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The golden wings of the bicentennial: Giuseppe Verdi at 200

Giacomo Brogi (1822-1881), Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi (cropped). Work in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Giacomo Brogi (1822-1881), Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi (cropped). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It is finally here. The big anniversary. The bicentennial. Today, Giuseppe Verdi turns 200. There has been excitement in the air for quite some time—leading opera houses presenting new productions and outreach initiatives to honor the great composer, publishing companies rushing to release a host of new books for all sorts of readerships, and public and private organizations around the world (governments and municipalities, research centers and fan clubs) working to celebrate the occasion as it deserves. Countless anniversary concerts, performances, and conferences are going on this week. So are exhibits and other initiatives: Porte aperte per Verdi (Open doors for Verdi), proudly announces the Teatro alla Scala, the celebrated opera house in Milan where Verdi enjoyed the first and final triumphs of his career. What I find most exciting, and in many ways moving, this mid-October week, is the excitement and dedication of scholars, practitioners, and lovers of opera around the world. Researchers boarding trains and airplanes (often on their own dough) to travel to conferences. Radio stations broadcasting an abundance of Verdi marathons and “complete” cycles, along with interviews and tributes. The world’s leading conductors and singers preparing and presenting major performances. People gathering around Verdi monuments from Parma to New York to offer impromptu renditions of the chorus of the Hebrews in Act 3 of Nabucco, “Va, pensiero.”

Just as that iconic chorus flies “sull’ali dorate” (on golden wings), so do all of these initiatives fly on the wings of the bicentennial, which are golden in their own right—offering good return in terms of visibility and (where applicable) box office revenue. Even La Scala’s “porte aperte,” indirectly, constitute a precious opportunity for marketing and promotion. Sales at the gift shop and box office, to be sure, will be far above average today. We are often more excited about the revival of a lesser-known Verdi opera, a new production of one of his perennial favorites, or a coffee mug with his effigies, if it takes place or is purchased in an anniversary year, or—better still—on his very birthday. Aren’t we privileged to be able to say, from now on, “I was there”? The question is an important one. What will be left of all this next week, next month, or next year? A chipped coffee mug, the skeptical reader might respond. The danger exists that this bicentennial, like countless other celebrations, will end up not only celebrating, but also monumentalizing and enshrining Verdi. Distancing him and his work even more into a finished past.

But there is a bright side to the tale of this bicentennial: gone are the days when we built busts and statues of bronze or stone in piazzas, squares, and foyers. Instead, we have the opportunity to concentrate primarily on the interest in Verdi’s music and theater, which remains undiminished, with no real danger that it will fade after 2013. His operas continue to travel around the world in live performances and recordings, and new technologies—from the internet to high-definition simulcasts—have made them accessible to broader audiences. An increasingly interactive public engages with Verdi and his performers through e-lists and blogs. We continue to look for new meanings and expressive potential in Verdi’s works. His connection to Shakespeare continues to fascinate us and to prompt novel and insightful discussions (witness Garry Wills’ important 2011 book, Verdi’s Shakespeare: Men of the Theater).  When we stage his works, we often seek to reinterpret them, re-contextualize them, and make them our own by bringing them closer to us in time and space—the much talked-about recent Metropolitan Opera production of Rigoletto by Michael Mayer, set in Las Vegas, is a telling example.

Even the large red volumes of the Works of Giuseppe Verdi—the series that, when complete, will provide critical editions of all of the composer’s works—might appear to be a monument in its own right, but it is indeed far more than that. To mention only one of the recent volumes, in Giovanna d’Arco we can now hear the protagonist pray explicitly to the Virgin Mary, and not to an unnamed supernatural entity as the censors in Milan had demanded in 1845 (we heard the text as Verdi and Solera had intended it in this summer’s performances at the Festival della Valle d’Itria in Italy). But performers can still shun this opportunity and use the traditional, censored poetry, as in last month’s performance at the Chicago Opera Theater (discussed in a recent blog entry by Garry Wills). Indeed, we continue to explore and to discuss (sometimes heatedly) the political and cultural significance of his works in his own time and beyond.

In addition to many volumes of the Works of Giuseppe Verdi still unpublished or in the making, much remains to be done, and opportunities for new work abound. Each time sketch materials for his operas are released by the Verdi heirs at Sant’Agata we learn more of the creative process, and have the opportunity to contemplate his music from a new vantage point. A forthcoming new English edition of Abramo Basevi’s widely cited Studio sulle opere di Giuseppe Verdi, prepared by Stefano Castelvecchi, engages a mid-nineteenth-century analytical study in a novel and stimulating way, making it accessible to a broad readership. The conference Verdi’s Third Century: Italian Opera Today, currently underway at New York University, has brought together scholars, practitioners, and critics to discuss the circulation and perception of Verdi—and of Italian opera—in today’s world, focussing principally on how Verdi’s works have been interpreted, imagined, and appropriated. Papers and round tables explore staging and singers, Verdi’s presence in silent cinema and in popular culture, the work of publishers, critics, and bloggers, to mention only some of the themes of the conference.

These are the golden wings of the bicentennial. Despite the ever-increasing span of time that separates us from Giuseppe Verdi, he remains someone whom we actively study, engage, and question, on this day and beyond. His presence is so vital that those spontaneous renditions of “Va pensiero” that resonate around the world today, probably along with crowds large and small singing “Happy birthday, dear Verdi,” will seem not only quaint, but also meaningful expressions of an important cultural presence that will not fade as the coffee mugs are inexorably chipped.

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