To commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of Italy's most renowned composer, Giuseppe Verdi, Italy's (and perhaps the world's) most famed opera house, the Teatro alla Scala of Milan, presented a special concert featuring the Filarmonica della Scala under the leadership of the Milanese maestro Riccardo Chailly that showcased some of Verdi's purely orchestral pieces. This concert at La Scala was broadcast worldwide as part of the “Music Emotion” series, and which I saw at a later date at a screening at Chicago's Music Box Theatre.
For those of you who, like myself, are largely familiar with Verdi through his numerous triumphs of his middle period, such as Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata, through to his later period, which included Aida, Don Carlo, Otello, Falstaff, as well as his Requiem, you probably know that his operas do not have a great deal of orchestral showpieces, even in the preludes. For instance, the prelude to Rigoletto is both haunting and effective at establishing the mood, but it's only about three minutes long and not a highly varied piece. Verdi is not a composer the average classical lover would expect to be able to compile into a whole program, the way the overtures of Mozart, Wagner, and Rossini have been compiled. Yet this program, which drew from Verdi's earlier works, shows a different composer than the one who became a worldwide legend whose music has lived on long after his death, and now, 200 years after his birth.
It's clear from this concert that the young Verdi was heavily influenced by his great Italian predecessor, Gioacchino Rossini. Rossini's overtures are masterpieces in miniature, and Verdi was attempting to create his own miniature masterpieces in his early works. The overture to Nabucco, for instance, is a piece that contains several fanfares from the horn section, before segueing to a preview of the opera's most famous piece (and one of Verdi's most famous compositions), “Va, Pensiero,” or the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves. Verdi is clearly attempting in this piece, as well as the overtures to Giovanni di Arco, Les Vespres Sicilennes, and Jerusalem, to create the multi-movement structure within the relatively short overtures that was Rossini's forte. It is understandable to see why Verdi gave up this structure because, while these pieces were generally quite satisfying, they did not equal Rossini's unique genius.
Verdi's true genius lay in creating brilliant vocal compositions that sustained a full Romantic operatic drama, something for which there is ample evidence in the aforementioned masterpieces that are among the greatest works in all of music. Nevertheless, it was quite interesting and a change of pace, as well as a window into a wider range of Verdi's talent that this work, something of a novelty to most classical fans, was exhibited. In addition to the overtures, the Filarmonica played ballet selections from Jerusalem and Les Vespres Sicilennes that, to my ear, was reminiscent of the music of the Strauss family; it would seem that Verdi was fully in tune with the popular Romantic dance music, and these selections are rather shocking, something we might expect to find in the work of more “theatrical” Romantic composers such as Johann Strauss or Gounod. The only exception to Verdi abandoning the long prelude in his later work came in the overture to La Forza del Destino, which the orchestra played as an encore.
Though the concert and the playing of the Filarmonica della Scala left little to be desired, I must inject a word of protest at the presentation of the concert. The filmed presentation by Music Emotion, a presenter with which I was unfamiliar, began with a 25 minute prologue of two individuals, an Italian man and a British woman, speaking outside the theater about Verdi's music, Arturo Toscanini, and other subjects that were all superfluous compared to the main event, particularly since the Italian man's comments were all translated in real time by his British counterpart, which of course doubled the time the audience had to spend watching and listening to them. I find this concept of needing to talk constantly about the works, especially when one is expecting to see a performance, to be an unhealthy trend in the presentation of classical music, a kind of canonizing of art in which we're told, like captive students in a pedantic teacher's classroom, why this music is great instead of experiencing it for ourselves. Such discussion has its place, but not here. This program was partly underwritten by the Italian government, which I suspect is doing so to cultivate an audience that, even in the country most associated with opera, is shrinking and will probably continue to do so. It's unfortunate that many Italians (and non-Italians) don't realize what a wealth of great culture they're sitting on, but this incessant talking is not the way to get people interested, in my opinion. That said, I did find a filmed piece on Verdi's youth in Parma to be interesting, and it was fun to see his birthplace, but that is the testimony of a convert, not a neophyte. The focus of a music concert should be music, and the people at Music Emotion would do well to heed such advice.