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The Composer as Showman, Politician and Businessman : VERDI A Life in the Theater by Charles Osborne (Alfred A. Knopf: $22.95; 360 pp.)

January 10, 1988|Peter Hemmings | Hemmings is general director of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera.

In a letter to Puccini's librettist Giuseppe Giacosa, Giuseppe Verdi wrote a few days after the premiere of his own "Otello" 100 years ago: "I would arrive home still excited by the glorious life of the theater." Note well: not music but the theater.

The theater was Verdi's life. Apart from the Requiem, the four Sacred Pieces and the String Quartet, virtually his entire output was written for the stage. Charles Osborne captures beautifully the bustle of a busy theatrical life, although he does not always avoid the vices of the mere catalogue. Too many chapters begin with phrases like "Back in Busseto a few days after the Rigoletto premiere, his thoughts already turning to his next opera. . . ." But I defy any chronicler to keep up with Verdi during his "Anni di Galleria"--his galley slave years. Osborne rather chirpily calls the Verdi of this period a "chain composer." His first opera, "Oberto," led to a commission, from of all places La Scala, for three operas at eight-month intervals.

I like particularly the description of the fights with La Scala during the subsequent 25 years. It is saddening, however, that the two greatest of 19th-Century opera houses, La Scala and the Paris Opera, should have had such a stormy relationship with Verdi. Berlioz writes of the rehearsals of "Les Vepres siciliennes": "Verdi is at loggerheads with all the people at the opera. He made a terrible scene at the dress rehearsal yesterday. I feel sorry for the poor man. I put myself in his place. Verdi is a worthy and honorable artist." We do have another account, however, from a smuggled-in journalist from Le Figaro that conveys a different picture, a Verdi "stamping on the floor with his heels, running to the back of the theater, stopping the singers and rediscovering his original conception among the chaos from which an ordered world will emerge."

Of the 28 operas, 20 are covered in less than half the book, and I defy anyone to remember which opera opened in which city on which date from a single reading. Where Osborne succeeds is in using contemporary sources to illustrate Verdi's deep knowledge of the theater at a time when opera, thanks to his own genius and Wagner's, was at its highest as a theatrical, musical, social and political force. Although the two composers never met and were often rude about each other, Verdi wrote of Wagner on hearing of his death in 1883 as "a name that leaves the most powerful imprint on the history of art." Verdi was percipient on a key difference between Wagner and himself: "I too have attempted to blend music and drama in my Macbeth," he wrote, "but unlike Wagner I was not able to write my own libretti."

Osborne tells us a great deal about Verdi's relations--increasingly stormy as his experience grew--with his principal librettists, Piave, Cammarano, Somma and Boito. Verdi's own political importance--he was even a deputy in the new Italian Parliament--was such that censors both political and ecclesiastical played havoc with many of his libretti. It seems that gradually Verdi grew cynical rather than angry in the sure knowledge that, for instance, "Un Ballo in Maschera" would eventually outlive the censors and be performed in its original Swedish setting instead of Boston, of all places. His view, which he always maintained, was that given a fine libretto, an opera was virtually made.

Osborne stresses that the shortage of good singers was as acute in 1887 as it is today. During the composition of "Rigoletto," Verdi wrote to Piave: "Who is there who is reliable on the stage today. . . ? Singers like Malibran, Rubini, Lablache, etc. etc.--they no longer exist." Verdi consorted with singers. He married one, Giuseppina Strepponi, his second wife, who was the first Abigaille. She and Verdi were close to many of his favorite interpreters. I liked particularly Osborne's account of the ingratitude of one, Victor Maurel, who was the first Boccanegra in the revised version, the first Iago and who took for granted the fact that he would be the first Falstaff but overplayed his hand by demanding a vast fee plus rehearsal money. Maurel had to climb down.

Money is mentioned a great deal in this book. By the end of his life, Verdi was a rich landowner still living in Busseto and still resenting the ingratitude of his fellow citizens. It was in Milan that he established his Casa Di Riposo for retired musicians. His father-in-law and first benefactor, Antonio Barezzi, was his financial mentor for years. Verdi became a shrewd businessman, criticizing one theater for pushing gala prices too high, another for paying too little, demanding from another near-bankrupt company that his fee be put in escrow and becoming especially aggrieved with a theater that refused to accept a medical certificate as a reason for withdrawing from a contract.

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