Verdi and the Jewish Opera
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Verdi and the Jewish Opera

By coincidence, this year marks the 200th anniversary of the births, in 1813, of two of the greatest of all opera composers: the German, Richard Wagner, and the Italian, Giuseppe Verdi. Only Mozart belongs in their select circle.

In many ways, Wagner and Verdi were markedly different. Wagner has been called a “racist ass” by Leon Botstein, a music authority, orchestra conductor, and president of Bard College. William Berger writes, in “Wagner Without Fear,” “Wagner was intensely and obsessively anti-Semitic, growing more so as the years passed until it appeared to be almost the only thing he thought about.”

Beyond his anti-Semitism, Wagner was, as the poet W.H. Auden called him, “a regular s-.” He was notorious, writes Berger, “as little more than a thief, a user of men for their money and their wives, and the supreme example of the artistic megalomaniac.”

Verdi, by contrast, was almost a saint. Generous with his money, helpful to other composers (he even gave financial help to Ruggero Leoncavallo, who wrote “Pagliacci”), a supporter of Italian unification. When he died, he left money for a retirement home for indigent musicians. One biographer rightly refers to “his countless acts of charity.”

And whereas some of Wagner’s operas contain clear anti-Semitic elements, Verdi wrote an opera that was respectful and admiring of the Jewish people: “Nabucco” (Nebuchadnezzar). The opera – called the “Jewish opera” – is still in the modern repertory, and it will be shown on June 12 at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, in a performance by the Royal Opera (Covent Garden). Its aria “Va pensiero” is one of the most beloved of all operatic songs – the Prayer of the Hebrew Slaves. It is, as critic George Martin has put it, “the perfect expression of a people’s longing for freedom.”

Verdi wrote “Nabucco” at a dark time in his life. His wife and his daughter had recently died, his second opera had been an abysmal failure, and he resolved to give up music altogether.

The director of La Scala, Bartolomeo Merelli, encountered Verdi on the street one day and thrust the libretto of “Nabucco,” by Temistocle Solera, into his hands.

Verdi recollected, “I went to my place and, with an almost violent gesture, I threw the manuscript on the table, and stood straight in front of it. The bundle of pages, falling on the table, opened by itself: without knowing why, I stared at the page before me and saw the line ‘Va pensiero sull’ali dorate.’ I ran through the lines that follow and got a tremendous impression from them…. I read one section; I read another; then, firm in my decision not to compose again, I forced myself to close the manuscript and go to bed. But YES! ‘Nabucco’ was racing though my head! I could not sleep: I got up and read the libretto, not once, not twice, but three times, so that in the morning, you might say, I knew Solara’s whole libretto from memory.

“In spite of all that, I still did not feel that I wanted to go back on my resolution not to compose, and the next day I went back to the theater and gave the manuscript back to Merelli….”

“Set it to music! Set it to music!” Merelli said.

Verdi continued: “And, saying this, Merelli took the libretto, stuck it in the pocket of my overcoat, took me by the shoulders, and, with a big shove, rushed me out of his office. Not just that: he closed the door in my face and locked it!

“What was I to do?

“I went back home with ‘Nabucco’ in my pocket. One day, one line: one day, another; now one note, now a phrase … little by little the opera was composed.”

It was a triumph. Verdi became an overnight sensation, and he went on to write such masterpieces as “Otello,” “Rigoletto,” “Aida,” and “La Traviata.”

“Nabucco” itself is not wholly historically accurate, but not many operas are. (Verdi’s opera about Joan of Arc has her live happily ever after instead of being burned at the stake. Donizetti’s opera about Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, “Maria Stuarda,” features a blistering confrontation between the two – although they never met.) While Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, did destroy Jerusalem, destroy the Temple, and go mad, in the opera he is also (unhistorically) struck by a thunderbolt and becomes a Jewish sympathizer. It is the powerful music, not the plot, that has enabled the opera to endure. “It does hang together in spite of some bad moments,” writes Martin in his biography of Verdi, “particularly in the last act where the plot is swept hastily under the carpet to get it out of the way of the falling curtain.”

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The two composers never met. But Wagner is said to have been contemptuous of Verdi’s music. And while Verdi praised “Tristan und Isolde” unstintingly, he had reservations about other Wagner operas – even referring to “the hideous swan” in “Lohengrin.” (At one point, Lohengrin, the hero, hops on a mechanical swan to make his exit from the stage.)

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Biographer Berger argues it would be simplistic to divide the world into Wagners and Verdis, sinners and saints, as tempting as that may be.

Verdi was, writes his biographer Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, “an extremely difficult man who fought with himself, his friends and relatives, his community, and fate.” He hated priests and was “close to atheism”; he said that people who believed in God were “all mad.” And, like other famous Italian musicians (Toscanini, Puccini, Caruso, Pinza), he had a roving eye – although he finally married his mistress, Giuseppina Strepponi, and remained married to her for 38 years, until her death. But he had also hurt her by bringing another woman into their marriage, making it a menage à trois.

Berger wrote: “If Wagner is the Archfiend, many find balance by casting Verdi as the all-good Anti-Wagner. But … Verdi was no saint. His human flaws are apparent in his relationship with his wife, his parents, and in every aspect of his life.”

Still, despite Berger, if anyone is ever depressed thinking about the prevalence of mean, selfish, Jew-hating Wagners in this world, he or she can take comfort in remembering that there a goodly number of decent Giuseppe Verdis, too.

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