The heady wine that is revenge masks its bitter aftertaste. Those who seek what they feel to be justice often humiliate themselves and wreck their own houses as illustrated in 1986 when one of the fashionable Gucci sons supplied the evidence of tax evasion that imprisoned his 81-year old father who cursed from the dock: “Some sought revenge and only God may judge them”. Last spring, the engineering empire of Franco Belgiono-Nettis faced demolition when his eldest son took the family before a New South Wales Supreme Court. judge who ruled that resolution would be almost impossible. Testimony by members of Doug Moran’s family demonstrated that the delights of self-destruction were not foreign to Anglo-monarchists.

In earlier eras, similar ructions would have been solved with a dagger or a poisoned cup before supplying plots for the melodramas that Giuseppe Verdi shaped into opera. Today, no composer is on hand to blend the Guccis, Belgiornos and Morans into figures larger than the lives they made miserable in their zeal for retribution.

Only the operas of Giuseppe Verdi are to be heard in the Opera House throughout January to mark the centenary of his death on January 27th. This tribute began with a New Year’s Eve Gala and ends with La Traviata as the opera in the park. From his twenty-eight works for the stage, Opera Australia is reviving three favourites – Rigoletto and Il trovotore, as well as La Traviata - all under its musical director Simone Young. She will also direct two performances of the Requiem that he composed in 1874 in honour of the writer Alessandro Manzoni, whose novels he valued as “a consolation to all mankind” – a respite from revenge-seeking?

A month after the 87-year-old Verdi himself died, 300,000 admirers lined the streets of Milan waiting for the state funeral which commenced with Toscanini’s conducting the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from the 1842 opera  Nabucco. That lament, with its final stirrings towards freedom, had so captured the national spirit for liberation and so alarmed Italy’s foreign rulers that the Austrian censors removed references to blood and vengeance from Verdi’s next opera, Ernani, although its action was set in Spain, early in the sixteenth century. Before Italy’s unification in 1861, the cry “Viva V.E.R.D.I.” became code for “Long live Victor Emanuel King of Italy [Re d’Italia]”. Film director Bernardo Bertolluci opened his 1976 panorama of Italian fascism, 1900, with a hunchback named Rigoletto wailing: “Verdi is dead! Verdi is dead!”

This identification of Verdi with modern Italy was as widespread as it was partisan. Verdi was a republican chaffing under a monarchy, an anti-clerical at work in a culture reeking with priest-craft. For twelve years, he lived out of wedlock in a patriarchy where sexual honour relied on hypocrisy. Yet, in other ways, Verdi remained a man of his place and its people. Once he had begun to make money, he garnered hectares as avariciously as any uncultivated peasant.

The vigour and tunefulness of Verdi operas encourage devotees to believe that their admired composer was similarly blessed with warmth and gaiety, making an invitation to lunch at his Palazzo Dordoni as enticing as dinner with Rossini or breakfast with Mozart after a night on the town. Verdi’s scores are not so consistently beautiful as to induce the belief that their creator must embody truth and goodness. Yet, even their coarsenesses inspire confidence in the worthiness and good humour of the man who ventured them. Or they would, were it not for the theme that energises most of them: vengeance.

The privacy that Verdi prized can be cracked a little by asking how the recurrence of vengeance in his plots fitted with his personality. Did he embrace vengeance as virtuous, spurn it as a social imposition, or expose it as an atavistic encumbrance?

When Verdi was an altar boy in his village church, the parish priest humiliated him by pushing him off balance. The seven-year old reacted: “May God strike you with lightning!” Eight years later, a lightning strike did kill that priest along with a horse, two dogs, two choristers and three other clerics. Verdi retold this story more than any from his childhood to explain all manner of traits, from his anti-clericalism to the willfulness that he shaped into a fecund egoism. Above all else, the tale of that lightning bolt celebrated vengeance.

Verdi had reasons enough to believe that he too had been cursed. Between August 1838 and June 1840, his infant daughter, his year-old son and finally his bride of four years, died. Three months later, his second opera, King for a day, was withdrawn after one night as a total failure. We can but wonder whether he ever suspected that these blows were retribution for the bolt he had called down on the priest who had struck him twenty years before. If so, he did not readily seek a consolation other than vengeance.

Writing about disputes with his publisher, Verdi declared in 1848: “I forgive a slap in the face, because if I can I will give back twenty, and then will kill the person who slapped me, even on the altar; but I cannot pardon an insult to which I cannot respond”. Although Verdi is not known to have resorted to physical force, the metaphors of violence in this outburst are as striking as the idea that forgiveness demands retribution.

Nor could Verdi pardon relatives who scorned his unchurched love for the soprano, Giuseppina Strepponi, whom he had met in 1841 when she supported the staging of Nabucco, in which she sang two years later. By then, she had had three illegitimate children to her managers, and a chorus of lovers, including Donizetti. Her voice was soon in tatters but her musical intelligence and business acumen had been tempered. When she and Verdi became intimate is uncertain but, by 1847, they were living together in Paris. She moved to his home district of Busseto, to the north-west of Parma, two years later.

Strepponi’s arrival was a scandal to the faithful. Verdi refused to say whether she was his wife. Neighbours considered her a prostitute, hurling abuse at her in the streets and stones at her windows. His pious father was the most intractable, a model for the old schemer in La Traviata. Within two years, Verdi broke with his family, signing a deed of separation and evicting his parents. In a flourish typical of the two-edged nature of vengeance, he threatened to sell up their shared properties at prices ruinous to them all. Throughout the 1860s, and after his remarriage in 1859, the locals tried to cash in on his fame by erecting an opera house dedicated to him. He quitted Busseto for its opening in 1868 and never set foot in a building that bore his name.

Verdi’s break with the Church did not let him escape its mental universe, with its inheritances from the Old Testament in which vengeance moves from an individual or clan responsibility to a prerogative of the state. This shift was still underway in nineteenth-century Italy where family and local ties remained stronger than those to the new nation.

We nowadays think of “an eye for an eye” as barbarous, but in its day this equivalence of offence with punishment limited retribution to only one eye, allowed no favourites and checked blood feuds by transferring the power of execution to a public authority. The distance between the letter of the Mosaic Law and the spirit of Christianity is not great. Although Christ embodied the redeeming power of forgiveness by his death for the sins of others, and in his precept of turning the other cheek, Paul’s Epistle to the Thessalonians depicted the return of Jesus “in flaming fire taking vengeance” on non-believers. In similar vein, Paul wrote to the Romans: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves: but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him: If he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head”. The implication is that charity inflicts the most exquisite mental torments and satisfies the baser instincts, sailing close to vindictiveness.

Verdi’s anti-clericalism did not prevent his deployment of the Church as a device for delaying vengeance on stage. Hence, friar Melitone provides comic relief from the heartlessness of The Force of Destiny (1862) which begins with Alvaro accidentally killing the father of his beloved, another stage Leonora. The lovers separate, pursued by her brother, Carlo. Although Alvaro saves Carlo’s life, the latter exults that he can still slaughter his rescuer and his own sister. Carlo tracks them down and provokes a duel in which he is fatally wounded. Leonora consoles her dying brother who repays her with a dagger to the heart. An Abbott tells Alvaro that he will never be free of his inadvertent offence until he stops cursing fate.

In contrast to that sage, mad priests are at work in Nabucco and Aida (1871). In the former, the slave-girl Abigail ascends the throne as Babylonian soothsayers chant: “And the vengeance of Baal will thunder alongside yours!” In the latter story, the princess Amneris curses the Priests: “Ever vengeful, bloodthirsty and blind, they call themselves ministers of heaven!”

In that most undeservedly neglected of Verdi operas, Stiffelio (1851), Verdi again drew a line between institutional religion and men of good will. The Protestant minister Stiffelio discovers that his wife has been unfaithful. Her father seeks vengeance but is disarmed by his son-in-law who is himself assuaged on hearing a penitential hymn. Undeterred, the father kills the seducer. The wronged husband turns to his bible which falls open at the story of the woman taken in adultery which becomes the text for his sermon. That the father is the barrier to leniency is predictable. What is less sure is how Verdi would have reacted had he discovered Strepponi in one of the adulteries for which she forgave him.

No priest of Rome is portrayed as sympathetically as this parson. At the other extreme, in Don Carlos, the Grand Inquisitor - as blind as justice - assures the king that it is his Christian duty to murder his son just as God had sacrificed his. Never a church-goer, Verdi received the last rites only after he had lost consciousness. His will stipulated that his burial service be attended by only “two priests, two candles, and one cross”. Rather than inscribe him as another non-practising Catholic, it is safer to picture him a non-professing Protestant.

Personality and belief would be of small interest had Verdi not been so protean a composer. Hence, the burden of this essay must be the operation of vengeance in his operas. Yet, so pervasive is that motif that commentators take its dynamic for granted, rarely pondering its theatrical import. Deciding whether the vengeance-takers are justified, insane, or puppets of fate, will affect how an opera should be presented. Such matters are equally pertinent to the conductor who must decide whether any bombast that erupts in the scores is an expression of ungovernable urges, and hence a musical element which deserves to be highlighted, or is a lapse in talent and taste better downplayed.

Care must also be taken to distinguish the rage that burnt in Verdi’s breast from how he realised the demands of drama in his music, for it is the nature of art to go beyond its initial personal impulse. Moreover, Verdi’s composition went through stages of development. Until the early 1850s, he wrote singer’s opera for which floods of passion sufficed as characterisation. In later works, and in revisions, he made all the elements of musicianship and stagecraft contribute to the totalising intention until audiences complained that there were no more bouncing tunes by which to march off home.

Verdi composed his first opera, Oberto, while working as municipal music master in his home town. Its moral is not as straightforward as its plot. Three of the four principals rise above their initial emotions. Typically, only the father refuses to yield for the common good: “You shall wash away a father’s shame with your blood!’. The result is that happiness is denied them all.

Twenty years later when Verdi wrote Simon Boccanegra, he could depict its old men as at least prepared to bargain over forgiveness. The opera’s Plebian protagonist becomes Doge of Naples so he can marry the mother of his illegitimate child, and the daughter of the Patrician leader. Before the wedding, she dies and her father curses his enemy, refusing to forgive until his granddaughter is passed over to him. That child, of course, has been misplaced. Twenty-five years later, her father finds her but refuses to let her marry his henchman, the Iago-like Paolo, who knows that cursing is pointless without the poison that he slips into Boccanegra’s cup. The dying Doge orders Paolo’s execution before blessing his old foes and handing his child to her grandfather who, too late, keeps his promise to forgive.

Even Falstaff, that autumnal gift and Verdi’s only success at comedy, reaches one of its musical high points with a return to the familiar territory of a vengeance aria when Ford believes that he has been cuckolded. His frenzy is equal in its terribleness to any jealousy or malignancy in Otello. Ford’s futile blast of machismo, however, contrasts with the sense of proportion displayed by the punishments inflicted on Falstaff  by Mistress Ford who stuffs Sir John into her laundry basket before dumping him into the Thames. The concluding scenes in Windsor forest see the revenge-takers disguised as elves and goblins so that vengeance is pictured as a throwback to an era of superstition. This fantasy world was close to Verdi’s Italy where the evil eye could be warded off by pointing the index and little finger.

The triumphant trio of Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata, from the early 1850s, lets us compare the vengeance that drives the first two with the forgiveness that marks the last. This shift mirrors the tilt in Verdi’s compositional style away from the often blatant numbers in Il trovotore towards the integrated textures of La traviata.

Rigoletto revolves around a curse flung at the eponymous jester after he mocked a father’s grief at the ravaging of his daughter by Rigolleto’s ducal master. This noble rake next directs his attention to a beauty who turns out to be Rigoletto’s child. Denouncing “The vile race of damned courtiers”, the hunchback seeks revenge. Instead, he ends up paying for his daughter’s murder while the Duke can be heard enjoying himself, safe from curses and spared human vengeance. The assassin’s dagger is as blind as Cupid’s arrow.

No opera has a more improbable plot than Il trovatore, which, to the enlightened, confirms the counter-productiveness of revenge. Years before the curtain rises, the gypsy Azucena has watched her mother burn at the stake. To avenge this death, she steals the baby son of the count who ordered the execution. Distracted, she throws her own child into the flames and raises the intended victim as her own boy. The survivor and his brother grow up to become enemies and only after the latter has slain the former does Azucena reveal that the young count has killed his own flesh and blood. Verdi explained Azucena’s reason for not saving her adored adopted son: “Because at the stake her mother had cried out to her ‘Avenge me’.” Mad she may be, but without the satisfaction of avenging her mother, she feared that her soul would never find peace. Vengeance, for her, provided a sacred vindication. That Verdi might not have endorsed her obsession is suggested by the fragmentation of his final bars. A life given over to revenge cannot expect a perfect cadence.

The ferocity of these events could not be more removed from the forgiveness that concludes La traviata, which premiered only two months later. A young man, Alfredo Germont, falls for the courtesan Violetta who gives him up, at his father’s insistence, for their family honour. When she returns to her former life, Alfredo seeks revenge by challenging her new protector to a duel. At every turn, the fallen woman is the character most wronged, yet it is she who displays the Christian virtues to the feckless Alfredo and his manipulative father. As her tubercular body sinks to the carpet, her soul is transfigured to soar with the closing chords.

If Verdi honoured the forbearance of his own mistress in this scene, he also opened the door to the thousands of productions that have let the Germonts, father and son, avoid facing up to their selfishnesses. Should Violetta’s final words - “I feel I’m coming back to life!”  - be fulfilled, who doubts that that pair’s repentance would evaporate? An exception to the usual director’s excuse for male mendacity is the production at Berlin’s Komische Oper where, in the final act, the febrile Violetta hallucinates Alfredo’s return as she dies alone in poverty, in keeping with the Dumas novel that inspired the opera.

Verdi’s attitudes softened across his composing career as he allowed more room for reconciliation. However, since forgiveness in his operas was usually the prerogative of women, this concession might mean that he considered such grace to be unmanly. Happier outcomes rarely happened without the death of the heroine. Not that death always brought redemption, as shown in The Force of Destiny.

Since the plots for Verdi’s most blood-thirsty libretti came from England, France and Germany, non-Italians cannot distance ourselves from vengeance as a bad habit confined to hot-blooded Mediterraneans. No nation has had a monopoly on ritualised revenge, as evidenced by the survival of dueling, which was not outlawed in England until 1843. Italy of the 1880s recorded over 2700 duels, resulting in fifty deaths. The practice was revived under Mussolini as an expression of manhood.

Verdi’s fascination with Shakespeare as the revenge tragedian par excellence is a further reminder that vengeance has been a literary device from all cultures and centuries, a perennial for holding audience attention. The ancient Greeks had their Orestian trilogy where the cycle of blood began with one brother tricking his rival sibling into eating his slaughtered sons. The killing does not cease until the Goddess Athene intervenes after the original transgressor’s great-grandson has slain his own mother. Throughout the nineteenth-century, these classics were admired by phlegmatic English dons and metaphysical German poets alike.

Debate rages over Wagner’s place in preparing the German soul for Hitler but Verdi is rarely accused of bequeathing the tunes for Mussolini’s march on Rome. Jeremy Tambling, in his 1996 Opera and the Culture of Fascism, related the reception of Aida and Otello to Italian colonialism in north Africa from the 1870s, but did not raise the possibility that Verdi’s martial music and stress on male honour through vengeance might have seeped into the common sense of everyday fascism. Italy produced the world’s first fascist regime and, since its overthrow, its neo-fascist parties have thrived. Yet, the Italians are blamed for no worse offence than staging Mussolini’s burlesque in the trappings of a Grand Opera.

If it is not anachronistic to tax Wagner with crimes that happened sixty years after his death, it should be permissible to speculate on how a 109-year-old Verdi would have responded to fascism around 1922. In the 1880s, Verdi provided relief to the starving around Busseto and urged their case on the central authorities whom he accused of sending bullets when the people cried for bread. The feudal basis of this connection with his labourers is also why he would have welcomed the fascist order to secure his estates from redistribution to the landless, as Bertolucci showed Verdi’s neighbours doing in 1900. 

Vengeance was marginal in Wagner’s music-dramas. Instead of proclaiming the virtue of action for its own sake, his characters embrace death as the apotheosis of love, surrendering to oblivion as the orgiastic pinnacle of sexual passion. In place of the clarion tunes of Beethoven, Wagner tossed his tonalities onto an ocean of indeterminate keys. Jean-Jacques Nattiez, in his 1990 Wagner, Androgene connected this compositional method with Wagner’s acceptance of music as feminine, a position inimical to the fascist exultation of force. Tambling responded that such a disturbance of power relations called for fascist controls “to put things back they way they were”. In that case, Wagner carries only a negative culpability for Hitlerism.

By contrast, Verdi had voiced the life force, a vitalism which sustained the Italian Right’s championing of war as a moral good. Verdi’s plots and scores could reinforce the call-to-arms that Mussolini trumpeted when he identified his movement with Garibaldi’s ever-readiness to plunge into battle.

Before the bi-centenary of the births of both Verdi and Wagner in 2013, our assessment of the contribution made by vengeance to the support for Italian fascism will need more thoughtfulness than is displayed by sending the Germonts on stage in black shirts.

Humphrey McQueen is a freelance historian based in Canberra.