Verdi’s first opera opens

Verdi’s first opera opens


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Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, debuts in Milan. The premiere was held at La Scala, Italy’s most prestigious theater. Oberto was received favorably, and the next day the composer was commissioned by Bartolomeo Merelli, the impresario at La Scala, to write three more operas. In 1842, after some personal and professional setbacks, the opera Nabucco made Verdi an overnight celebrity. He would go on to compose such classic operas as Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Aída, and Otello.

Giuseppe Verdi was born in Le Roncole in the former duchy of Parma in 1813. His father was a tavern keeper and grocer, and Verdi demonstrated a natural gift for music early. He studied music in the neighboring town of Busseto and at the age of 18 was sent to Milan by a sponsor to enter the Milan Conservatory. He was rejected for being overage but stayed in Milan and studied under Vincenzo Lavigna, a composer and former harpsichordist at La Scala. In 1834, Verdi returned to Busseto and became musical director of the Philharmonic Society.

Five years later, Verdi, at 26 years of age, saw his first opera debut at La Scala, the finest theater in Italy. Oberto was followed by Un giorno di regno (King for a Day, 1840), a comic opera that was a critical and commercial failure. Verdi, lamenting its poor reception and also the recent deaths of his wife and two children, decided to give up composing. A year later, however, the director of La Scala convinced him to write an opera based on the story of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II. Nabucco (1842) was a sensational success, followed by I Lombardi (The Lombards, 1843) and Ernani (1844).

Rigoletto (1851) is considered his first masterpiece, and Il Trovatore (The Troubadour, 1853) and La Traviata (The Fallen Woman, 1853) brought him international fame and cemented his reputation as a major composer of opera. Verdi’s melodic and dramatic style was further developed in Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball, 1859) and La forza del destino (The Power of Destiny, 1862). Aída (1871), commissioned by the khedive of Egypt and first performed in Cairo, is his most famous work.

Late expressions of his genius are Otello (Othello, 1887), completed at age 73, and Falstaff, which premiered in 1893 when Verdi was 80. Falstaff was Verdi’s last opera and is considered one of the greatest comic operas. Verdi died in Milan in 1901. He was greatly honored in his lifetime and is credited with transforming Italian opera into true musical drama.


Verdi’s first opera opens - HISTORY

In later centuries, opera would fall out of favor in the United States, but in the mid-1700s, when every adult in the thirteen colonies emigrated from Europe, opera was as popular as it was on the Continent. And Florawas among the best operas there was: one of the first to incorporate contemporary popular music, with lyrics written to mach. It swept England in the 18th century before making its way across the Atlantic.

On this day, February 8, in 1735, Flora premiered in Charleston, South Carolina, in a makeshift theatre. As in England, it proved very popular in the States, its success inspiring Charleston to build a designated space for the performance: essentially, the first opera house on American soil.

Flora was soon followed by other, similarly melodramatic operas, like Love in a Village and The Poor Soldier. All enjoyed popularity for decades, but after the Revolutionary war, at the turn of the century, opera performances were replaced by burlesque and other styles.



Photograph by Bregenzer Festspiele / andereart


Photograph by BENNO HAGLEITNER


Scene 1. The Duke of Mantua’s palace.

At a splendid ball in his palace, the Duke of Mantua boasts to his retainer, Borsa, of his plan to finish his conquest of a young woman who has been at church every Sunday for three months. He has discovered where she lives, and every night he sees a mysterious man enter her house. The Duke has not revealed his identity to the woman. Borsa, meanwhile, admires the ladies at the ball, and the Duke is particularly taken with the wife of Count Ceprano. Borsa warns that if Ceprano were to find out, he might tell the young woman. But the Duke does not care all women are the same to him (“Questa o quella”). As Countess Ceprano passes by, the Duke flirts with her and escorts her out of the room. Rigoletto, the Duke’s hunchbacked jester, mocks the sullen Count Ceprano, who follows them out in a huff. Rigoletto joins them, laughing.

Marullo, another of the Duke’s retainers, comes in with big news: Rigoletto has a mistress! The courtiers suppress their laughter as Rigoletto arrives with the Duke, who is whispering to the jester that Ceprano is a pest and his wife an angel. Rigoletto advises the Duke, in a voice loud enough for the Count to hear, to carry the Countess off and imprison or execute her husband. Ceprano is enraged. The Duke warns Rigoletto that he has gone too far, but Rigoletto does not care. The courtiers and ladies enjoy the scene immensely. The merriment is interrupted by the sudden entrance of Count Monterone, who threatens the Duke. Rigoletto mocks him for complaining that the Duke has seduced his daughter. Outraged, Monterone swears vengeance. The Duke orders his arrest. As he is led away, Monterone places a curse upon the Duke and Rigoletto for laughing at a father’s grief. Rigoletto is visibly shaken.

Scene 2. An alley outside Rigoletto’s house.

Rigoletto is still upset by Monterone’s curse. A strange man, the sinister Sparafucile, accosts him. He reveals his sword and offers to free Rigoletto from the man who cursed him. The killer’s attractive sister, Maddalena, will lure the victim to their house, where Sparafucile will quietly execute him. Rigoletto declines the offer, and Sparafucile says that he can be found in the alley every night. After dismissing him, Rigoletto reflects that they are alike: both destroy others—Rigoletto with his wit and acerbic tongue, Sparafucile with his sword (“Pari siamo”). He reflects again on Monterone’s curse and rails at Nature for making him deformed and wicked, with no choice but to be a buffoon and no solace but in mocking the Duke’s courtiers.

Rigoletto shakes off his fears and enters the courtyard of his house, where Gilda, his young daughter, throws herself into his arms. Noticing that her father is troubled, she begs him to tell her what is wrong. Gilda, not knowing her own history, wants him to tell her who he really is and who her mother was. Rigoletto, sighing, describes his lost love, a woman who loved him despite his deformity and poverty. Sadly, she died, leaving Gilda to console him. He will not tell her anything else, only that she is his whole life. Gilda accepts his reticence and asks permission to go out into the city, which she has yet to explore. Rigoletto adamantly refuses and pointedly asks if she has already gone out. She says no, and he warns her to be careful. Secretly, he fears that the courtiers will find Gilda and dishonour her. He calls for her nurse, Giovanna, and asks whether anyone has been to the house. She says no, and Rigoletto urges her to keep a close watch on Gilda. His daughter proceeds to comfort him with the image of her mother watching over them from heaven.

Rigoletto hears something outside and goes to investigate. The Duke, disguised in humble clothes, slips into the courtyard and hides behind a tree, silencing Giovanna by throwing her a money purse. Rigoletto returns, asking Gilda if anyone has ever followed her to church she says no. He orders Giovanna never to open the door to anyone, especially the Duke. The Duke, in his hiding place, is stunned to discover that the woman he desires is Rigoletto’s daughter. Father and daughter embrace, and Rigoletto leaves.

Gilda is stricken by remorse, for she failed to tell her father about the young man who has followed her to church. When Giovanna suggests that he might be a great gentleman, Gilda replies that she would prefer that he be poor she confesses that in her fantasies she tells him that she loves him.

The Duke emerges from hiding and throws himself at Gilda’s feet, repeating that he loves her. He motions for Giovanna to leave. Gilda, frightened, calls for her nurse, but the Duke presses his suit. She asks him to leave, but his flowery words of love have captured her. She admits that she loves him and asks his name. (Meanwhile, outside, Borsa and Ceprano have found the home of the despised Rigoletto.) The Duke tells Gilda that he is a poor student named Gualtier Maldé. Giovanna comes in to say that she has heard footsteps outside. Fearing that Rigoletto has returned, Gilda urges the Duke to leave. They swear undying love before Giovanna leads him out.

Alone, Gilda reflects on her lover’s name and swears to love him forever (“Caro nome”). Out in the street, however, Ceprano, Borsa, Marullo, and other courtiers, armed and masked, are spying on her. They are stunned by the beauty of the woman they believe to be Rigoletto’s lover. Meanwhile, Rigoletto blunders onto the scene. It is too dark for him to see who is there. Marullo identifies himself and tells him that they are planning to abduct Countess Ceprano for the Duke. To prove it, Marullo hands Rigoletto the key to Ceprano’s nearby palace. Rigoletto likes the plan and asks to be masked like the others. Marullo obliges—with a blindfold—and tells Rigoletto that he is to hold the ladder. The courtiers clamber up the ladder and into Rigoletto’s house. They drag Gilda screaming out of the house she drops a scarf as they take her off. Rigoletto, still holding the ladder, at first enjoys the joke but then tears off the blindfold. Seeing Gilda’s scarf, he cries out, “Ah! The curse!”


Verdi's Warrior

T here are times when I wonder whether there are two Anthony Michaels-Moores. The first thing you notice, face to face with the 45-year-old baritone, is an almost incongruous disparity between the man himself and the characters he plays. In the minds of many opera composers, baritones are often synonymous with flawed anti-heroes: men of uncontrollable emotion and, sometimes, outright villains.

On stage Michaels-Moore plays such ambivalent figures with a combination of vocal ease and an almost instinctive theatrical realism. His Gérard in Giordano's Andrea Chénier is a disturbing portrait of a left-wing fanatic whose ideology crumbles under the influence of passion. As Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, he metamorphoses from sexual cad into a man devastated by the waste of his own life. Best of the lot, perhaps, was the Iago he sang in the Glyndebourne production of Verdi's Otello last year - a lethally charming psychopath treading the thin line between total derangement and utter normality.

Offstage, however, he is rather different: he seems a warm-hearted bloke, open, if at times blunt, with an infectious laugh. As he slouches on a sofa backstage at Covent Garden, he talks about another tortured anti-hero, Verdi's Macbeth, who Michaels-Moore plays in Phyllida Lloyd's staging for the Opera House, which opens later this month.

The production has a troubled history. It first went into rehearsal, astonishingly, in June 1997. At the time the Opera House was in the throes of managerial chaos prior to its closure for rebuilding. Disaster struck thanks to a logistical problem that had seemingly never crossed anyone's mind. "They didn't have room in the Floral Hall to store the set," explains Michaels-Moore, still amazed by the whole affair. Days before the first night the production was pulled off, leaving the infuriated cast to grapple with what was billed as a concert performance, but actually proved to be a semi-staging of some force. The chorus sat on the steps of what looked like an amphitheatre, while the protagonists played out their drama down below in evening dress. Michaels-Moore, spending most of his time looking like a man ready to explode with rage (which he probably was), gave a performance of almost savage intensity. "It certainly did epitomise the spirit of the piece, but it's weird coming back to it," he says.

Five years on, however, a few things have changed, most notably the edition of the score that Covent Garden is using. Verdi effectively composed two operas called Macbeth - the 1847 original and the more familiar 1865 revision, prepared for the Paris premiere. Back in 1997, the production was planned round the first edition. Now, however, the Royal Opera has opted, apparently late in the day, for the second. Michaels-Moore, at ease singing both, is unfazed by the change, though he admits that the differences are radical.

One of the more controversial moments in the revision is the insertion of a scene not found in the play, in which Lady Macbeth eggs her husband on to "exterminate the cowardly brood" of Macduff's children. "In the first version, from the end of act two, Macbeth and his wife go on separate journeys, which is close to Shakespeare," says Michaels-Moore. "In the second version, she comes back, which implies a consensus of opinion. That isn't in the Shakespeare."

Though he clearly knows his Bard backwards, Michaels-Moore has also decided to tackle Macbeth without rereading the play as he usually does. "This time, I've trusted to the music and my experience." Two things about Michaels-Moore's experience stand out: he developed his artistry with great care, gradually rising to the top rather than being catapulted into overnight stardom. And before he was a singer, he was a soldier.

A self-styled Essex boy, he was born in Grays. "My father conducted a local choral society that was sometimes used by the BBC if they needed an extra chorus, but the idea of me having a professional career was simply a non-starter." In his late teens he was restless. "I didn't know what to do. I was 17 or 18. There were things I could do in the army, like outdoor pursuits and organisation." The army, meanwhile, decided he was officer material. He was commissioned in the Second Royal Tank Regiment and was soon on manoeuvres in Germany. As part of his cadetship, he took a degree in music and history at Newcastle University. "The subject I'd done for my dissertation was the Verdi baritone voice. It was prophetic in a way. I ended up listening to every Verdi recording in the university library and thought, 'That's what I'd like to have a go at.'" So he had a go, and a Verdi baritone is what he became.

After leaving the army, he headed with his wife to Glasgow, where he took a postgraduate course at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. It landed him what he calls "my first real role", as Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca with Opera-go-round, a small touring company that formed part of Scottish Opera. In 1985 he took part in the Pavarotti Singing Competition, a gargantuan affair with heats in London, New York, Italy and South America. The finals took place in Philadelphia. "There were 50 winners" - he was one - "and the Philadelphia Opera Company had its casting for the next umpteen years." Pavarotti's agents, meanwhile, were so impressed they took him on to their books.

A turning point came in 1987. "Covent Garden wanted a baritone for one year. Six months in, they renewed my contract for two years, and I ended up staying nearly 10." Critics started singling him out when he was tackling bit parts, and soon he was taking on major roles, such as Marcello in La Bohème, and the brutal Christian fundamentalist Stankar in Verdi's Stiffelio.

His major breakthrough, though, came in 1993. He played the freedom-fighting Posa in Verdi's Don Carlos for Opera North, causing critics and public alike to go overboard with enthusiasm, and he effectively launched his international career at La Scala, Milan, when he appeared as Licinius in Spontini's La Vestale at comparatively short notice. This was something of a baptism of fire. The role, though written for a baritone, lies so implacably high that more often than not it is sung by a tenor. The production also brought him into contact with La Scala's music director Riccardo Muti, a notoriously finicky perfectionist. "It was the most gruelling experience, physically and mentally, that I'd come across," he says. "I'd never been tested as much by any conductor as by this man."

Yet Michaels-Moore's experiences in the army have also had a deep impact on his work as a singer. "It's about being exposed to the type of person you meet in an officers' mess - supercilious, patronising and cold, people who were extremely unimaginative and sadistic. It's one of the reasons I didn't want to stay in. I'd seen what had happened to some of the people I'd met.

"You've got to have that tunnel vision as a soldier. I've used that idea in some things that I've done. I've sometimes had to snap out of it at home, though - it's when I get a slap from the wife." He roars with laughter and nearly falls off the sofa, though his remarks explain perhaps why his Iago was so horrifically vivid. Macbeth, of course, is another military man, and one wonders just what he will bring to the role now that the production is at long last nearing completion. What is certain, however, is that like everything else this remarkable man does, his performance will not leave you unaffected.

· Macbeth opens at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000) Thursday.


Verdi’s first opera opens - HISTORY

Opera in four acts, by Verdi. Words by Arrigo Boito, after Shakespeare. Produced, La Scala, Milan, February 5, 1887, with Tamagno (otello), and Maurel (Iago). London, Lyceum Theatre, July 5, 1889. New York, Academy of Music, under management of Italo Campanini, April 16, 1888, with Marconi, Tetrazzini, Gallasi, and Scalchi. (Later in the engagement Marconi, was succeeded by Campanini) Metropolitan Opera House, 1894, with Tamagno, Albani, Maurel 1902, Alvarez, Eames, and Scotti later with Slezak, Alda, and Scotti Manhattan Opera House, with Zenatello, Melba, and Sammarco.

Time: End of fifteenth century.
Place: A port of the island of Cyprus.

Three years after the success of "Aida," Verdi produced at Milan his "Manzoni Requiem" but nearly sixteen years were to elapse between "Aida" and his next work for the lyric stage. "Aida," with its far richer instrumentation than that of any earlier work by Verdi, yet is in form an opera. "Otello" more nearly approaches a music-drama, but still is far from being one. It is only when Verdi is compared with his earlier self that he appears Wagnerian. Compared with Wagner, he remains characteristically Italian -- true to himself, in fact, as genius should be.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this matter summed up as happily as in Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians: "Undoubtedly influenced by his contemporaries Meyerbeer, Gounod, and Wagner in his treatment of the orchestra, Verdi’s dramatic style nevertheless shows a natural and individual development, and has remained essentially Italian as an orchestral accompaniment of vocal melody but his later instrumentation is far more careful in detail and luxuriant than that of the earlier Italian school, and his melody more passionate and poignant in expression."

"Otello" is a well-balanced score, composed to a libretto by a distinguished poet and musician -- the composer of "Mefistofele." It has vocal melodies, which are rounded off and constitute separate "numbers" (to employ an expression commonly applied to operatic airs), and its recitatives are set to a well thought out instrumental accompaniment.

It is difficult to explain the comparative lack of success with the public of Verid’s last two scores for the lyric stage, "Otello" and "Falstaff." Musicians fully appreciate them. Indeed "Falstaff," which followed "Otello," is considered one of the greatest achievements in the history of opera. Yet it is rarely given, and even "Otello" has already reached the "revival" stage, while "Aida," "Rigoletto," "La Traviata," and "Il Trovatore" are fixtures, although "Rigoletto" was composed thirty-six years before "Otello" and forty-two before "Falstaff." Can it be that critics (including myself) and professional musicians have been admiring the finished workmanship of Verdi’s last two scores, while the public has discovered in them a halting inspiration, a too frequent substitution of miraculous skill for the old-time flair, and a lack of that careless but attractive occasional laissez faire aller of genius, which no technical perfection can replace? Time alone can answer.

When "Otello" opens, Desdemona has preceded her husband to Cyprus and is living in the castle overlooking the port. There are a few bars of introduction.

Act I . In the background a quay and the sea a tavern with an arbour it is evening.

Through a heavy storm Othello’s ship is seen to be making port. Among the crowd of watchers, who exclaim upon the danger to the vessel, are Iago and Roderigo. Othello ascends the steps to the quay, is acclaimed by the crowd, and proceeds to the castle followed by Cassio, Montano, and soldiers. The people start a wood fire and gather about it dancing and singing.


It transpires in talk between Iago and Roderigo that Iago hates Othello because he has advanced Cassio over him, and that Roderigo is in love with Desdemona.

The fire dies out, the storm has ceased. Cassio has returned from the castle. Now comes the scene in which Iago purposely makes him drunk, in order to cause his undoing. They, with others, are grouped around the table outside the tavern. Iago sings his drinking song, "Inaffia l’ugola! trinca tra canna" (Then let me quaff the noble wine, from the can I’ll drink it).


Under the influence of the liquor Cassio resents the taunts of Roderigo, instigated by Iago. Montano tries to quiet him. Cassio draws. There follows the fight in which Montano is wounded. The tumult, swelled by alarums and the ringing of bells, brings Othello with Desdemona to the scene. Cassio is dismissed from the Moor’s service. Iago has scored his first triumph.

The people disperse. Quiet settles upon the scene. Othello and Desdemona are alone. The act closes with their love duet, which Desdemona begins with "Quando narravi" (When thou dids’t speak).


Act II . A hall on the ground floor of the castle. Iago, planning to make Othello jealous of Desdemona, counsels Cassio to induce the Moor’s wife to plead for his reinstatement. Cassio goes into a large garden at the back. Iago sings his famous "Credo in un Dio che m’ha creato" (I believe in a God, who has created me in his image). This is justly regarded as a masterpiece of invective. It does not appear in Shakespeare, so that the lines are as original with Boito as the music is with Verdi. Trumpets, employed in what may be termed a declamatory manner, are conspicuous in the accompaniment.

Iago, seeing Othello approach, leans against a column and looks fixedly in the direction of Desdemona and Cassio, exclaiming, as Othello enters, "I like not that!" As in the corresponding scene in the play, this leads up to the questioning of him by Othello and to Iago’s crafty answers, which not only apply the match to, but also fan the flame of Othello’s jealousy, as he watches his wife with Cassio.

Children, women, and Cypriot and Albanian sailors now are seen with Desdemona. They bring her flowers and other gifts. Accompanying themselves on the cornemuse, and small harps, they sing a mandolinata, "Dove guardi spendono" (Whereso’er thy glances fall). This is followed by a graceful chorus for the sailors, who bring shells and corals.

The scene and Desdemona’s beauty deeply move the Moor. He cannot believe her other than innocent. But, unwittingly, she plays into Iago’s hand. For her first words on joining Othello are a plea for Cassio. All the Moor’s jealousy is re-aroused. When she would apply her handkerchief to his heated brow, he tears it from her hand, and throw it to the ground. Emilia picks it up, but Iago takes it from her. The scene is brought to a close by a quartet for Desdemona, Othello, Iago, and Emilia.

Othello and Iago are left together again. Othello voices the grief that shakes his whole being, in what Mr. Upton happily describes as "a pathetic but stirring melody." In it he bids farewell, not only to love and trust, but to the glories of war and battle. The trumpet is effectively employed in the accompaniment to this outburst of grief, which begins, "Addio sante memorie" (Farewell, O sacred memories).


To such a fury is the Moor aroused that he seizes Iago, hurls him to the ground, and threaten to kill him should his accusations against Desdemona prove false. There is a dramatic duet in which Iago pledges his aid to Othello in proving beyond doubt the falseness of Desdemona.

Act III . The great hall of the castle. At the back a terrace. After a brief scene in which the approach of a galley with the Venetian ambassadors is announced, Desdemona enters. Wholly unaware of the cause of Othello’s strange actions toward her, she again begins to plead for Cassio’s restoration to favour. Iago has pretended to Othello that Desdemona’s handkerchief (of which he surreptitiously possessed himself) had been given by her to Cassio, and this has still further fanned the flame of the Moor’s jealousy. The scene, for Othello, is one of mingled wrath and irony. Upon her knees Desdemona vows her constancy: "Esterrefatta fisso lo squardo tuo tremendo" (Upon my knees before thee, beneath thy glance I tremble). I quote the phrase, "Io prego il cielo per te con questo pianto" (I pray my sighs rise to heaven with prayer).


Othello pushes her out of the room. He soliloquizes: "Dio! mi poteir scagliar tutti i mali della miseria" (Heav’n had it pleased thee to try me with affliction).


Iago, entering, bids Othello conceal himself then brings in Cassio, who mentions Desdemona to Iago, and also is led by Iago into light comments on other matters, all of which Othello, but half hearing them from his place of concealment, construes as referring to his wife. Iago also plays the trick with the handkerchief, which, having been conveyed by him to Cassio, he now induces the latter (within sight of Othello) to draw from his doublet. There is a trio for Othello (still in concealment), Iago, and Cassio.

The last-named having gone, and the Moor having asked for poison with which to kill Desdemona, Iago counsels that Othello strangle her in bed that night, while he goes forth and slays Cassio. For this counsel Othello makes Iago his lieutenant.

The Venetian ambassadors arrive. There follows the scene in which the recall of Othello to Venice and the appointment of Cassio as Governor of Cyprus are announced. This is the scene in which, also, the Moor strikes down Desdemona in the presence of the ambassadors, and she begs for mercy -- "A terra -- si -- nel livido" (Yea, prostrate here, I lie in the dust) and "Quel sol sereno e vivido che allieta il cielo e il mare" (The sun who from his cloudless sky illumes the heavens and sea).


After this there is a dramatic sextet.

All leave, save the Moor and his newly created lieutenant. Overcome by rage, Othello falls in a swoon. The people, believing that the Moor, upon his return to Venice, is to receive new honours from the republic, shout from outside, "Hail, Othello! Hail to the lion of Venice!"

"There lies the lion!" is Iago’s comment of malignant triumph and contempt, as the curtain falls.

Act IV . The scene is Desdemona’s bedchamber. There is an orchestral introduction of much beauty. Then, as in the play, with which I am supposing the reader to be at least fairly familiar, comes the brief dialogue between Desdemona and Emilia. Desdemona sings the pathetic little willow song, said to be a genuine Italian folk tune handed down through many centuries.


Emilia goes, and Desdemona at her prie-Dieu, before the image of the Virgin, intones an exquisite "Ave Maria," beginning and ending in pathetic monotone, with an appealing melody between.


Othello’s entrance is accompanied by a powerful passage on the double basses.

Then follows the scene of the strangling, through which are heard mournfully reminiscent strains of the love duet that ended the first act. Emilia discloses Iago’s perfidy. Othello kills himself.


Verdi’s Grip

According to "The Guinness Book of Records," Vincent La Selva, a native of Cleveland, is the only man ever to have conducted all twenty-eight operas of Giuseppe Verdi in chronological order. La Selva runs a company called the New York Grand Opera, which recently succeeded in presenting the entire Verdi canon, in Central Park, free of charge. The cycle began in 1994, with a boisterous rendition of "Oberto," and ended this summer, with "Aida," "Otello," and "Falstaff." I saw the "Otello" on a sticky night in July. Several thousand people were on hand, and several hundred others were trying to get in. A policeman was shouting, "No more seats! No opera!" There was a lot of pushing and pleading, as at a rock show. "My name has to be on the list," said a youngish man in an Atari shirt. Many people ended up camping out on the grass, listening to the music as it wafted over the loudspeakers. Verdi seems to have lost little of the mass appeal that brought forth hundreds of thousands of mourners on the day of his funeral, a century ago.

In this anniversary year, something like four hundred productions of Verdi's operas have been mounted around the world. I have seen nine of them, in the major New York houses and at two great theatres in Italy, and, to my surprise, the Central Park "Otello" is the one that sticks in my mind. It was by no means the best-sung Verdi of the season for an "Otello" of grand, tragic dimensions, you would have to hunt down a ticket to see Plácido Domingo at the Met's opening-night gala, scheduled for next week. Nor were the acoustics satisfactory. The singers had microphones clipped to their costumes, and every few minutes one of them would let out a mechanical squawk or disappear from the mix. During the Homage Chorus, in Act II, the mandolin was deafening and the chorus was inaudible. But the production had an excellent, pearly-voiced Desdemona in Judith Von Houser, and a fiercely idiomatic conductor in La Selva. This was Verdi 101, stripped of directorial brainstorms and interpretive ego trips. By the end, I had forgotten about the tackiness of the scenery and fallen under Verdi's spell.

The appeal of Italian opera is difficult to put into words, but it has something to do with the activation of primal feelings. Operatic characters have a way of laying themselves bare, and they are never more uninhibited than at the climax of a Verdi tragedy. "Otello," the peak of the canon, is a crescendo of anger yet the ultimate moment of the opera, during which Central Park seemed to fall silent, is a surpassingly lyrical one. When Otello kills Desdemona, the act is framed by two repetitions of a bewitching nine-bar theme, which first appeared in the love duet of Act I. It is a beautiful object, but it is a token of Otello's insanity. His love for Desdemona was, he says, a "mirage"—not because she betrayed him but because he never saw her as a real person. His note-for-note recapitulation of the love music marks the point at which he chooses the mirage over life itself. All the orchestra can offer, by way of a final statement, is three soft, black chords. "Fall down the steps," Verdi writes. Edward Perretti, the tenor singing Otello, followed the instruction exactly. Everyone shuddered.

The Central Park "Otello" was an unexpectedly haunting experience, because it took the drama at face value. It made no attempt to deconstruct or recontextualize, and in that respect it was rare among contemporary productions. The Verdi year has supplied two major bits of information: first, that the audience for opera in America is steadily growing, and, second, that many of the directors who now dominate the opera scene do not know what they are doing. If, as Isaiah Berlin wrote, Verdi was the last great popular artist, the last who perfectly fit his time, then he is a spectacular misfit in the contemporary highbrow ghetto, where intellectuals make a virtue of being ironically detached. Chances are, any Verdi opera you saw this year took the form of a revisionist production that was at odds with the composer's raging sincerity. One prominent director has been quoted as saying, "Nobody comes to Verdi for the plots." More likely, people come to Verdi because he meant every word.

In the nineteenth century, German musicians began to describe their art in idealistic terms, as a lofty pursuit that disdained the crowd. Giuseppe Verdi, despite his reclusive habits and porcupine personality, saw no shame in the pursuit of public adoration. "The box office is the proper thermometer of success," he remarked. In this respect, you can compare him to a major Hollywood artist like Hitchcock, who kept an eye on the bottom line even as he immersed himself in formal schemes. Like Hitchcock, Verdi was a gripping storyteller, a master mechanic of the wheels of fate. But the Italian's empathy went deeper. The example for him was Shakespeare, and even if he had never set Shakespeare to music the comparison would have been made. Verdi's works, like Shakespeare's, thrilled both the groundlings and the connoisseurs.

For a glimpse of Verdi's two-faced genius, you need look no further than his most famous tune, "La donna è mobile," which has sold vast quantities of pasta in television commercials. More than a pretty melody, it is packed with double meanings, some of them quite ugly. The irony of the aria is hinted at in the opening bars, as the players stop and start again, like actors clearing their throats. The first line translates as "Women are fickle," but the sentiment is less than straightforward, being the rationalization of a fickle Duke who uses women for amusement. Gilda, who has fallen for the Duke, overhears the song, grasps its tone, and is plunged into despair. Rigoletto, her father, plots revenge, forgetting for a while that he himself facilitated the Duke's adventures and was cursed by one of his victims. At the end of the night, an assassin hauls out a sack that is supposed to contain the Duke's corpse. Just as Rigoletto bends over it, a familiar tenor is heard singing a familiar tune offstage—"La donna è mobile." So whose is the body in the bag? Maledizione! That chirpy tune becomes the cutting edge of the curse that brings Rigoletto down.

In his old age, Verdi styled himself a man of the people, a self-taught peasant genius. Recent biographers have pointed out the many ways in which this image departed from the facts. His father, a small-time innkeeper and landowner, was, if not rich, prosperous enough to be able to give his son a thorough musical education, and the young man had the help of many aristocratic friends. Still, there is some truth to the peasant image. Verdi had an earthy nature, a preference for action over theory. He was born in 1813, in a village outside the town of Busseto, south of Milan. At first, he seemed destined to succeed his teacher as the musical director of Busseto, but his personality proved too unruly for the role. Instead, thanks in part to the intervention of a sympathetic soprano named Giuseppina Strepponi, he attracted the interest of La Scala, which presented "Oberto" in 1839. The breakthrough year was 1842, when "Nabucco," his third opera, had a run of fifty-seven performances at La Scala—more than any opera before or since.

Even as Verdi became a national hero, furnishing anthems for the risorgimento, he made his plots more intimate, favoring situations in which characters pursued passions that were against the social grain. In the space of three years, he produced "Rigoletto," "Il Trovatore," and "La Traviata," without which no modern opera house could function. In the eighteen-fifties and sixties, under the influence of French grand opera, he produced a series of sprawling tableaux—"I Vespri Siciliani," "Simon Boccanegra," "Un Ballo in Maschera," "La Forza del Destino," "Don Carlos," and, in 1871, "Aida"—in which a deepening pessimism became evident. Fate was now hammered out by earthly monsters of authority, the worst of them being the Grand Inquisitor in "Don Carlos." Finally, after a period of seeming retirement, Verdi produced "Otello" and "Falstaff," in which the bel-canto tradition was recast in dizzyingly heightened form.

Verdi was not yet dead when he began to be dismissed as a dated figure. The younger Italian intellectuals flocked to Wagner, who had set about obliterating the operatic conventions that Verdi cherished to the end. While his works never lost their popularity, they were often treated as genre pieces that history had left behind. The Wagner comparison consistently hurt him. Wagner wrote in a self-consciously idiosyncratic style, and in any given moment you could hear his open-ended processes at work. Verdi's was an art of juxtaposition, of jagged contrasts: innocent tunes punctured by repeated, discordant notes robust marches pushed into the background by desolate monologues. To the analytical mind, such music can look crude, even vulgar, on the page. Only in live performances, when the momentum begins to build and the voices become urgent, does it catch fire. But how do you go about analyzing momentum and urgency? Verdi is a challenge for academic sensibilities.

In the postwar period, a phalanx of singers and conductors brought about a major Verdi revival, with the art of Maria Callas setting the standard. The early operas came back into circulation the more austere dramas, such as "Stiffelio" and "Simon Boccanegra," were taken out of mothballs "Don Carlos" was finally heard complete. Scholars began to take Verdi seriously and Mary Jane Phillips-Matz's doggedly researched biography, published in 1993, revealed the man in all his gnarled complexity. It was during this same period, however, that directors began the practice of rewriting Verdi's librettos from scratch, and the revival entered a state of crisis from which it has yet to emerge.

Earlier this year, Matthew Gurewitsch, writing in the Times, asked several leading American opera directors to articulate their visions of Verdi, and he got some eyebrow-raising replies. Francesca Zambello, who once set "Aida" in a nuclear-winter landscape, said, "If I have to think of a work of Verdi that moved me on stage, that's going to be pretty hard." Christopher Alden, who created a "Rigoletto" with bouts of transvestism and public sex, said, "You have to throw cold water on an audience. You have to wake them up, poke holes into the operas so that the inner life will flow out." Mark Lamos, whose "Rigoletto" also featured a graphic orgy scene, said, "To be blunt, I find Verdi's operas about as stageworthy as his Requiem."

The assumption behind this kind of sloganeering is that Verdi's librettos are stodgy and ridiculous. With their wild coincidences, improbable deaths, and hyperventilating exits, they do seem silly at first glance. Even the most artful synopsis reduces a plot-heavy work like "Simon Boccanegra" to gibberish. And surtitles are of only limited value: while they help to draw the audience in, they also place far too much stress on the words, which are raw material for singing rather than freestanding literary texts. (It would be similarly unnerving if song lyrics were projected at a rock show, useful as the service might be.) Only when the performance is under way does the beauty of the libretto snap into focus. Verdi's beloved maledictions, vendettas, and forces of destiny actually add plausibility rather than take it away they make the violent accents of operatic singing seem like a natural reaction under the circumstances.

If directors were replacing nineteenth-century conventions with riveting scenarios of their own, then their attacks on Verdi's stageworthiness, however arrogant, could be set aside as so much bluster. The fact is that most of them display the faults they assign to Verdi: their work is, more often than not, stilted and cryptic, as if obeying some extraterrestrial social code. The Met's production of "Il Trovatore" last season, for example, was so monumentally opaque that the director, Graham Vick, later removed his name from it, in the spirit of the "Allen Smithee" movies that are periodically flushed out of Hollywood. Here are some notes I made at the time: "Toy soldiers, colorful costumes, but no sets to speak of. Rorschach patterns? Sliding walls—inept. Enough!" Vick's fiasco was mild in comparison with what has been appearing lately on European stages. The opera world was recently buzzing over a "Ballo in Maschera," in Barcelona, that opened with an added scene of conspirators sitting on toilets and went on from there.

Productions of this kind invite outrage, and the best response is to ignore them. More interesting are the productions that go subtly, incrementally wrong. One such was a "Rigoletto" at City Opera, under the direction of Rhoda Levine. A lot of it worked—at least, early on. John Conklin's sets, for example, nicely displayed the opera's contrasting social worlds, with the Duke of Mantua's palace dominated by a gaudy red, and Rigoletto trapped in gray brick middle-income housing. We seemed to be in a stylized space between the Renaissance and the present day. There was an effective visual elaboration of Gilda's central aria, "Caro nome," with sinister figures hovering in the background. "Caro nome," like "La donna è mobile," is more complicated than it appears for all its sweetness, it has an eerie unreality, and the soprano's coloratura can come off as so much whistling in the dark. At the end, tremolo strings glisten like the threads of a spiderweb in which Gilda is about to be trapped.

But the production got fidgety as it went along, and at the climax it lost the plot entirely. As Rigoletto despairs, we see the assassin, Sparafucile, kicking back in his apartment, having a beer. Then the Duke himself wanders in and joins him. None of this is in the libretto, for good reason. We don't need to be told what Sparafucile and the Duke are doing next: they are stereotypes, albeit richly detailed ones, and they will go on playing lethal games with other people's lives. The bigger problem is that Levine's pantomimes detract from the dénouement of the story. Rigoletto is the one character who is permitted to look into himself, and in the final scene the governing irony of his life is revealed to him: his public role, that of cruel jester, has ruined his private one, that of protective father. This is Sophoclean irony, and it is a comedown to see it paired with the kind of sardonic twist that passes for irony on cable TV—an assassin relaxing after his kill.

Directors like to claim that the conventions of Italian opera are hackneyed and that contemporary audiences need novel reinterpretations if they are not to grow bored. Operagoers are pictured as jaded fanatics who cannot stand to see another mad scene or midnight oath. There are, of course, such people, and they get a proper thrill when Macbeth comes on in Sex Pistols regalia. But many others, especially those coming to opera for the first time, like the old stuff. They want to see frenzied states of mind, bizarre occurrences, a mother accidentally throwing her baby on the fire. The directors themselves are the bored ones. They need to make a statement and, afraid of embracing anything positive, set about attacking an imaginary establishment. Verdi, the melancholy patriot, sends them into conniptions of negation. All they can do with his patriotism is to mock it all they can do with his despair is to trivialize it.

Director-dominated opera is known as Regietheater, and it is telling that the word exists only in German. Regietheater first became popular as a way of evading unsavory political associations created by the work of Richard Wagner, and, once again, the invidious comparison comes into play. Wagner's hypnotic world-weariness can serve as a soundtrack for almost any set of images: Nordic gods, Nuremberg rallies, "Apocalypse Now." Verdi, on the other hand, is the most site-specific of composers. His arching phrases imply a certain mode of address his rhythms a particular way of stalking to and fro his orchestration a certain kind of space. For his shattering ironies to come through, you need to start with a veneer of ordinariness. In "Un Ballo in Maschera," the entire action is predicted in the opening bars, in which carefree music in a major key is shadowed by chromatic passing tones. A lot of productions are masked balls from the outset, so you never know when anyone is putting on a disguise.

For too long, opera directors have got away with installing themselves in the progressive zone of musical life, dismissing all resistance to their work as anti-intellectual conservatism. In truth, they are the dumb, lumbering establishment, the ones with the tired script. The time has come for opera people to just say, "Basta." And the most effective protest will come not from critics and audiences, whose grumbling can always be explained away, but from singers, without whom nothing can happen.

A Verdi aria is like a camera that zooms in on a person's soul. Take the moment in "La Traviata" when Violetta, the fallen woman, leaves her lover, Alfredo, under pressure from his father. Alfredo believes that she is merely going into the garden, but he will soon receive a letter saying that she has left forever. "I will always be here, near you, among the flowers," Violetta says to him. "Love me, Alfredo, as I love you. Goodbye." When a great soprano unfurls these phrases—I am listening to Maria Callas, recorded at La Scala, in 1955—you hear so much you can hardly take it all in. You hear what Alfredo hears, the exaggerations of an overwrought lover: "I love you even though I am going into the garden." You hear what Violetta cannot bring herself to say out loud: "I am leaving you, but will always love you." And you hear premonitions of her deathbed plea, at the end of the opera: "Remember me after death." This world of meaning is carried along by a simple tune that you know even if you have never seen an opera.

Each Verdi score contains a series of pivot points that singers are expected to make into purely vocal epiphanies. They sometimes amount to no more than four or five notes, in a steeply curving pattern. Verdi hounded his librettists to find the right words for these climaxes he demanded banner headlines of emotion. "Amami, Alfredo" is among the most indestructible of them, appealing as it does to the diva's imperial urges. But Callas's treatment of the line is so unnervingly vehement that it risks anticlimax—where can the opera possibly go from here? Only when you listen again do you understand: Violetta's spirit is broken, and from now on she will sing as if she were already dead. Rather than indulging in personal excess, Callas is setting forth, in the manner of a German-trained director, her concept of the opera. Only, she is doing it musically, with her voice.

This is what Verdi expected from singers: emotions so strong that they become ideas. To study archival recordings is to realize how deliberately the old singers marshalled their resources toward the few notes that truly mattered. The EMI label recently reissued a classic compilation entitled "Les Introuvables du Chant Verdien," which is almost guaranteed to transform even the huskiest young fan into a tiresome old opera queen who complains that no one can sing Verdi anymore. At the same time, these recordings demonstrate that there never was a single Verdi style. Frida Leider delivers penetrating Verdi in German Francesco Tamagno, the original Otello, sings in what sounds like a slight French accent (presumably an Italian dialect) Nellie Melba croons mercilessly. What the legends had in common was a way of seeming to reach the limit and then pushing over it. Caruso would swell his voice tremendously at moments where it ought to have given out Rosa Ponselle would sustain a line over supernatural spans of time, so that the music acquired the steady glow of moonlight. Their feats seem physically unrepeatable: no one has lungs like that now.

But the exercise of praising long-gone singers at the expense of present-day ones is ultimately pointless, even destructive. Nothing could be more alien to Verdi's art than the solitary accumulation of artifacts. And, in truth, there are a lot of good Verdi singers around. Olga Borodina's performances of the major Verdi mezzo parts are as voluptuous and intelligent as any on record. Among sopranos, Maria Guleghina and Patricia Racette sing with dramatic fire, while Mariella Devia and Barbara Frittoli maintain a sense of high Verdi style. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Franz Grundheber, and Mark Delavan are giving distinctive performances of the baritone roles. The young bass René Pape is as formidable in Verdi as he is in Wagner. As for the tenors, convincing successors to Domingo and Pavarotti have yet to appear, but there are some promising possibilities: Giuseppe Sabbatini has some of Pavarotti's elegance, Salvatore Licitra some of Domingo's presence. And more singers seem to be coming up: in a program of Verdi scenes given by Mannes College students, a young mezzo named Carmelita Mitchell smoldered in the role of Azucena.

A singer who wishes to breathe new life into Verdi often has to get around not only the director's concepts but also the conductor's. Most conductors are trained by the modern conservatory mentality to resist the manifold changes of tempo—rubato, rallentando, stretto—that Italian singing encourages. You might expect to hear remnants of that tradition at La Scala, the original Verdi house, but Riccardo Muti, La Scala's longtime music director, is enamored of an inflexible, hard-driving sound. The "Ballo in Maschera" that I heard there last May inhabited much the same sound world as Richard Strauss's "Elektra," and somewhere in the middle of the onslaught was Licitra, who sang with a long, stylish line while etching words sharply into the air. When he tried to linger over a possible epiphany, you could feel Muti tugging him onward, like a parent marching a child past a candy store. The performance felt like a succession of "singer moments" awkwardly inserted into a semi-symphonic narrative. Verdi resists brainstorming conductors as much as he resists brainstorming directors.

The Metropolitan Opera tends to be a happier place for singers, especially when James Levine is on the podium. In and around the "Trovatore" disaster, the house offered two authentically singer-driven evenings last season: "Aida" in the winter, with Borodina finding a world of heartbreak in the vengeful Amneris, and "Nabucco" in the spring, with Guleghina seizing the vocally hazardous role of Abigaille. The "Nabucco" was, in fact, a triumph for all concerned the director, Elijah Moshinsky, and the designer, John Napier, put together a creatively conservative production that was monumental in appearance and functional in practice. In one diva-ready set piece, Abigaille, Nebuchadnezzar's perpetually enraged daughter, is asked to descend from a huge statue of the god Baal down a long gold staircase. Guleghina took a devil-may-care attitude toward the role's precipitous leaps of register and dynamics, issuing wild notes as well as beautiful ones. But, in an echo of Callas's most famous ploy, she let the crisis in her voice shape the drama. The entire evening had an unchecked, carnival air, hearkening back to legendary old nights at the Met.

All the Verdi evenings I attended over the past year had one element in common: an air of alertness in the audience that was not evident at, say, symphony concerts. That soupçon of buzz at the Met or at City Opera was a reminder that opera is experiencing a remarkable period of growth. According to surveys, nearly a third of the operagoing American audience is under the age of thirty-five—a statistic that destroys the stereotype of the classical-music audience as a mob of blue-haired ladies. You see more indirect tremors of change in the culture at large: a new attraction to diva personalities attempts at rock opera and even hip-hop opera best-selling albums by quasi-operatic singers like Charlotte Church and Russell Watson. All this suggests a yearning to connect with the grand original. Verdi answers a need for emotional realism that pop music once offered in abundance but is now failing to provide.

The missing link, of course, is new opera that aspires to Verdi's populist ideals. The composer was, despite his universal appeal, a nineteenth-century artist, and his works cannot be given a contemporary gloss. The energy that has been channelled into opera direction ought to have gone into the creation of new opera. Yet Verdi has a special legacy in twentieth-century music "Otello" and "Falstaff," in particular, pointed toward a kind of modern, free tonality, one that was developed by composers as various as Strauss, Mahler, Nielsen, Janácek, Stravinsky, Britten, and even Alban Berg. There are signs of a renaissance of Verdian writing among contemporary composers, whether in the gaudy Latino pageants of Osvaldo Golijov's "Passion" or in the moody political tableaux of John Adams's "Nixon in China." Any progress in contemporary opera in the next ten or twenty years is likely to come from a close study of the Verdi canon. How could a living composer write a "Donna è mobile"? What language would he use, for the tune itself and for the musical fabric that contains it? These seem like obvious questions, yet they are not often asked in college composition courses.


Opera Timeline

A. Scarlatti's, Griselda, has its première at the Teatro Capranica, in Rome. Although very rarely performed today, Scarlatti's operas were enormously popular and influential in their own day. Read more.

Handel's Rodelinda has its première at the King’s Theatre, London. Read more.

The Beggar’s Opera, a ballad opera in three acts, arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch to a libretto by John Gay, takes London by storm. Read more.

G. B. Pergolesi's intermezzo La serva padrona is performed between the acts of his opera seria Il prigioniero superbo at Naples, Teatro S Bartolomeo. La serva padrona was one of the most popular intermezzos in the 18th century and has become the 'textbook' intermezzo familiar to most students of music. Read more.

Première at the Paris Opéra of Jean-Philippe Rameau's opéra-ballet, Les Indes galantes, a fascinating window on 18th century exoticism. Read more.

Niccolò Piccinni's, La buona figliuola has its première at the Teatro delle Dame in Rome. The libretto, by the great Carlo Goldoni, is adapted from Samuel Richardson's hugely popular English novel, Pamela. Read more.

Christoph Willibald Gluck's reform opera Alceste has its première at the Vienna, Burgtheater. Read more.

Probable performance of the twelve-year-old Mozart's singspiel Bastien und Bastienne at the home of Dr Franz Anton Mesmer, the inventor of ‘magnetism therapy’, which Mozart would later parody in Così fan tutte. Read more.

Mozart's first full opera buffa, La finta semplice, to a libretto based on Goldoni is performed at the Archbishop's palace in Salzburg. The day is uncertain but it was probably the first of May. Read more.

Mozart's first opera seria, Mitridate, re di ponte, is a success in Milan despite the composer's youth and the opera's running time of six hours. Read more.

Joseph Haydn's Il mondo della luna has its première at Eszterháza. Haydn's operas were mostly composed to the taste of his employers at Eszterháza. Although they never achieved the international stature of his instrumental works, or of the operas of his younger contemporary Mozart, they have begun to receive more attention in recent years. Read more.

Mozart's first mature opera, Idomeneo has its première in Munich at the Residenztheater. Read more.

Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail has its première at the Vienna Burgtheater. Read more.

Giovanni Paisiello's, Il barbiere di Siviglia has its première at the Hermitage, St Petersburg. Though it would be eclipsed by Rossini's later setting of the same story, the opera was an enormous success at the time. Read more.

Haydn's final opera, Armida has its première at Eszterháza. Read more.

André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry's rescue opera Richard Coeur-de-Lion has its première at the Comédie-Italienne, Paris. Read more.

Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, the first of his three great collaborations with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, has its première at the Vienna Burgtheater. Read more.

Mozart's Don Giovanni has its première at the National Theatre, Prague. Although the legendary title character serves as the central force of the story, it is the three women, whose lives are altered through their encounters with him, who live in the memory. Read more.

Première of Antonio Salieri's Axur, re d’Ormus to a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. Da Ponte and Salieri are both best known to modern audiences as Mozart's collaborator and competitor, respectively. But in late 18th-century Vienna, both were highly respected artists in their own right, as the contemporary success of this opera shows. Read more.

Mozart's Così fan tutte, which then and now is as irresistable as it is controversial, has its première in Vienna, at the Burgtheater. Read more.

Produced just weeks before his final opera, the more famous Zauberflöte, Mozart's last opera seria, La clemenza di Tito, has its premère at the National Theatre in Prague. Read more.

Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, has its première at the Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna. An allegory set in no real locality or historical period, the work was intended by the composer, and by librettist and fellow Freemason Emanuel Schikaneder, as a coded representation of Freemasonry. Read more.

Domenico Cimerosa's Il matrimonio segreto has its première at the Vienna Burgtheater, 7 February 1792. Read more.

Beethoven's only opera, the rescue opera Fidelio, has its premère at the Vienna Theater an der Wien. Read more.

Gioachino Rossini's L’italiana in Algeri has its premère at Teatro S Benedetto, Venice. Despite an unenthusiastic welcome in Venice, the opera went on to great success and was the first of the composer's operas to be produced in Germany. Read more.

Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, set to the same libretto as Paisiello's opera of 1782, has its première at the Teatro Argentina in Rome. Read more.

Rossini's much loved setting of the Cinderella story, La Cenerentola, has its première at the Teatro Valle in Rome. Read more.

Carl Maria von Weber's 'magic opera', Der Freischütz, has its première at Berlin, Schauspielhaus. Read more.

Vincenzo Bellini's Il pirata has its première at La Scala, beginning a phenomenally successful six-year collaboration between the composer and librettist Felice Romani. Read more.

Rossini's grand opera, Guillaume Tell, has its première at the Paris Opéra. Read more.

Gaetano Donizetti's Anna Bolena, one of his several operas on subjects from English history, has its première at the Teatro Carcano in Milan. Read more.

Bellini's opera Norma, which includes the great coloratura aria 'Casta diva', has its première at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan. Read more.

Bellini's La somnambula has its première at the Teatro Carcano in Milan. Bellini, who died before his 34th birthday, produced a string of lasting favourites in just nine years from 1827 to 1835. Read more.

Giacomo Meyerbeer's first great success, Robert le diable, has its première at Paris Opéra. Read more.

Donizetti's L’elisir d’amore has its première in the Teatro Cannobiana, Milan. Read more.

Bellini's final opera, I Puritani, with its now famous 'mad scene', has its première at the Théâtre Italien, Paris. Read more.

Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor has its première at the Teatro S Carlo in Naples. The obbligato accompaniment to the famous mad scene, usually heard on flute and performed on that instrument in the first production, was originally composed for glass harmonica, which contributes to the eery quality of the scene. Read more.

Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, considered the first full Russian opera, has its première at the Bol’shoy Theatre in St Petersburg. Read more.

Meyerbeer's grand opera Les Huguenots has its première at the Paris Opéra. Read more.

Der Fliegende Holländer, Richard Wagner's first mature opera, has its première at the Königliches Sächsisches Hoftheater, in Dresden. Read more.

Première at the Teatro della Pergola, Florence, of Macbeth, the first of Verdi's three great operas based on the plays of Shakespeare. Read more.

Première at Teatro La Fenice in Venice of Verdi's Rigoletto, based on Victor Hugo's novel Le roi s'amuse. Read more.

Verdi's La traviata, composed, it seems, in not much more than six weeks, has its première at Teatro La Fenice, Venice. Read more.

Charles Gounod's most popular opera, Faust, has its première in Paris at the Théâtre Lyrique. Read more.

Première of Hector Berlioz's grand opera Les Troyens at the Théâtre Lyrique, Paris. Read more.

Wagner's Tristan und Isolde has its première in Munich, at the Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater. Read more.

Verdi's Aida has its première at the newly opened Cairo Opera House. Read more.

Johann Strauss's light opera, Die Fledermaus has its première at Theater an der Wien, Vienna. Read more.

Modest Musorgsky's Boris Godunov has its première at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg. Read more.

Georges Bizet's Carmen has its première in Paris at the Opéra-Comique. Carmen is arguably the world's best known opera heroine. Read more.

First performance of Wagner’s complete Ring cycle at Bayreuth, 13–17 August 1876. Read more.

Pyotr Il'ych Tchaikovsky's Yevgeny Onegin (Eugene Onegin) has its première at the Malïy Theatre in Moscow. An earlier performance had been given in 1879 by students at the Moscow Conservatory. Read more.

Wagner's final opera, Parsifal has its première at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. A 30-year embargo placed on performances outside Bayreuth was ignored by a number of opera houses, including the Metropolitan in New York, which staged it for the first time in 1903. Read more.

Première at the Opéra-Comique, Paris, of Jules Massenet's Manon. Read more.

Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades has its première at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Read more.

Pietro Mascagni's one-act verismo opera, Cavalleria rusticana, has its première at the Teatro Costanzi, Rome. Read more.

Ruggero Leoncavallo's I pagliacci has its première at the Teatro Dal Verme, Milan. Based, like Cavalleria rusticana, on a true story, Pagliacci was composed with the earlier opera in mind, and the two are linked in modern performance tradition. Read more.

Puccini's Manon Lescaut has its première at La Scala. When his publisher tried to dissuade him from composing an opera on a subject that had already had great success in a treatment by Massenet (see 1884, in this timeline), Puccini is said to have replied 'Why shouldn’t there be two operas about her? A woman like Manon can have more than one lover.’ The opera's success has borne him out. Read more.

Verdi's great comic portrait, Falstaff, has its première. Read more.


'We owe it to Verdi not to keep Rigoletto cosy'

I n 1982 Jonathan Miller directed a new Rigoletto for English National Opera in which he updated the action to 1950's Little Italy in New York. Verdi's Duke of Mantua became a Mafia capo, Rigoletto his bartender, and one of the opera's most well-known arias, La donne e mobile, a jukebox hit. Miller's production was an instant critical success, bringing in a new audience and cementing the ENO's growing reputation as one of the world's most creative and innovative opera houses. Thames TV recorded the show for live broadcast and there was even talk of transferring the production to a West End run with alternating casts.

Miller's production did transfer to New York and was revived 12 times at ENO, most recently in 2009, and remained an audience favourite. Unlike some long-serving productions, Rigoletto never became a creaking old war-horse wheeled out every few years as a reliable crowd-pleaser some of the surprise of its staging may have gone, but its realisation was every bit as fresh and satisfying. But no opera house can stand still, and ENO is now putting on a new Rigoletto, directed by Christopher Alden.

It's a big call for everyone. Miller's Rigoletto has been ENO's calling card for 30 years and its audiences have become almost as proprietorial over it. Like Miller's Duke, it's not something to be messed with. For Alden the stakes are just as high. How does he follow a show that has been in the repertoire for so long?

'I can only present the opera in the way I see it.' Director Christopher Alden, photographed during rehearsals for Rigoletto. Photo: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

There must be a temptation to play it safe to put on a traditional production set in Italy that pushes no boundaries and offends no one. A holding operation: damage limitation. That this Rigoletto is a co-production with the Canadian Opera and was given its first outing in Toronto in 2011 might give some credence to this. Give the production time to bed down on the other side of the Atlantic in an opera house that doesn't have the same history with the piece, iron out the rough patches and bring it over to the Coliseum as the finished article.

But check out the production's history. Alden first produced this Rigoletto for the Lyric Opera in Chicago in 2000: its reception was mixed - to say the least. "Let's just say it divided people," Alden says wryly, during a break in rehearsals. "Some loved it, some hated it." He smiles. 'There were some boos on the first night. But the Lyric Opera does have a very conservative audience. They like their operas done in a very particular way and this crossed the line for some of them.

"At the time, the Lyric was trying to nudge its audience towards a different style of production, but I guess it didn't work out. After its first run, I was given to understand the Lyric would revive the production in a couple of years. A year or so later, I got a call from the director saying the company had changed its mind. Money was tight, sponsors and audiences weren't yet ready for this style of opera and they were going to go back to something more trad. Blah, Blah. Whatever. "

And that was that for 10 years until Toronto and English National Opera expressed an interest in remaking it. So has the intervening decade been kind to Alden's vision? Were audiences now more ready for his Rigoletto? He laughs. "Not exactly," he says. "It got pretty much the same mixed response as in Chicago. But then, Toronto audiences do also tend to be quite staid." Quite. One Canadian critic wrote: "Consider it official. The Canadian Opera Company is a European house. All the hallmarks are there: good soloists, a reliable orchestra, a sturdy chorus, intelligent, committed conducting. And, of course, ridiculous stagings."

Which leaves the question hanging. Is Alden's staging ridiculous or has it just needed a European audience to appreciate it? "I would hope it would be better received here," he says. 'But I can only present the opera in the way I see it. I think one of the reasons some people have had such a strong reaction to the show is that they feel they have been lured into believing it was going to be a traditional production. Once you had accepted the 1950s staging of Dr Miller's Rigoletto – of which I am a big fan – it was actually quite an orthodox production. When the curtain rises on mine, the 19th century Zeffirelli feel to the set will initially feel very familiar to opera-goers. [But] thereafter. "

It may not. The action in Alden's Rigoletto takes place in a gentleman's gaming club in the early 1850s - the period of the opera's composition. The power struggles between the men, between the men and women, and the private and the public are just some of the games to be played out. Relationships are almost uniformly perverse - none more so than that of the assassin Sparafucile and his sister Maddalena, who are played as an incestuous couple. The chorus is on stage throughout as accessories to the action their complicity a mirror of the audience's.

Alden is too long in the tooth to be a provocateur. He's been directing opera around the world since the mid-1970s and he doesn't need to stir things up for the sake of it. His commitment to this Rigoletto is absolute in rehearsals he is ruthless for detail, picking up members of the chorus who have moved position a beat too early. But he does accept that some people may take issue with his ideas. "You just have to put it out there and hope," he says.

"You've got to remember," he adds, "that Rigoletto was edgy theatre in its own day. We owe it to Verdi not to keep it cosy. Regicide and a hunchback hero weren't normal subjects for 19th century audiences. Rigoletto's second production was so controversial it was halted after the first act and they performed Verdi's Luisa Miller instead". If the same thing happens at the ENO this week, it really would be a sensation.

Rigoletto opens at English National Opera on 13 Februrary and is in rep until 12 March.


Verdi's Relationship With Verdi

influential times not only for Italy but also for Italian Opera. It signalled the end of the old operatic regime and the rise of rights, previously scarcely practiced, for the composer – this was good news for Verdi, rights he himself helped manufacture. In this section I will be examining the revolutions and the impact that had on the impresari and their relationship with Verdi. I will also be looking at Il Corsaro closely, as it is the Verdian opera which best demonstrates Verdi’s growing confidence&hellip


Watch the video: Choeurs de lOpéra national de Paris - Nabucco de Giuseppe Verdi


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