Arts Review

“Sacra la scelta”: At the Verdi Altar in Parma

The whole operatic world commemorated Giuseppe Verdi’s bicentennial in 2013, but Parma is the place where Verdi’s birthday is celebrated every year on October 10, in the context of the annual Verdi Festival. I was there last year when a few hundred people gathered at the Verdi monument to mark the birthday with a choral singing of the chorus of the Hebrews from the opera Nabucco: “Va pensiero.” For a long time it has been considered to be an unofficial Italian national anthem, Verdi’s hymn of diasporic love for a lost homeland, the biblical Hebrews in Babylonian captivity longing for Jerusalem. When it was composed, in the 1840s, Italians understood themselves to be the Hebrews, living in their own land under foreign rulers: the Habsburgs in Venice and Milan, the Bourbons in Naples and Palermo. In 2019, as the local chorus swelled to the famous phrase “O mia patria, sì bella e perduta” (O my fatherland, so beautiful and lost), the onlookers mouthed the words along with the local chorus, which was also joined by a pair of the most famous living Italian Verdians—baritone Leo Nucci and basso Michele Pertusi—humbly participating in the collec­tive tribute to the composer who helped to define their careers and, indeed, all of modern Italian culture.

The birthday celebration took place in front of the bronze Verdi altar, just alongside the opera house, Teatro Regio. The altar was formerly part of a gigantic architectural and sculptural monument to Verdi—including statues that represented all of his operas—conceived for his centennial in 1913, executed by Sicilian sculptor Ettore Ximenes, and largely destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II. The Verdi festival of 2019 produced in Parma three works from the composer’s early period in the 1840s, Nabucco, I due Foscari, and Luisa Miller, all of them fundamental for defining the musical aspects of one of the innovative Verdian roles, the baritone-father—allowing Verdi to explore the dramatic tensions between the private world of family feeling and the public demands of modern politics. The range of production sites and styles at the festival underlined the ongoing artistic endeavor to explore Verdi’s nineteenth-century foundational importance for modern Italian identity, while also insisting that opera in the twenty-first century remains relevant to Europe’s private preoccupations and public crises.

Verdi lived a large part of his life in the territory of the little Italian principality known as the Duchy of Parma, until it was absorbed into the new kingdom of Italy at the time of Italian unification in 1860—a political transformation that Verdi, as an Italian nationalist, enthusiastically approved. He spent his early years as a subject of the Duchess of Parma, Marie Louise, the second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte; after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, he was sent into exile on the island of Saint Helena, while she—the daughter of the Habsburg emperor—was assigned to rule the Duchy of Parma in the post-Napoleonic European Restoration. The great architectural enterprise of her reign was the opera house in Parma, today the Teatro Regio, built in 1829 in magnifi­cent neoclassical style, when Verdi was sixteen years old and studying music in the town of Busseto, thirty miles away.

At the age of 24, Verdi boldly wrote to Duchess Marie Louise, “my name and my humble talent are perhaps unknown to Your Majesty; but I have faith and confidence that I can please Your Majesty”—without, apparently, obtaining a response. It was Nabucco that made Verdi famous in 1842, at the age of 28, when it was introduced at La Scala in Milan, and the very next year he brought the opera to Parma, with its original diva, soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, who would become the great love of Verdi’s life. Marie Louise actually came to the opera house to see Nabucco performed, and the special relationship between Verdi and Parma has been thriving ever since.

The connection between city and composer was rendered even more powerful by the charismatic mediating figure of Arturo Toscanini, a native of Parma, and the most celebrated Verdi conductor of the first half of the twentieth century. In 1901, at the memorial service in Milan following Verdi’s death, he conducted a gigantic choral performance of “Va pensiero” with 820 singers. Toscanini died in 1957 in New York, and perhaps the most renowned Verdi conductor of the latter part of the twentieth century was Claudio Abbado, a native of Milan, where he was also the musical director of La Scala. Abbado died in 2014, and his mantle, in an unusual instance of family continuity, has been partly inherited by his nephew Roberto Abbado, who now presides as musical director over the Verdi Festival in Parma.

Luisa Miller (Photo credit:Roberto Ricci/ Teatro Regio di Parma)

The major event of the festival in 2019 was a production of Verdi’s early masterpiece Luisa Miller, from 1849. Based on an eighteenth-century play by Friedrich Schiller, Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love), the opera represents the brutality of Machiavellian court politics as the dark force that cruelly destroys family feeling and youthful romance. The eponymous heroine Luisa loves the young nobleman Rodolfo, whose father, Count Walter, the local potentate, is determined to prevent their marriage for political reasons. Abbado boldly presented the work, not in the Teatro Regio, but in the Gothic church of San Francesco del Prato, which was for a long time desacralized and used as an Italian prison but has recently been employed as a theatrical space. The Russian director Lev Dodin, of the Maly Theater in St. Petersburg, created a powerful staging in the apse of the church, with a simple wooden table at the center, where the ecclesiastical altar ought to be—functioning symbolically as an altar where the young lovers, Luisa and Rodolfo, were positioned as victims of sacrifice. With its deep apse and long nave, the church was at times acoustically challenging for the soloists, but all of them, with Abbado’s careful assistance, were able to establish powerful vocal presences, and the whole opera was transformed by the sacred space: from the beautiful baritone aria for Luisa’s father in Act One, “Sacra la scelta” (Sacred the choice), his affirmation of freedom for young love; to the religious chorale at the start of the second act; to Luisa’s final prayer in Act Three; and the suicidal last scene, staged by Dodin as a horrific Last Supper.

From the very beginning, Abbado brought out many extraordinary beauties in this score, beginning with the highly classical overture which focuses on the development of a single beautiful phrase, featuring a plaintive solo clarinet that seems to anticipate the course of Luisa’s tragic destiny. The second act includes the most well-known piece of music from the opera, Rodolfo’s aria of deep regret and remembrance —marked appassionatissimo—when he thinks that Luisa has betrayed him, “Quando le sere . . .” (When the evenings . . .): his long melodic line, movingly sung by Tunisian tenor Amadi Lagha, accompanied by pulsating clarinet arpeggios that convey the pathos of his obsessive thoughts. The third act offers the most beautiful and supremely Verdian moment of the whole opera: the duet between Luisa and her father, Italian soprano Francesca Dotto and Italian baritone Franco Vassallo, singing with pious fervor as they imagine escaping from their troubles and going out as wandering mendicants into the wider world—“Andrem ramminghi e poveri” (We’ll go wandering and poor). Here the lyric suggested an almost Franciscan spirit in the setting of the Church of San Francesco.

Both father and daughter know that there is no escape from the imminent tragic denouement, that their wanderings will only take place in gorgeous musical fantasy, but it was Verdi’s moment to give expression —more powerfully than anyone had ever done before in opera—to the intensity of the bond between father and daughter. This theme would reach its Verdian culmination in Rigoletto a few years later, and would be translated into a different operatic idiom to decades later when Wagner applied his own operatic insight to the love of Wotan and Brünnhilde in the final scene of Die Walküre. The Parma production of Luisa Miller, staged in the church, with both Abbado and Dodin focusing on the religious dimensions of the work, came close to generating some of the Wagnerian intensity that one experiences at Bayreuth as a site of passionate operatic communion.

At the same time, the fact that San Francesco also once functioned as a prison infused the drama with a sense of the sinister and claustrophobic intensity of the petty court where the suppressed secrets of past politics inevitably thwart young love. Some of the old prison cells are still observable in the church-prison-theater, and they would have held real prisoners in Verdi’s lifetime. They serve as a reminder that for Verdi the dark forces of court politics were very real when he presented Luisa Miller in 1849, a year of reaction and repression following the European-wide revolutions of 1848. The dramatic conception of Luisa Miller illuminates Verdi’s political perspective by suggesting his solemn disapproval, sometimes even his horror, at the corruption and intrigues of the little principalities that were preserved in nineteenth-century Europe by the post-Napoleonic Restoration. Though Verdi himself sought to court the favor of the Duchess of Parma Marie Louise, the court of Parma became a byword for sinister political intrigue in the age of the Restoration, the setting for Stendhal’s novel The Charterhouse of Parma in 1839 (the year of Verdi’s very first opera, Oberto, at La Scala).

It is notable that Verdi, the great national Italian composer, had not the slightest inclination to celebrate the glories of the principalities of the Italian Renaissance: the Mantua of Rigoletto does not celebrate the supremely civilized court of the Gonzaga family, the patronage of Isabella d’Este, the humanism of Vittorino da Feltre, the art of Andrea Mantegna or of Giulio Romano—but offers only a duke with deep dungeons who finds amusement in abducting and violating innocent virgins and then moving on to his next sexual adventure. Verdi, one of the moving cultural spirits of the Risorgimento, did not feel any need to glorify the Italian Renaissance courts in order to bolster an Italian sense of national pride.

I Due Foscari (Photo credit:Roberto Ricci/ Teatro Regio di Parma)

This spirit of hostility to the Italian Renaissance is the political hallmark of I due Foscari, one of Verdi’s least known operas, first performed in Rome in 1844, and beautifully staged in the Teatro Regio in Parma in 2019. Venice was crucial to Verdi’s career, site of the premieres of some of his most important works (Rigoletto, La Traviata), but the past history of the Serenissima Repubblica was not, for him, an object of operatic celebration. Republican Venice was not a princely despotism but an oligarchic republic of patricians, and I due Foscari (The Two Foscaris) concerns the fifteenth-century Venetian doge Francesco Foscari, who was supposedly compelled to condemn his own son, the victim of political machinations. At the time of composing I due Foscari, based on a play by Lord Byron and set to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, Verdi was also considering another Piave libretto, Lorenzino de Medici, about the political machinations of Renaissance Florence.

Just as the baritone father in Luisa Miller lavishes his vocal resources on paternal love for a child whom he cannot save, so the Venetian doge Francesco Foscari, another great baritone role, cannot save his son Jacopo Foscari from the corrupt politics of the Venetian republic. Beautifully conducted by Paolo Arrivabeni, and elegantly staged by Leo Muscato, the third act was set in a carnival scene of Venetian commedia dell’arte figures. The tenor son (Romanian Stefan Pop) sang a splendid aria of farewell, accompanied by harp and winds, “Ah padre, figli, sposa” (Father, children, wife), as he went to exile and death, and the baritone father (Bulgarian Vladimir Stoyanov) then faced his own forced abdication with a deeply moving Verdian melodic line, “Questa dunque è l’iniqua mercede” (So this is the unjust reward). The corrupt Venetian nobles appeared as nineteenth-century gentlemen of Verdi’s own era, while only the doge wore the magnificent Renaissance costume of gold robes and curved ducal cap. When he stripped them off in the final scene of abdication, he too appeared in nineteenth-century costume, and with his gray beard and stooped figure he looked a little like Verdi himself in his later years.

The historical Francesco Foscari reigned as doge until the age of 84, abdicating a week before his own death after the longest dogal reign in Venetian history. Yet, Verdi when he wrote the opera, full of sympathy for the aged father, was only 31. In fact, Verdi’s own experience of fatherhood was already behind him by the time he composed I due Foscari, for both of his children from his first marriage died in early childhood. I due Foscari, in 1844, was one of his first explorations of the conflicted and brokenhearted paternal baritone role, which, in all its Verdian variations, and in a variety of costumes and settings, gave musical expression to the emotional passions and conflicts of modern nineteenth-century bourgeois fathers, that is, the modern paternal emotions that we can recognize in ourselves to this day.

The festival in Parma offered a notable opportunity to reflect on these baritone roles, since Leo Nucci, the most acclaimed Italian Rigoletto of his generation, sang a farewell concert at age 77 at the Teatro Regio on Verdi’s birthday, the same day that began with his joining the chorus at the Verdi monument. Inevitably, Nucci sang an encore number from Rigoletto—“Cortigiani”—for him a signature aria, expressing Rigoletto’s paternal broken heart but also Verdi’s revulsion at Renaissance courtiers.

Nabucco (Photo credit:Roberto Ricci/ Teatro Regio di Parma)

The most personally ambivalent, the most politically disturbing, and the most exotically costumed baritone father whom Verdi created in the 1840s was the biblical Assyrian-Babylonian king Nabucco. At the Parma festival in 2019, Nabucco was presented in a very controversial production that produced loud and strident reactions from the audience in the Teatro Regio. The biblical time frame was transposed to the near future, envisioned as a post-apocalyptic epoch of populations in motion: Nabucco as the commander of a ship which functions as a tiny mobile dictatorship on the seas, brutalizing an underclass of captive shipboard migrants whose displacement connects them to the diasporic biblical Hebrews of the original scenario. Otherwise, the only “Hebrew” aspect of the production was Michelangelo’s statue of Moses (from the unfinished tomb of Pope Julius II), which was shown crated in the ship’s hold, as if it were being smuggled as loot across the waters in the pirate economy of the future. The Hebrews sang their famous chorus, “Va pensiero,” against the backdrop of such looted trophies of Western civilization, as if that civilization was the object of their (and our) nostalgia.

The production by Stefano Ricci and Gianni Forte also featured a dance troupe of mimes who, in the production’s most controversial stretch, simulated drowning at sea—which elicited some boos and jeers from the audience. The deployment of movement in opera has taken unusual forms this past fall: from the spectacular hip-hop production of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes at the Bastille in Paris to the jugglers in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The mimes in Nabucco in Parma offered some striking moments, but their movements were not always clearly integrated with the musical performance.

The chorus is the star of Nabucco and sings the opera’s greatest hit, but this production also featured three brilliant soloists: the celebrated basso Michele Pertusi, a native of Parma, in the role of the Hebrew priest Zaccaria; the brilliant young Spanish soprano Saioa Hernández in the notoriously difficult role of Abigaille, Nabucco’s daughter who schemes to usurp his power and carry out the murder of the Hebrews; and a young, quite unknown Mongolian baritone, Amartuvshin Enkhbat, age 33, singing the title role as if he owned it and as if he were bidding to become one of the great Verdian baritones of the next generation.

Amartuvshin Enkhbat in Nabucco. (Photo credit: Roberto Ricci/ Teatro Regio di Parma)

Pertusi, inevitably a house favorite, offered the most solemnly religious moment of the evening, with his paean to Jehovah, “Tu sul labbro de’ veggenti” (From the mouths of the prophets) introduced by a gorgeous cello line, concluding with the basso on his lowest note, a sustained low G—and eliciting an ovation from the house. Hernández boldly took on the role of Abigaille, performed not in Cecil B. DeMille biblical drag, but in a series of brilliant ball gowns, complete with elbow-length gloves, blonde hair pulled back Evita-style. She was dazzling in the ornamentations, which, as conducted by Francesco Ivan Ciampa, brought out the dance rhythms in the role, and suggested the defiant flair, the almost insouciant confidence, the unsentimental ferocity of Abigaille, as she made her play for supreme power. She was at her best in the magnificent third-act duet with Nabucco, triumphing over him after seizing his throne. Enkhbat as Nabucco, politically deposed, remained vocally superb, offering a huge voice with rich colorings and fervent commitment to the Verdian melodic line. He gorgeously sang his own prayer to Jehovah, “Dio di Giuda,” kneeling on the stage, rising vocally to a beautiful high F, then leading the chorus in a cabaletta of defiance, and seizing an automatic weapon to attempt to reestablish his authority in Babylon. Enkhbat’s ascent through the Italian baritone repertory in the world’s great opera houses has already begun, and he will sing the paternal role in Luisa Miller when Abbado brings that opera to Rome in May 2020.

Charles Workman and Joel Prieto in Idomeneo. (Photo credit: The Rome Opera)

Though Verdi largely created the operatic character of the nineteenth-century baritone father, paternal figures were by no means absent from earlier repertory, and the Rome Opera last fall offered a very fine production of Mozart’s Idomeneo with its starring role for a tenor father. There was surely no composer who experienced more intensely than Mozart the Oedipal filial conflicts of achieving indepen­dence from a demanding father: the father who fully trained him as a musician, launched his career when Mozart was still a child, and always attempted to exercise paternal and musical authority. The title character of Idomeneo was the Cretan king, returning from the Trojan War, but now commanded by Neptune to undertake the sacrifice of his son Idamante. The dynamics of a stern father, who must sacrifice his son to the gods, and a devoted son who must accept the logic of his own sacrifice, clearly resonated with Mozart’s sense of operatic drama. When he originally wrote the opera for Munich in 1781, the tenor Idomeneo was composed in clear contrast to the castrato casting of the son Idamante—and today the latter role is usually sung by a mezzo-soprano. Mozart, however, did not really like composing for castrati, and he did create an alternative version of Idomeneo in which both father and son were tenors. The Rome Opera, with Michele Mariotti conducting, offered the more rarely performed two-tenor version: with American tenor Charles Workman and Spanish-Puerto Rican tenor Joel Prieto respectively, as Idomeneo and Idamante. The complexity of such casting is that while it clearly brings out the vocal kinship between father and son, the tenorial resemblance makes it a little harder to give them each a distinctive vocal character. The production came to terms with the aftermath of the Trojan War by establishing a contemporary military Mediterranean setting: as in Nabucco in Parma, here too life jackets and automatic weapons played a notable role. The current Mediterranean emigration crisis is of such great political significance in Italy that it has now migrated onto the operatic stage, and here again, as with the Hebrews in the Parma Nabucco, the Trojan prisoners in Idomeneo took on the character of contemporary Mediterranean migrants.
In an interesting counterpart to Idomeneo, La Scala last fall mounted a production of Richard Strauss’s Die ägyptische Helena (The Egyptian Helen) from 1928, an opera which also deals with the aftermath of the Trojan War and dramatizes the problematic marital reconciliation of Menelaus with Helen, whose abduction (or seduction) by Paris was the cause of the war. The libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal used the dramatic work of Euripides to imagine the possible illusionary ways that Menelaus might come to believe that his wife never went to Troy at all, but perhaps spent the entire Trojan War somewhere else altogether, possibly North Africa: hence the “Egyptian” Helen. This was certainly the tenor event of the Italian season with the Austrian Heldentenor Andreas Schager brilliant in the devastatingly difficult role of Menelaus, opposite German soprano Ricarda Merbeth as Helen. The opera has never been presented before at La Scala, and Franz Welser-Möst elicited a magnificent Straussian performance from the orchestra.

There was nothing Egyptian about this production of Die ägyptische Helena, which was set in the 1920s, the deco decade of its composition, with Helen costumed as a movie star of the era. In fact, the Egyptian setting of this season was to be found at the Verdi festival, not at Parma, but at Busseto, the little town of Verdi’s youth. Every year the tiny nineteenth-century Teatro Giuseppe Verdi, with only 300 seats, presents one opera with young singers as part of the Parma festival. In 2018 Busseto offered Verdi’s early and charming comedy Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day), and the small theater was just the right size. This year, however, the opera house at Busseto presented Aida, an opera that is usually conceived as monumental, has been sometimes performed with live elephants, and is right at home in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome or the Roman arena in Verona. Busseto, however, has an Aida production of its own, created for this little theater in 2001 by none other than Franco Zeffirelli, the master of monumentality, live animals, and huge casts of extras. He died in June 2019 at the age of 96, and he has been commemorated in Italy over the course of this last year, though he remains a polarizing figure for his theatrical conservatism which some would consider kitschy. Phelim McDermott’s production of Akhnaten at the Met, with heavy golden robes, bejeweled headdresses, and frenetic juggling, felt almost ironically neo-Zeffirellian in its deployment of lavish effects to suggest an Egyptian scenario.

Aida (Photo credit:Roberto Ricci/ Teatro Giuseppe Verdi di Busseto)

Zeffirelli’s Busseto Aida is utterly, unironically traditional: with two giant statues of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet and the jackal-headed god Anubis looming over the little stage. There are no futuristic dystopian scenarios, no Mediterranean migration crisis, no automatic weapons, no life jackets, no modern ball gowns, no hip-hop, no jugglers. The production also has no scruples about presenting the Ethiopians made up in black-face and the Egyptians in brown-face. But the young singers of the cast inhabit the production without inhibition, and the ultra-conservative presentation has moments of seeming daringly radical precisely because it is so small, rendering moments of this opera—a byword for pomp and pageantry—astonishingly intimate in the moments in which it really ought to be intimate: the Nile scene of the third act, followed by the fourth-act confrontation between Radames and Amneris in the judgment scene (Ukrainian tenor Denys Pivnitskyi and Russian mezzo-soprano Maria Ermolaeva, both under thirty, were superb) and, finally, the lovers’ subterranean death. It was an Aida that aspired to the diminutive: in the words of Zeffirelli, “un’Aidina piccola piccola.” At the Parma festival of 2019, with its built-in pilgrimage to Busseto, it was possible to commemorate Zeffirelli, on a small scale, but, above all, to pay tribute to Verdi, in Busseto and in Parma, for all the unexpected aspects of his genius, still full of revelations, as his operas continue to be performed and explored in the region around Parma that was his home.