Viva la Verdi: My Favorite Pieces by the Famous Composer
Have any of you, dear readers, seen the film Quartet, starring Dame Maggie Smith and my personal favorite, Billy Connelly? This film is among those favorites- particularly my husband’s- that get played in our home with frequency.
A character driven plot, the story revolves around the drama and humor unique to the residents of Beechum House. You see, Beechum House is actually a very unique sort of retirement home; it is completely devoted to those special members of society that made their careers in the opera, symphony, or musical theater. The place is simply brimming with baritones, tenors, sopranos, a la diva or two, and one very notable and pompous il divo, known as Cedric (prounounced with a long e, i.e. CEEdric). This retirement home is a jewel, but as it the way with so many jewels, it requires funds in order to keep going. So, regardless of their old age- which the film clearly tells is not for sissies- the residents rally together annually to host a celebration on Verdi’s birthday.
Today is not Verdi’s birthday (which is still a matter of debate; he celebrated it on the 9th of October, though parish records clearly indicate it was recorded on the 10th). However, it is the day before the anniversary of the great composer’s death (a date which is not in question one little bit). More importantly, as I have just recently watched this film (at my husband’s behest, you know, in order to test out his Christmas gift- a new flat screen television and accompanying sound system), it’s the day I want to share a few of my favorite Verdi pieces with you.
Where to start? Well, history is always a good bet. Verdi was quite the prolific composer and he drew from a vast assortment of sources as widely spread as Attila the Hun roaming the Great Steppes in Eurasia to the bloodthirsty king and queen that grace the pages of that Scottish play.
While I am not a fan of Verdi’s noisome opera, Attila— and I have tried, dear readers, believe me; I wanted to like it, I really did— I do enjoy his Italian interpretation of Macbeth.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky, superb baritone that he was (see post here), gives an excellent performance of Pietà, rispetto, amore from Verdi’s opera, Macbeth. Can’t you feel the pathos of this man whose dreams have been disabused by his own actions? I find that I pity Macbeth in this opera. This song occurs as Macbeth is looking down from the battlefield, seeing the force of English men who have been rallied against him by Duncan’s sons. He sees his inevitable end in sight and bemoans the choices that have lead him here to this moment. More so, there is a deep seated regret about his verbiage which the music accompanies perfectly. He’s not only lamenting his impending death, he’s lamenting the fact that he will not be remembered with accolades and praise. He knows his grave will be spit upon and he will be cursed. The bloom has left his rose; his glory has shown itself to be tarnished.
Although not historical, Verdi’s opera Aida allows us an equally exotic segue, though into Ancient Egypt rather than Scotland. (I have quite a fascination for Ancient Egypt; how many of you have dreamed of archeological digs where you happen upon an undiscovered tomb of one of the pharaohs which unearths the answers to some of the great mysteries of the world? Come on. I can’t be the only one who wanted to grow up and be Amelia Peabody in Elizabeth Peters’ series.)
I could sight several pieces from Aida that are on my favorite’s list, but I find that I return over and over to the Triumphal March. It’s a classical piece of music that contains no singing, but I love the grandeur of it.
The Triumphal March is played during Radamas’ return to Egypt. The Captain of the Egyptian Guard has been victorious in battle. Little does the fated Radamas know that one of the ‘simple soldiers’ he has captured is really Amonasro, King of Ethiopia, and- more important to Radamas- father to Aida, the slavewoman/hidden princess with whom Radamas is madly in love. Considering the imminent tragedy for the principals (You don’t even need to know the details, dear readers. It’s opera. Nothing ever ends well for the principals in opera.), this grand march feels like ironic foreshadowing. Or, perhaps, it’s merely a precursor to the triumph of love. For indeed, Radamas refuses to renounce his love for Aida and embraces death because he will not do so. Yet, in the last minutes of his life, as the oxygen is slowly depleting in the tomb he’s been buried alive in, who but his true love, Aida, joins him, binding her destiny to his forever. There’s a certain triumph, if somewhat tragic, in that.
Another piece that I simply adore by Verdi is the Anvil Chorus in Il Trovatore. There’s nothing like watching a bunch of gypsies hammer out a tune (quite literally). During this piece, in the second act of the lugubrious plot this is Il Trovatore, these gypsies are preparing for some sort of battle, hammering their steel into crudely shapen weaponry. Who are they going to fight? I don’t really know. The Count di Luna, presumably, but we’re really not sure about that. What are they actually saying? I don’t really know. And, I’m not alone; many critics have tried to piece together the meaning of this epic sequence to no avail. Suffice it to say, the music is grandiose and the piece has outgrown the opera to become readily recognized by all and sundry. Who could ever forget the brilliant display of Wile E. Coyote trying to smash the uncatchable Roadrunner with an enormous anvil, and then, of course, falling victim to his own overly produced scheme? (In case you didn’t notice, that’s a fabulous allusion that the creators of Looney Toons made; an anvil smashing Wile E. Coyote repeatedly to the Anvil Chorus. Ah, I love a good bit of wit.)
Finally, I will conclude with two of my favorite pieces by Verdi. The first is a light hearted piece from La Traviata. If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, head over and read this post which will probably clue you in to how familiar you actually are with this plotline (to say it’s been done before— and after— would be redundant).
Libiamo Ne’lieti Calici, better known as Brindisi, is a drinking song from the first act of La Traviata. Alfredo, who is madly in love with the famous courtesan, Violetta, is persuaded by Gastone to show off his singing voice. Young and inexperienced that he is, Alfredo succumbs to his cups and belts out this fabulously famous tune. It’s lighthearted, but it ends on a somewhat prescient note; he’s drinking to joy and laughter and pleasure, but in the end, he makes a telling statement: Life is nothing but pleasure as long as you’re not in love. Well, dear readers, poor Alfredo is in love, and, as is the way with opera, it’s not only his undoing, but his object’s as well. But Brindisi is a bit of fun, and oddly, it seems to encapsulate what one might actually see at a bar when a raucous group of friends burst into drunken song- laughter, silliness, camaraderie, all seasoned with a soupçon of sadness.
And last, but certainly not least, my favorite: Bella Figlia Dell’Amore from Rigoletto. Nothing like ending on a high note, and there’s no higher note than an opera about a misused hunchback whose daughter is mislead, mistreated, betrayed, and then killed. (See post here for all the gory details.) If you have seen Quartet, then you’ll recognize this piece as the final one in the movie. My favorite is performed by Luciano Pavarotti and Dame Joan Sutherland. (It’s also the piece they chose to play in the movie, as it’s quite possibly one of the most famous quartets in opera history.) Here you have the four main principals- the rascally rapacious Duke, his current inamorata Maddalena, his jilted lover Gilda, and her heartbroken and helpless father Rigoletto- melding their agendas into a beatific affair of music and lyrics. Honestly, even if there were no lyrics, you could simply sit back and be enamored by the music.
And perhaps that’s my favorite part about Verdi. His lyricism is fantastic, but his music transcends. Which is what I hope this post has wrought for you all this Friday. I hope the music has transported you, as it so often does me.
Tomorrow is the anniversary of Verdi’s departure from this earth, but his music remains, homage to his musical genius and sensitivity.
Are you familiar with any of these pieces by Verdi? Which is your favorite? Is there a piece by him that you enjoy that I didn’t include? Please, share. I love to talk opera (as this post and the numerous ones listed below will attest to).
I hope you all have a Verdi wonderful weekend!