Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Verdi's Aimless Wanderings

Listening to some of my recordings of Arturo Toscanini conducting Giuseppe Verdi this morning, my thoughts turned back to the metaphor I have been exploring of both music composition and performance being journeys through time. While I last considered this metaphor in the context of Ludwig van Beethoven's particularly prolonged slow movements, opera demands a journey through even more extended durations. My guess is that most opera lovers do not think of the performances they attend as journeys. Rather, they are showcases for a few star turns; and, if one is lucky, the plot line that connects those moments will not be totally ridiculous.

Nevertheless, even this rather superficial approach to listening requires that a composer pay some attention to pacing the appearance of those key moments; and I fear that, over the general repertoire of "grand opera," most of the composers do not do this very well. As seems to be the case with just about any other aspect of his work, Verdi is as likely to "get" the problem of pacing as he is to miss it. In the Verdi canon the opera best paced to placate star-hungry audiences may well be Rigoletto, where Verdi knew how to keep the audience waiting for "La donna è mobile" in the final act, knowing full well that this would be the cherry on top of the cake. (Note that this has nothing to do with the dramatic pacing of the libretto. Otello probably has the best overall pacing; but, however powerful Desdemona's delivery of "O Salce! Salce!" may be, the star performances peak in the second act with Iago's "Credo in un Dio crudel che m'ha creato.") On the other hand there are the operas in which it is tempting to go home by the time of the first intermission. Nabucco plays its best card with "Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate;" and even a mezzo with the best stage presence rarely escalates Eboli's "Nel giardin del bello" above the excitement just created by "Dio, che nell'alma infondere" in Don Carlo, regardless of which version is performed in which language.

This may be one reason why I seldom seek out Verdi performances. For better or worse I want to hold to my journey metaphor, rather than living in one moment (however impressive it may be) and then waiting for the next such moment to come along (assuming there is one). The good news is that, even when Verdi never seems to have given this matter that much thought, there are Verdi conductors who appreciate its value. It may even be that Toscanini knew how to pace Verdi properly because he also knew how to pace Richard Wagner, which is a far more demanding task. Similarly, among current opera conductors James Levine has a similarly broad perspective; and it sometimes seems as if his comprehension of any one composer ends up informing how he approaches any other composer. Thus, while I do not necessarily revert to the put-down that many of my music professors promoted that, "There are those who like music, and those who like opera," I would argue that those most skilled at performing music in a concert setting are likely to be best informed when approaching performance from the orchestra pit in an opera house.

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