Verdi's Theater: Creating Drama through Music

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9780226143699: Verdi's Theater: Creating Drama through Music

In this innovative study, Gilles de Van focuses on an often neglected aspect of Verdi's operas: their effectiveness as theater. De Van argues that two main aesthetic conceptions underlie all of Verdi's works: that of the "melodrama" and the "musical drama." In the melodrama the composer relies mainly on dramatic intensity and the rhythm linking various stages of the plot, using exemplary characters and situations. But in the musical drama reality begins to blur, the musical forms lose their excessively neat patterns, and doubt and ambiguity undermine characters and situations, reflecting the crisis of character typical of modernity.

Although melodrama tends to dominate Verdi's early work and musical drama his later, both aesthetics are woven into all his operas: musical drama is already present in Ernani (1844), and melodrama is still present in Otello (1887). Indeed, much of the interest and originality of Verdi's operas lies in his adherence to both these contradictory systems, allowing the composer/dramatist to be simultaneously classical and modern, traditionalist and innovator.

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Review:

Gilles de Van's new book signals a heartening development in Verdi studies, which have taken some time to come out from the shadow of scholar Julian Budden's excellent work. De Van has discarded the traditional chronological approach, instead finding in Verdi's works "the irreconcilable clash of opposite": types versus characters, declamation versus song, innovation versus tradition. His main points focus on the relation of melodrama to music drama. For de Van, melodrama involves excess, ritual, stories, and gestures without the attempted reproduction of reality. Music drama is characterized by complexity, ambiguity, a detached critical approach, and the awareness of reality. He does not find a steady evolution of one to the other, but rather a varying balance in each opera. (Otello, for example, is "a hero of melodrama sucked into music drama.") This organization by concept yields a much fuller discussion of the early operas than is customary, with stops for Verdi's abandoned King Lear and his Requiem. De Van is able to make his points most persuasively in his comparison of the original and revised versions of Macbeth, Un Ballo in Maschera, and Simon Boccanegra. There is a fine section on versification of the Italian language, and de Van gives Verdi's librettists their due (though he devalues Boïto).

These considerable rewards do, however, come at a price. The translation by Gilda Roberts sometimes lapses into pop-psychology jargon, three of the musical examples have errors, and dozens of sentences need to be reread because they are so clumsy. But any author who can provide a revealing analysis of the sprawling inn scene of La Forza del Destino or a thoughtful look at the undervalued Ballo is worthy of close attention. --William R. Braun

About the Author:

Gilles de Van is professor of Italian literature and the history of opera at the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris III).

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