Giuseppe Verdi’s first opera, “Oberto”, was produced at Milan’s famed Teatro alla Scala in 1839 when Verdi was 26 years old. Oberto’s modest success was completely obscured by the domestic disasters Verdi suffered between 1838 and 1840 when, in the span of 22 months, he lost both his small children and he beloved wife Margherita to disease. Paralyzed by grief, Verdi swore he’d never compose again. But compose he did: egged on, cajoled, wheedled and finally browbeaten by Bartolomeo Merelli – the director of La Scala – Verdi completed his second opera “Un giorno di regno” (“King for a Day”) and composed his third opera, “Nabucco”, about which I blogged on September 20. (Bartolomeo Merelli was an astute businessman, but in his actions towards Verdi, he was also a GREAT AND BRILLIANT man. Merelli’s love for and belief in Verdi very probably kept Verdi alive, and his intransigence towards Verdi the artist kept Verdi composing at a time when he would most likely have quit forever. That would have been a disaster of such magnitude that its mere contemplation loosens my bladder. So please, three cheers for Bartolomeo Merelli who was, in fact, one of music history’s indispensible men.)
(While I’m writing long parenthetical comments, indulge me one more. I took a group of opera fans on a trip to Milan and Venice last November. As we approached the “Teatro alla Scala” for our first opera – a so-so Rigoletto – one of my charges asked me “where are the stairs?”. For half-a-lifetime this person had assumed that “alla scala” referred to a flight of steps or a staircase somewhere around the exterior of the building. And while there are indeed stairs-aplenty on the interior, the name of the theater has nothing to do with steps or scales.
The theater was built in 1778 on the former site of the Church of Santa Maria alla Scala. The church had been commissioned in the fourteenth century by the soldier, statesman, and Lord of Milan Bernabò Visconti. Lord Bernabò was married to Beatrice Regina della Scala. The church was named, then, in honor of Saint Mary – Jesus’ maternal unit – and Beatrice Regina’s maiden name. When it came time to name the theater, the name of the church formerly on the site was retained. Thus “Teatro della scala”.)
As described in my blog post of September 20, Verdi’s fourth opera – Nabucco – was his game changer, his Eureka-moment, the opera that established his reputation and initiated his climb to the very top of the operatic world. It was a long, hard climb; Verdi referred to the 1840’s as his “galley slave years”.
It was during these galley slave years that Verdi slowly and incrementally began shifting away from the traditional operatic structures of aria, recitative, chorus and ensemble. Increasingly, Verdi came to consider these time-honored dramaturgical divisions as being tired, artificial rituals that stifled dramatic momentum and expressive truth. Slowly and incrementally, over the course of the 1840’s and early 1850’s, Verdi increasingly downplayed these traditional operatic divisions in favor of continuous music and therefore, dramatic and expressive continuity.
For Verdi, it all came together between 1851 and 1853 when, back-to-back, he composed and saw premiered three of the greatest operas ever written, operas that boosted him, forever, into a place of his own making: “Rigoletto”, “Il Trovatore”, and “La Traviata.”
I offer for your viewing and listening pleasure a 13-minute excerpt of Lecture 10 from my The Great Courses survey, “The Life and Operas of Verdi”, an excerpt that deals with the run-up to Rigoletto. Divertirsi, i miei amici.