OPERA - ESSAYS - VERDI AND VENGEANCE
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.
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.
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?
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
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!”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
McQueen is a freelance historian based in Canberra.