Verdi arrived in Milan in 1839, after leaving Busseto once and for all. He immediately incurred into success at La Scala with the opera Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio. However, he was not so lucky in 1840 with the comic opera Un giorno di regno, a total failure at La Scala. The same year, he suffered the death of his wife Margherita, followed by the extremely painful passing of his two children. After resolving to abandon the theatrical “playing field”, he changed his mind thanks to the tenacity of Ricordi, his publisher, who suggested to set Nabucco to music. It was not only a success, it was an unprecedented triumph on March 9th1842 at La Scala.
Less than a year after Nabucco, Verdi staged I Lombardi alla prima crociata at the same theatre. Replete with choral scenes, this opera is an epic poem whose theme would be interpreted with an eye on patriotism and the Risorgimento in the relatively near future. The new opera soon became successful in Italian theatres for its unrelenting music with quick, almost wild rhythms, which are recurrent features of Verdi’s early operas and ensured the success of this rising star of melodrama. However, in addition to its magnificent choral heights and crude scenes of violence, Lombardi also contains captivating profuse melodies, and Verdi showed he could also express delicate moments, such as Giselda’s prayer.
Verdi went in another direction with Ernani, his next opera. The subject, which was borrowed from a dramatic work by Victor Hugo, enabled the composer to concentrate on the individual characters. The dark tension, emphasis, abstraction and melodramatic conventionality in Hugo’s work were attractive to Verdi. In fact he was looking for characters who were totally involved in the violent passions that trigger effective interpersonal conflicts. In this way Verdi created the perfect romantic melodrama, but also showed he could “build” characters who were anything but simplistic, thanks to the music that complemented their psychological changes and their passions. In other words, Verdi showed an unquestionable theatrical instinct that would become increasingly explicit during his years of experimentation (or “prison” as he called them): during a decade of frantic effort (1839-1849), ended with Luisa Miller, even 14 melodramas were created.
First was Rigoletto, followed by Il trovatore and La traviata – Verdi’s most beloved operas, especially for their ubiquitous, fervent, unforgettable melodies. The operas are a milestone in Verdi’s theatrical work, as they contain a new dramaturgy in which the main character’s situation is the key foundation for building the story line and the dramatic conflicts. Thus, we find complex, yet ambivalent characters: such as Rigoletto, a court jester with a dual personality: cynical and malevolent at the Duke’s court, but a remarkably tender father to his daughter, who he raises in secret; there is also Azucena, who is divided between her eagerness to take revenge for her mother’s death by immolation and her love for her son Manrico. And there is Violetta, a courtesan who is playful and brilliant in Parisian high society, but sincere and passionate as a lover in private. In all these characters, a dominating passion acts as the catalyst for human, family and social relationships throughout the story. The plot is therefore moulded around the leading characters, their relationships and their psychological evolution, which effectively progresses as compared with the other characters. However, the “trilogy” represents a fundamental step in the dramatical quest that led Verdi exploit the modes of expression and the formal conventions of 19th Century Italian melodrama in a flexible way by integrating individual “numbers” into large scenic blocks, pervading action and reflection, and dissolving rigid formal frameworks to follow the “interior” rhythm of the characters. This dramaturgy search becomes more and more clear-cut as time goes by, since it is directed toward the realistic exploration of human nature in all its complexity. It is one of the reasons why the “trilogy” is a watershed between romantic melodrama and Verdi’s realism in the second half of the 19th Century.
Between the first and the second half of the 19th Century Verdi tried his fortune across the Alps, specifically in Paris. The French capital was extremely attractive to Italian opera composers because it allowed them much greater intellectual freedom than in Italy, that imposed oppressive censorship and anachronistic ties of dependence. Moreover, composers could not only earn a generous large amount of money and were better protected against musical piracy in Paris, but to them was recognized a much higher social and professional status as compared with Italy. Verdi, who was exceptionally well-versed in the principal operas of the French repertory, travelled to Paris in 1847 – four years before composing his “popular trilogy” – to attempt his first grand opera with Jérusalem, an adaptation of I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata. He would also become familiar with grand opéra and with the complex French theatre system during his second stay in Paris, from the end of 1853 to the end of 1855, when he came into direct contact with the French operas of Meyerbeer, Halévy and Gounod, which were also staged in Italian theatres in the second half of the 19thCentury. France was, in fact, an artistically fertile country, stimulating for Italians who wished to restore the national melodramatic tradition. The increasing attention to developments in European musical theatre reflected a need that was widely felt among the new classes who attended theatres and appreciated culture in general in the period subsequent to Italian unity, that is the need to become less provincial, to express new values, and to go beyond the idealism of the Risorgimento that had accompanied the glorious periods of romantic melodrama. The creation of Les Vêpres Siciliennes must therefore be viewed in this light. The work was staged in 1855 at the Paris Opéra, the most important theater in France at that time, and was followed twelve years later by Don Carlos, which was just as “grandiose”.
But France was not the only country important for Verdi. Simon Boccanegra marks a fresh encounter with Spanish dramaturgy after Il Trovatore. Although the opera was a resounding failure at its “first night” in Venice in 1857, Verdi would redeem himself from this setback twenty years later with a second version featuring a completely reworked libretto (with the contribution of Arrigo Boito) and score. With this new version, which debuted at La Scala on March 24, 1881, Verdi created a work of exemplary dramatic consistency that is dominated by a dark atmosphere and deep male voices. The opera succeeded because of its tragic grandeur.
And then came Un Ballo in Maschera (1859), another fundamental milestone in Verdi’s dramaturgy, where we can note the trend (which began so conspicuously with Rigoletto) toward digging deeply into the psychology of characters who are complex and anything but unambiguous. The mixture of tragic style and comic tone finds such a clear expression that emerges as a form of stylistic . The work thus seems to follow the dictates of French romantic theatre, which had turned the mixing of registers into a conscious approach. The combination of the comic and the catastrophic is even more evident in La Forza del Destino, a work wrote by Verdi for the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre in 1862. The realistic, openly comic language used in the scenes at the inn and in the camp, combined with a comedic musical style that foreshadowed Falstaff, particularly contrasts not only with the great scenes in the grand French operatic style, but also with the main idea of the work; that is, the relentless destiny that guides and influences the actions of the characters.
Nine years after La Forza del Destino, the Master composed his next opera, Aida. Commissioned by Egyptian authorities who wished to present a “national” subject in the opera theatre that had just been built in Cairo, this work presented a story whose roots date back to ancient Egypt. The opera debuted in Cairo on Christmas Eve in 1871, at an opulent, high-society venue attended by ambassadors and royalty. Verdi’s new work incorporated many aspects of grand French opera, the most important of which was a predisposition for showiness, as heightened by dances and by the famous scene of triumph. Yet, the centre of gravity of the most spectacular of Verdi’s operas is a completely private conflict, which enables Verdi to push psychological introspection to his very limit. The first performance of Aida in Italy, at La Scala in Milan on February 8, 1972, was supervised and directed by Verdi himself. For the staging – which was as successful as Verdi had hoped – the Master took with him the set designer Girolamo Magnani, who provided the miniature copies of the costumes used in Cairo. Besides faithfully reproducing the Egypt of the Pharaons, Magnani pursued to evoke an atmosphere that was appropriate for the dramatic situation. His scenes, and particularly the final scene with the death of the two lovers, became famous everywhere and were copied and recreated in countless productions, even in the 20thCentury.
In the sixteen years between Aida (1871) and Othello (1887), which was a new experience with Shakespearean theatre after Macbeth, Verdi did not produce new operatic works, even though he worked on Messa di Requiem, the revision of Boccanegra and Don Carlos. And when he finally presented his new creation, the gulf that separated it from the works that had ensured his enormous popularity, was evident. Othello has very little to do with traditional melodramatic forms, yet the work is deeply rooted in its time, at least for its disturbing aspects, such as the pathological psychology of the characters, who are at the mercy of frustrated, destructive passions (Othello’s jealousy, Iago’s hate). The foundation of these motifs consists of a culture and a sensitivity that were quite widespread at that time. In Verdi’s theatrical work, Othello is also the logical landing point of a highly personal process that begins in the distant past with Risorgimento idealism and romantic heroes, and gradually leads the Master to plumb the depths of the human soul and reveal its most hidden attributes.
Verdi drew upon another Shakespearean subject and again worked with Boito to produce the remarkable creation that is Falstaff. In this comic masterpiece, all vestiges of traditional melodramatic forms disappear completely. The extremely fast action and frantic pace are supported by a continuous vocal recitative and an incessant orchestral invention, which produces the effect of a kaleidoscope – a crackling pin-wheel of images. The vital energy of the scenes that feature the leading character and the jokes that hit him counterbalance the episodes with Fenton and Nannetta. These latter events were included in the plot – a successful idea of Boito’s – as a parallel motif that contrasts with the purely comic nature of the main story line.