed, in Italy, France, Germany, Russia, or England, the tale has always been the same respecting the Trovatore. It has been truly enjoyed by the public who have flocked to hear it; and those pieces which are favourites now were favourites from the first. It did not pretend to be a classic, but times and oft it has done the trick for managers in filling their coffers; and after all, any legitimate work which accomplishes this for many years together must not be lightly regarded. Even to-day, forty years and more after its first production, Il Trovatore when well presented never fails to make a deep impression upon audiences. In the 1895 season it was given (May 18) at the Covent Garden Opera with Signor Tamagno in the title-role, when the entire opera was listened to with breathless attention. The enthusiasm was unbounded, and the favourite old work roused as much excitement as if it had been a brand new opera.

La Traviata, a name familiar almost as the Trovatore, was the title of the composer's next opera. The maestro had witnessed younger Dumas' La Dame aux Camelias, that none too delicate play, which, in its day, startled even the Parisians, and he suggested the work to Piave the librettist as an opera book. The Traviata was to satisfy an engagement with the direction of the Fenice Theatre, and by working double tides, i.e. during the while he was composing Il Trovatore, Verdi had the score ready for production on the 6th March 1855, some ten weeks after the Trovatore "first night."

Opera-goers are familiar with the pathetic story and the sorrows of the erring, interesting heroine. La Traviata, i.e. the outcast or lost one, is a youthful beauty and reigning favourite, who gives a splendid entertainment at her house. Among the gay company is a young gentleman, Alfredo by name, who really loves her, and who inspires her with a similar attachment. Actuated by a pure and mutual passion, they retire to the country, where they live together in happy seclusion. One day, in Alfredo's absence, Violetta receives a visit from a venerable old gentleman, who announces himself as the father of her lover. He represents to her the ruinous consequences of his son's present course of life, and urges her to save him, by consenting to leave him. Resolving to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of his welfare, she departs on the instant for Paris, leaving him in the belief that she is faithless, and has forsaken him for another. She returns to her former life, and afterwards meets her lost lover at a party given by one of her friends. Alfredo is furious at the sight of her, insults her grossly, challenges the man whom he considers his successful rival, and the poor girl is carried fainting from the apartment. Her heart is now broken, and nothing remains for her but to die. In the last scene, she is in her bedchamber, extremely weak, but sustained by hope, for her lover's father moved by her sufferings has written to say that he will bring his so

n to her. They arrive. The lover flies to her and for a moment there is rapture; but the shock is fatal. The dying flame goes out, and she dies of joy in his arms.

The success of Il Trovatore had brought Verdi immense popularity throughout Europe. Great things therefore were expected at this performance of La Traviata. Signora Donatelli was the Violetta, Signori Graziani and Varesi filling the parts of the lover and the father respectively. The work was a failure!

"La Traviata last night was a fiasco. Am I to blame, or the singers? Time will prove," wrote Verdi to friend Muzio. The fiasco might have been avoided had all the contributing circumstances been as evident as the astonishing disparity that existed between the imaginary Violetta and the lady filling that r?le, who to a commanding stature added a splendid physique with embonpoint, weighing some twelve stone, which made it madness to imagine that the ravages of a galloping consumption had left her but a few short hours to live! Of course, the house burst into a roar, and went off into an uncontrollable fit of laughter that drove everybody off the stage.

Verdi was distracted, but felt confident that this judgment could be reversed. He made alterations, substituted Louis XIII. costumes for "swallow-tail and white choker" dress, and with a new cast, including a Violetta that could be encompassed, the work was given at the San Beneditto Theatre. The éclat was immense, La Traviata that had been hissed and hooted was acclaimed to the skies. Speedily it spread over Italy, and in the following year was brought to London. The irresistibly affecting story-one which the sternest moralist could barely listen to unmoved-was chosen by Mlle. Piccolomini for her London début in the 1856 season. To quote Mr. Lumley's own words:-

"Mlle. Piccolomini, a young Italian lady of high lineage, made her curtsey on the boards of Her Majesty's Theatre on Saturday the 24th May in Verdi's opera La Traviata, since become so famous and (it may be said at once, in spite of all that may be stated hereafter) so great a favourite, but produced for the first time on that occasion on the Anglo-Italian boards. The enthusiasm she created was immense. It spread like wildfire. Once more frantic crowds struggled in the lobbies of the theatre, once more dresses were torn and hats crushed in the conflict, once more a mania possessed the public. Marietta Piccolomini became the 'rage.' From the moment of her début the fortunes of the theatre were secured for the season."[46] "Opera and singer both were new," continues Mr. Lumley. "Curiosity and interest were excited both for the one and the other. There was an overflowing house. As through the coming season, so through her first night was the charming young lady's success unquestionable. After a warm reception, such as English audiences are wont to give by way of welcome to a meritorious stranger, Mlle. Piccolomini was to be heard and judged, and (what, as it turned out, was more to the purpose), she was to be seen. Applause followed her opening efforts. The charm of manner had begun to work. The second act produced at its conclusion a burst of genuine enthusiasm. At the end of the opera it was a frenzy. The whole house rose to congratulate the singer when recalled. The charm was complete. The vivacity of acting (especially in the death-scene of the finale) had worked their spell. Marietta Piccolomini was adopted at once as the pet (and afterwards how much petted!) child of Her Majesty's Theatre.

"Verdi's music now shared the same fate as its fortunate exponent. It pleased, it was run after, it became one of the most popular compositions of the time. It is true that musical 'purists' cavilled and criticised severely; that anti-Verdists denounced it with all the epithets of their stereotyped vocabulary as 'trashy, flimsy, and meretricious'; but, in spite of opposition and of bigotry, it not only attracted (perhaps even more than any other of Verdi's operas) countless crowds when the favourite 'charming little Piccolomini' was its exponent, but achieved a marked and lasting popularity at other theatres, as well as in every music hall throughout the land. Notwithstanding the accusation that the 'Traviata was weak and commonplace,' the 'catching' melody and, above all, the dramatic force and expression of a composer whose principal merit consisted in the peculiarity that he really was dramatic, gained upon the masses. It attained considerable popularity, moreover, in spite of a dangerous and equivocal subject; one which was denounced from the pulpit, denounced by mighty authority in the press, denounced even at one time by popular sentiment itself."[47]

Quite a contrast to the state of things when the work was howled at by the merry Venetians!

On the night of its first performance in this country, the caste included, besides Mlle. Piccolomini, Signori Calzolari and Beneventano, who filled the parts of the lover and father respectively.

A critic, one by no means usually ill-disposed towards Verdi, wrote of the performance as follows:-

"A new production from the prolific pen of Maestro Verdi is a thing to which we are pretty well accustomed, and it happens that the new production in question, La Traviata, is the weakest, as it is the last, of his numerous progeny. It has pretty tunes, for every Italian has more or less the gift of melody; but even the tunes are trite and common, bespeaking an exhausted invention, while there are no vestiges of the constructed skill, none of the masterly pieces of concerted music, which we find in the Trovatore or in Rigoletto."[48]

A section of the English press made a dead set against the opera, but the test of time has given the lie to detractors. Despite the heroine's damaged reputation, the music has proved sufficiently good, lasting, and attractive to keep the opera on the English boards, not to mention Continental theatres, for full forty years. The "highly immoral" story did not prove destructive to England's youth and age. The British character survived it!

When La Traviata was ready to be played before the British public, there was a great outburst of moral indignation. Mr. Lumley gives his version of the affair: "Permission was in vain demanded of the Lord Chamberlain to allow adaptations of the drama to appear upon the English stage. That this prohibition should have been enforced on a stage where George Barnwell, and more especially Jane Shore (the heroine of which old tragedy is also a sympathetic Traviata, who dies a miserable death), are upheld as 'fine old legitimate' plays, and were once produced on the chief assemblage of the youth of the age at Christmastide, did not appear very consistent or even logical; and the Traviata appeared. And a considerable surprise (in spite of all previous minor 'grumblings') fell upon the public when it found its favourite opera morally crushed to the earth by the mighty thunder of the press. The 'foul and hideous horrors' of the Traviata were held up as proper objects for 'deep and unmitigated censure' in the leading journal. One clap of thunder followed on the other. In a long letter I published an elaborate defence of my opera against the accusation of its blatant 'immorality.' This letter appeared duly in the columns of The Times, as an appendix to a still more crushing denunciation. Minor journals flashed their own smaller lightnings in sympathetic response to this storm from the 'Thunderer.' But the public was not to be lectured out of its treat. It would not consider its morality endangered. It still flocked to Verdi's opera, and the fascinating Piccolomini."[49]

The Times easily disposed of Verdi's share in the work. "The book," the criticism runs, "is of far more consequence than the music, which, except so far as it affords a vehicle for the utterance of the dialogue, is of no value whatever, and, moreover, because it is essentially as a dramatic vocalist that the brilliant success of Mlle. Piccolomini was achieved.... For the present, it will be sufficient to treat La Traviata as a play set to music. To Dumas fils, who invented the situations, and Mlle. Piccolomini, who delineated the emotions of the principal character, belong the honours of a triumph with which the composer has as little to do as possible."[50]

The Athen?um lost no time in "going for" Verdi over La Traviata. The first process was an examination of the "arranged score of Signor Verdi's setting of the Dame aux Camelias," whereupon the critic was in a position to say: "It seems written in the composer's later manner, grouping with his Rigoletto and Trovatore, without being equal to the latter opera; to demand from its heroine a less extensive soprano voice than Signor Verdi usually demands; to contain in the finale to its second act a good specimen of those pompous slow movements in which the newer Italian maestro has wrought out a pattern indicated by Donizetti; also throughout an unusual proportion of music in triple, or waltz tempo.... The masquerade music is fade and trivial.... There is some of Signor Verdi's effective instrumentation in the opening of the final terzetto. All these good points summed up, the new opera, as a whole, is poor and pale-consumptive music, which can only be relished in the absence of some healthier novelty."[51]

Subsequently, when the Lord Chamberlain of the period came down upon La Traviata on account of its questionable story, we read: "Neither Signor Verdi's music (which is Signor Verdi's poorest) nor Mlle. Piccolomini's singing (which every one concedes is on a very small scale) have made the fame and the furore of the opera, and the lady.... The music of La Traviata is trashy; the young Italian lady cannot do justice to the music, such as it is. Hence it follows that the opera and the lady can only establish themselves in proportion as Londoners rejoice in a prurient story prettily acted ... granted that La Traviata at her Majesty's Theatre has been the poorest music, poorly sung, which has been allowed to pass for the sake of its 'dear improper story,'" etc.[52]

Whatever the story, whatever the music of La Traviata it still lives as an opera, and is among the best of its class. This is due again, we believe, to the quality of the music, not to the nature of the story, for surely Londoners did not, forty years back,-nor would they now-betake themselves with their wives and daughters to the theatre to enjoy a lustful, itching story. The Traviata contains much of that warm, emotional, melodic profuseness which the public likes, and which it demands, when it throws off its working garb to take a little pleasure, sadly as, we are told, it takes this. The popular nature of the music, its freedom from technical and theatrical perplexity, which the public at large is glad to be without, its ever-changing colour, variety and expression-all this contributes to the vitality of La Traviata. Has it been, too, the sensuous nature of the story which has led so many nervous débutantes, highly attuned in temperament, to select the r?le to win an artistic fame in, perhaps, the highest, as it is the most difficult of all art pursuits? We believe not.

Poor Traviata! Troubles did not end with Mr. Chorley, for three years after that gentleman's decease we read:-

"How many Traviatas of how many countries have died on the lyric stage since the lugubrious and equivocal three-act opera was produced at Venice in March 1853?... It would be a curious calculation to count the number of prime donne who have taken to this disagreeable part.... A nice discussion as to the degree of sauciness or of bashfulness with which the vocalists who enact the Traviata should invest the consumptive lady, who coughs pianissimo and sings fortissimo in her death-scene."[53]

Les Vêpres Siciliennes was produced at the Grand Opéra, Paris, on the 13th June 1855; so that this composition, with the Trovatore and La Traviata, must have been occupying Verdi's mind at one and the same period. This was Verdi's first work written expressly for the French stage, and it was the more strange, therefore, to find him, an Italian composer, choosing as a subject the massacre of the French by the Sicilians; yet Verdi could scarcely refuse Scribe's story of the wholesale slaughter of 1282.

An amusing incident delayed the production of the work, for Mlle. Sophie Cruvelli, for some unexplained reason, ran away and could not be found. When at last she was traced, it was to the Strasburg theatre, where the runaway was captured and quietly escorted to Paris. A warm reception awaited her; but it so happened that her first words on her rentrée were those of Valentine in Les Huguenots: "Tell me the result of your daring journey,"-an à propos which fairly defeated those who were going to hiss and hoot! They laughed heartily and cheered instead, reflecting over some fresh announcement of Les Vêpres Siciliennes. At length this came. Month after month had been spent in rehearsals, but at last all was ready. The reception given to the opera was of the most enthusiastic description, Mlle. Cruvelli receiving a perfect storm of applause for her efforts in the representation. Other artists in the cast were Mlle. Saunier and Messieurs Gueymard, Boulo, Bonnehée, Obin, and Coulon.

I Vespri Siciliani-to give the opera its Italian title-pleased the French immensely; but the Italians cared not greatly for its music, even when adapted to a new poem entitled Giovanna di Guzman.

In the year 1859 it was brought to London, and presented at Drury Lane Theatre (27th July), being mounted with great care and creditable splendour. The principal artists, who performed with great effect, were Madame Titiens and Signori Mongini and Fagotti, and at the time the opera was adjudged by the dilettanti one of the happiest efforts of its composer; although, as events have proved, the later English judgment has not set a particularly high value upon this work.

Writing for the Parisian stage, Verdi appears to have deemed it necessary to copy the grandiose style of the Grand Opéra, to which he sacrificed that vein of sweet, natural, Italian melody which had won him his success. "Several morceaux," wrote a critic of this London introduction, "were much applauded, but the performance went off heavily as a whole; and we hardly think that those who sat it out will feel much tempted to do so again. Five acts of a ponderous French tragédie lyrique are generally too much for English patience, unless sweeping measures of curtailment are resorted to; and this might be very advantageously done in the case of the Vêpres Siciliennes."[54]

One who was present thus writes of the circumstances: "But one novelty was given-Les Vêpres Siciliennes-which I had heard four years previously at the Grand Opéra, Paris, with Mlle. Cruvelli as the heroine. It failed here, as elsewhere, to maintain the reputation which Verdi had won by his Trovatore, Traviata, and one or two other works of minor importance. In the absence of Mlle. Cruvelli, who had retired from the stage, Mlle. Titiens undertook the part of the heroine; but although she laboured conscientiously to make something of it, it completely beat her, and she has been wise enough never again to waste her powers upon crudities that betray nothing else than leanness and want of resource by reason of their noise and eccentricity."[55]

The Times was good enough to allow next day that the work was produced "with incontestable success." In criticising the music subsequently, The Times' critic said: "Though the piece of itself, in spite of its melodramatic and spectacular character, appears somewhat heavy and spun out, it is enriched with many of Signor Verdi's happiest thoughts.... In short, it may reasonably be concluded that the Vespri Siciliani will maintain its place amongst the best operas of its composer."[56]

Verdi, perhaps, made obeisance for such appreciation from The Times' critic, who from the first, it should in fairness be remarked, had spoken less disparagingly of Verdi's prospects as a musician than had the Athen?um critic. The prediction, however, that I Vespri Siciliani would maintain its place among the best operas of its composer, was singularly unfortunate as a piece of critical forecast, inasmuch as it has been sadly falsified. The reasons for this need not be discussed; suffice it to say that thousands who know and delight in the Trovatore, La Traviata, and Rigoletto music, have not heard the Sicilian Vespers. Thousands more could not even distinguish the opera by its name.

The score that followed Les Vêpres Siciliennes was Simon Boccanegra. The management of the Fenice theatre sought another work from the first Italian master of the day, and Simon Boccanegra was the consequence. Once more the libretto was by Piave. This opera, produced on the 12th March 1857, proved a failure, a result that was attributed partly to the unsuitability of the leading singers, and partly to the feeble book. Later on, an attempt was made by Boito and Verdi to recast it; but neither Milan nor Paris would lend ears to the opera. Yet the following year it was given at Naples with enthusiasm. "Its first performance took place," wrote a critic, "on the 28th November 1858, and was crowned with the most complete success. The audience was densely crowded, and so brimful of enthusiasm that the maestro was called for seventeen times in course of the evening."[57] One of its best vocal numbers is the scena, "Sento avvampar nell'anima," with the aria, "Cielo pietoso, rendila," a thoroughly characteristic Verdinian song, and one which might well be found in every tenor vocalist's répertoire.

Let it not be thought that Verdi was waning. Only a few months elapsed, and the maestro was ready with a work, Un Ballo in Maschera, which was to prove another triumph.

The original title was Gustave III., but the police, watchful of Verdi, and freshened by the Orsini attempt upon Napoleon III.'s life, positively refused to permit an assassination scene to be played. Verdi was furious, and declined to adapt his music to other words, whereupon the management of the San Carlo Theatre at Naples (who had originally contracted for this work) sued Verdi for 200,000 francs damages. Soon the public learned the news. Then was there something resembling a revolution; thousands of excited Neapolitans followed the musician wherever he went, shouting "Viva Verdi!" So heated did the feeling grow, steeped as it was with virulent political animosity, that the situation became dangerous, and eventually the authorities were glad to allow Verdi to depart "out of their coasts" with his opera under his arm. It next turned up at Rome. Jacovacci, the impresario of the Teatro Apollo, wanted a novelty, and hearing of the squabble at Naples, sought Verdi and offered to take the opera. The official element insisted upon some alteration, but finally the opera was produced on 17th February 1859, and met with a splendid reception, once more sending Verdi's name and tunes over all Europe. The artists were, Mesdames Julienne Dejeau, Scotti, and Sbriscia, with Signori Fraschini and Giraldoni, but Verdi was not satisfied with their interpretation of his score.

On the 15th June 1861, Un Ballo in Maschera was produced at the Royal Opera, Lyceum, and met with an enthusiastic reception. The subject is the same as that of Auber's celebrated opera Gustavus III.-the assassination of the King of Sweden at a masked ball. Undoubtedly it is one of the best of Verdi's Second period operas. The audience were delighted with the music, and all good judges perceived that the work was in every sense a grand opera.

Un Ballo in Maschera, when produced for the first time in England, brought The Times again to the fore. "It presents enough," the review ran, "to show his (Verdi's) talent still ripening, and his inventive faculty in its prime; but it cannot be regarded as 'his Guillaume Tell,' Rigoletto being out of all comparison a better work, while Il Trovatore and La Traviata (to say nothing of those earlier compositions Nabucco and Ernani) contain isolated passages of marked superiority.... Unquestionable as are the merits of his score, piece after piece demonstrates his musical inferiority to Auber.... To describe the opera scene after scene would be a work of supererogation. Its pretensions as a whole are not of a sort to call for technical analysis, or even to bear a very close scrutiny; while the beauties by which it is enriched (and they are frequent) se déroulent, as the French say, so easily, reveal themselves with such complacency, start out from the canvas, in short, in such bold relief and endowed with so marked an individuality, that they render themselves familiar at a glance, and put that into shade which, after all, is scarcely worth bringing to light-we mean the general framework in which they are set. Those pieces which are not the most likely to become popular, but which in the majority of instances are also, from a musical point of view, decidedly the best, may be summed up in a 'catalogue' not over raisonnée."[58]

This criticism, unmarked though it be by any evident sympathy with Verdi's muse, might pass as a somewhat favourable estimate of an effort of Verdi's. But it is illogical. Upon reference to what appeared in The Times eight years before, respecting Rigoletto, we fail to trace a good word. "A very few (words) will suffice to recall its beauties. Its faults we have not space to describe. The continental critics have informed us that Rigoletto presented a transformation in Signor Verdi's style as complete as that of Beethoven when the Second Symphony was succeeded by the Eroica. A very attentive hearing, however, left us convinced that Signor Verdi's style in Rigoletto was much the same as in his other operas. There is certainly no difference.... Verdi is as essentially Verdi as in Nabucco and Ernani, with the proviso that in Nabucco and Ernani there are stirring tunes and flowing melodies which are nowhere to be met with in Rigoletto."[59]

Such language, and that which appears on page 110 is plain, unmistakable, emphatic. How, then, shall we read the line of comparative comment upon Un Ballo in Maschera-"Rigoletto being out of all comparison a better work"?

One more opera, and we must close this chapter. This was La Forza del Destino, the libretto of which by Piave was borrowed from a Spanish drama entitled Don Alvar. The work was a commission from the Imperial Theatre of St. Petersburg, and was produced there on the 10th November 1862. It was only a succés d'estime, the Court of Russia and the Muscovite populace not being greatly moved by it. Yet it was well rendered by Mesdames Barbot and Nautier-Didiée, with Signori Tamberlik, Graziani, Debassini, and Angelini. Precisely the same fate that attended the work in the Russian capital befel it at La Scala, Milan, in 1869, as well as at the Paris Théatre Italien seven years later.

There was not a little that was restless and novel in La Forza del Destino, which probably accounts for its cool reception from those who were ready enough to welcome another of the old and approved Verdi operas. That change of style which was, later on, to show itself so unmistakably in A?da, Otello, and Falstaff was beginning to possess the composer's mind. Sufficient of the new manner oozed out in La Forza del Destino for critics and analysts now to point to that opera as the work in which Verdi's Third style first begins to be traceable, and it can scarcely be surprising that an unprepared public failed to be impressed with the first hintings at a new style which had yet to be placed before the musical world in a matured and comprehendable state.

With this work, Verdi appeared to bid farewell for ever to the operatic stage; but, as all the world knows, a long artistic silence meant merely a retirement for the gathering up of resources that were to burst forth and bring Verdi into a perfect blaze of popularity.

[36] Illustrated London News, 21st May 1853.

[37] Illustrated London News, 21st May 1853.

[38] Athen?um, 21st May 1853.

[39] The Times, 16th May 1853.

[40] Verdi: Milan and "Othello" (Roosevelt), p. 49.

[41] Apropos of this distinguished cantatrice, sister to the immortal Malibran, an interesting narrative is related in connection with the first production of Il Trovatore in Paris, where, by the way, it soon had no less than one hundred representations. Verdi himself has told the tale. "The morning arriving for the first performance, Madame Alboni announced that she was ill, and the opera could not be given that night. What was to be done? Every one was waiting; every seat was sold. I was in despair. Happily, I thought of Madame Viardot. I said to myself, 'She is the only woman in the world who, at a moment's notice, can take the part, if she will only consent to do it.'

"I tore off to her house. It was early in the morning. 'Mon cher,' she said, 'what on earth has brought you at this hour?'

"I hastily told her the cause. 'Alboni is ill.'

"'But what can I do?' she said.

"'You must sing it,' I cried.

"She interrupted, 'I have been so busy, I haven't even seen the music; I haven't looked at it.'

"'There it is,' I said, producing a roll. 'It is very easy; it will be nothing to you.' So, laughing and chatting, and protesting that she couldn't, I sat down to the piano. We ran the music of Azucena over from beginning to end two or three times. In the afternoon we had another rehearsal, and that evening she sang the part with overwhelming success.

"'That is what we call a quick study,' said Verdi, laughing, 'to learn such a r?le in the space of eight hours, dress it, and go on the stage and sing it; but then, you must remember there is only one Pauline Viardot in all this world'" (Verdi: Milan and "Othello" (Roosevelt), p. 49).

[42] Musical Recollections of the Last Half-Century, vol. ii. p. 280.

[43] Athen?um, 12th May 1855.

[44] The Times, 14th May 1855.

[45] 19th May 1855.

[46] Reminiscences of the Opera (Lumley), p. 375.

[47] Reminiscences of the Opera (Lumley), p. 377.

[48] Illustrated London News, 31st May 1856.

[49] Reminiscences of the Opera (Lumley), p. 379.

[50] The Times, 26th May 1856.

[51] Athen?um, 3rd May 1856.

[52] Athen?um, 16th August 1856.

[53] Athen?um, 9th May 1874.

[54] Illustrated London News, 30th July 1859.

[55] Musical Recollections of the Last Half-Century, vol. ii. p. 325.

[56] The Times, 1st August 1859.

[57] Illustrated London News, 11th December 1858.

[58] The Times, 17th June 1861.

[59] Ibid., 16th May 1853.

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