Giuseppe Verdi was born in a village near Parma that, like the rest of northern Italy, was under Austrian control. His musical experiences up through his mid-twenties occurred close to home — early lessons with a local musician, church organist job at age 9, further private study after being denied admission to the Conservatory at Milan, a job giving instrumental and vocal lessons. A turning point in his life occurred in 1939 with the enthusiastic reception of his first opera, Oberto, in Milan. This led to a commission for three more operas, one of which, Nabucco, was produced in several major European cities and in New York in the 1840s. Once an obscure provincial musician, Verdi had achieved the international celebrity that he was to enjoy for the rest of his life, almost exclusively for his operas. Although openly critical of the Roman Catholic Church, he also composed several settings of religious texts.
Verdi’s career coincides almost exactly with the Risorgimento, the nationalist movement that he passionately supported and that culminated with the unification of Italy under King Victor Emmanuele in 1861. Although the scenes and characters in Verdi’s operas have no direct connection to contemporary events in Italy, the stories of tyranny, conspiracy, political assassination, and suppression of individual and national liberties struck a chord with the Italian public. The slogan of the unification movement became VIVA, VERDI, the letters of the composer’s name standing for Vittorio Emanuele, Re di Italia (Victor Emmanuele, King of Italy). Toward the end of Verdi’s life, opera was developing in new directions under the influence of German and younger Italian composers, but he was still beloved by his countrymen. The route of his burial procession in Milan was said to have been lined by as many as 200,000 people and an estimated 300,000 attended the official memorial service.
Almost 20 of Verdi’s operas are staples of the romantic repertory today, among them Macbeth, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Un Ballo in Maschera, La Forza del Destino, Don Carlos, Aida and, from late in his life, Otello and Falstaff. With the exception of his first and last operas, which are comic, Verdi was drawn to passionate, eventful stories that are dark, violent, and end with the death of one or more major characters. In his words, “I want subjects that are novel, big, beautiful, varied and bold — as bold as can be.” The librettos of three are based on Shakespeare, others on Friedrich Schiller, Voltaire, and the romantic writers Victor Hugo, Lord Byron, and Dumas. Having chosen his subject, Verdi worked closely with his librettists to construct fast-moving, eventful plots with vividly contrasting emotions. Conflicts between fear, love, jealousy, fidelity, patriotism create dramatic tension both between and within individual characters. As the libretto evolved, so did Verdi’s ideas for the powerful melodies, energetic rhythms, and climactic buildups through which those passions would find musical expression. In casting his operas, Verdi looked for singers who brought to their roles a combination of high level of vocal accomplishment and vivid stage presence, qualities that continue to be the hallmarks of the great interpreters of Verdi today. In the words of the soprano Renata Tebaldi: “Verdi suffered a great deal through his life and I hear it in his music as the expression of his own soul. Singers must remember to try and achieve the greatest‘ expressione’ in singing Verdi to do justice to this great Maestro.”