Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why Verdi?

The reader of Robert C. Marsh's Dialogues and Discoveries: James Levine: His Life and His Music could easily believe that Levine never met a Verdi opera he did not like. It is interesting that, in this context, Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore only appears on two pages of Marsh's book, confined to a single sentence on each. In the first case the opera seems to be secondary to the man doing the singing:

A major historic document is the Il Trovatore [video recording] of 1988 with Pavarotti in his vintage years.

In the second case it is just one item on a laundry list:

Evidently persuaded that there was an audience for Verdi on CD, in 1991 Levine began a series of Verdi recordings in New York. Aida, La Traviata, Luisa Miller, and Il Trovatore were made in the three years, followed by Don Carlo, and an as yet unfinished Rigoletto.

Given how much of this book consists of transcripts of conversations that Marsh conducted with Levine, one wishes that, at some point (perhaps over a third beer), Marsh would have just blurted out, "Jim [as he seems to call him], what do you really think of Trovatore?" Wikipedia cites it as the second "of the three major operas of Verdi's 'middle period;'" and that is a fair enough description, However, does that justify anything more than its inclusion in the above "laundry list?" The video recording at least provides a sample of Pavarotti at his best belting out "Di qella pira;" but do we need anything more from the document?

Might one be bold enough to suggest that, for all of Levine's enthusiasm, Verdi never thought of opera as anything more than a few prime moments in which music united with drama in full force, with the implication that everything else was just filler to keep the audience in their seats and off the streets? For all we know, that is the way he initially thought about Otello; but fortunately Arrigo Boito, probably out of respect to William Shakespeare, would not let him get away with it. Boito was also responsible for reworking Simon Boccanegra into a drama that may not have risen to Shakespearean heights but was still intensely compelling. Boito helped make both of these operas exceptional; but they are not to be confused with the business-as-usual remainder of the Verdi repertoire. When we have to be careful about how much we spend on our entertainment, many of us would prefer an evening that consists of more than "a few prime moments!"

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