The two dominant opera composers in the middle years of the 19th Century were Richard Wagner of Germany and Giuseppi Verdi of Italy. There are hardly two men who were less like each other in temperament. Wagner, the arrogant genius who used "friends" left and right for his own purposes. Verdi the quiet, thoughtful man who composed some of the loveliest opera music on record. Due to his character flaws, despite the brilliance of his opera music the personality of Wagner does not hold up too well to scrutiny today. But Verdi has gained admirers since his death 105 years ago. One cannot imagine any opera company banishing his music, as Wagner's was banished for decades after World War II put his racial ideas to work. As his name translates to "Joe Green", Verdi remains the Superstar of his team of opera composers.
Oddly enough both Wagner and Verdi were subjects of mini-series about their lives and careers over twenty years ago. I have commented on Wagner's mini-series first because Richard Burton played his last great role as that defective genius. But in the supporting cast of WAGNER was British character actor Ronald Pickup, who played (very well) Friedrich Nietzche, Wagner's one time friend but later persistent critic. Pickup played Verdi in this series made only a year earlier. Again his performance was quite good.
There was less sturm und drang in Verdi's life than in Wagner's. He always lived within his means, did not smash relationships on selfish grounds, and did not preach racial hatreds. But he was a patriot - his first great success, NABUCO (an opera about the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and the Jewish "Babylonian Captivity") gave a choral song that became an Italian popular nationalist anthem. He had his flops. It took him years to get THE MASKED BALL to be accepted in the international repertory after it's premiere just preceded a bloody assassination attempt against Napoleon III at the Paris Opera House in 1858 - THE MASKED BALL dealt with the events leading to Ankerstrom's murder of King Gustav III of Sweden in 1792, so the libretto had to be moved to colonial Boston in the American Revolution! He had to change plots - RIGALETTO was originally about King Francois I of France (1512
1547) to a fictitious Duke of Mantua, so that the French would put
the opera on. Still the number of successful operas that came out of Verdi is amazing - NABUCO, RIGALETTO, TRAVIATA, IL TROVATORE, THE MASKED BALL, OTHELLO, FALSTAFF, THE FORTUNES OF DESTINY, and many others.
Verdi did not, like Wagner, write pamphlets advocating mass murders of "undesirables". His life was full of some good works, culminating in his willing a sizable portion of his fortune and property to found a retirement home for opera singers in Italy. Seldom have I heard of anyone in Verdi's situation doing something like that - how refreshing when compared to Wagner's moving heaven and earth to have a lunatic king fund a permanent festival for Wagner's music only at Bayreuth. But for everyone who has heard of Verdi's generosity, far more have heard of Bayreuth.
It was a pleasant series, with famous opera singers singing the arias, duets, trios, and quartets from the operas. Certainly it left a pleasanter feeling at the conclusion about it's hero than WAGNER did. It restores one's faith in mankind that while some swine have genius and misuse it, others exist who leave our Earth a little happier and pleasanter.
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