Verdi: Elevating Drama through Music
Verdi is one of the greatest operatic composers of all time. While this sentence may seem hyperbolic, ever since he hit his stride in the 1850s, Verdi reputation as the greatest musical dramatist has only grown, and it is Verdi’s mythic status that makes his works among the most performed operas in the world.
Without fail, generations of operagoers have been moved and transported by operas such as La traviata, Rigoletto, Aida, and Falstaff. In fact, a love of Verdi is so ubiquitous with a love of opera that to deny Verdi’s greatness is seen by many people to be heretical. So, the question becomes: why? Why is Verdi’s greatness so assured that to even think about denying it seems ridiculous?
Well, there are as many answers to this question as there are lovers of opera. However, the answer that I find the most interesting is this:
Verdi was not interested in innovation. Unlike Verdi’s contemporary Richard Wagner who wanted to reinvent opera and change the world, Verdi only really cared about telling good stories, and in doing so, Verdi perfected the art of opera—the art of using music to elevate drama.
When Verdi was a young man, the bel canto era was in full swing, and the works of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini dominated Italian stages. These operas conformed to very strict forms, conventions, and rules. Audiences knew what to expect, and it was how you worked within this framework that determined the success of the opera.
Verdi did not try to break free from these rules and conventions by destroying them (like Wagner did). Instead, he used these forms to his advantage. Instead of reinventing a new Italian style, he pushed the Italian style as far as it could possibly go.
Take the famous quartet from Rigoletto as an example. Theoretically, it is nothing we haven’t seen before. After all, every bel canto opera had a moment where time stood still, where all of the central characters explored their feelings, and where dramatic tension was created through melodic expansion. A great example of this is the famous sextet from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. The quartet from Rigoletto does the same thing. In this scene we have all of the central characters onstage, time stops, and dramatic tension is created through music.
However, Verdi never forgets about the drama that is unfolding, and it is this emphasis on drama that allows him to push he pushes the boundaries of form without breaking them. In the formal quartet, the characters never sing the same music. They each have their own melodies that reflect their predicament, and none of them repeat the same words.
- The Duke is trying to seduce Magdalena so his music is legato, lyrical, and highly melodic.
- Magdalena is quick witted--yet flustered—so she sings a spritely line that resembles more Mozartian patter than tragic opera.
- Gilda is heartbroken as she sees the man she loves seduce another, so her music is filled with sighing motivs that display her torment.
- Rigoletto is bent on revenge, so he sings underneath it all, brooding with unrelenting melodic fragments.
This is revolutionary, but not because Verdi created something completely new (like Wagner’s leitmotifs). Instead, he focused on the reality of the drama and used that to push the old forms as far as they could possibly go.
I think that’s why Verdi’s operas are so timeless. He uses forms and conventions that were perfected and proven vehicles of musical and dramatic expression, but through his own strict adherence to the drama, he managed to bring these forms to their final, ultimate conclusion.
It is this perfection of Italian opera that we are drawn to, and it is this clarity of story, character, that affirms Verdi as one of the greatest operatic composers of all time.