The Verdi Festival and the Soul of Italy

By Larry WolffDecember 15, 2018

The Verdi Festival and the Soul of Italy
FOR A LONG TIME now, many Italians have wanted to adopt Giuseppe Verdi’s choral hymn “Va, pensiero” (“Go, My Thoughts”) as their national anthem. Sung by a chorus of biblical Hebrews in Babylonian exile, “Va, pensiero,” from Verdi’s 1842 opera Nabucco, thrums with longing for a native land: “O mia patria, sì bella e perduta” — “O my country, so beautiful and lost.” As the melody swells, Italians in the audience have been known to stand up and sing along. No cultural figure represents Italy to Italians more profoundly than Verdi, who lived through the age of Italian unification in the 1860s. In Nabucco, Verdi gave voice to the sentiment that moves us all when we long for a land once known, for an ideal beauty now lost or tarnished by history.

Verdi’s face (like his music) used to be present in every Italian’s daily life, on the old thousand-lira note, the equivalent of a dollar bill. Right around the time that the lira currency was replaced by the euro, a Verdi festival was conceived in Parma, in 2001, the centennial of his death, offering an annual site of pilgrimage for immersion in Verdi’s music and legacy, like Bayreuth for Wagner or Salzburg for Mozart. Verdi grew up in the Duchy of Parma in the village of Roncole and the town of Busseto, and Parma still possesses a splendid opera theater that dates back to Verdi’s early lifetime. Famous for its Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and its Prosciutto di Parma, the city was also the birthplace of Arturo Toscanini, the greatest Italian Verdi conductor of the 20th century. If you care about Verdi, the Parma Verdi Festival will make you understand him more deeply than ever before, surrounded by the landscape, the cheeses and wines, the people and culture that guided his genius in relation to Italy and the Italians. Maestro Roberto Abbado, who assumed the directorship of the festival this year and the mantle of his uncle Claudio Abbado as one of the great Italian Verdians, believes deeply in the power and relevance of Verdi at the current moment.

In Italy, political populism has recently elevated parties and players who have been openly skeptical about the project of Italian unity, which Verdi fiercely advocated in the 19th century. His music helped to create the common culture that unified Italians from top to bottom of the peninsula. The Northern League party, which is now one of the principal partners in the governing coalition in Rome, has long been dubious about whether Italy should be one country, floating the idea of a secessionist Northern Italy under the name of “Padania” — though recently the party has been more focused on mobilizing xenophobic resentment against immigrants and blocking their Mediterranean access to Italian shores. The government coalition between the Northern League and the Five Star Movement has further cultivated Italian resentment against the European Union around fiscal and immigration issues. It’s an awkward moment for the Verdian legacy because, on the right, the Northern League has adopted the Nabucco anthem “Va, pensiero” as an extreme nationalist affirmation, while, on the left, “Va, pensiero” has long been seen as an anthem of sympathy for all oppressed and displaced peoples (like the biblical Hebrews). Verdi’s operas are most brilliantly presented in Italy, but beloved all over Europe and the world, and today it remains a delicate question whether he should be viewed broadly as a figure who represents Europe’s affinity for Italy, and vice versa, or whether he should be seen more narrowly as a nationally Italian genius. Both can be true, but the politics of Verdi hang in the rhetorical balance.

Maestro Abbado offered the festival a fully European Verdi, as he himself conducted the world premiere of a critically restored score of the French version of Il trovatore — which Verdi recomposed as Le Trouvère for Brussels and Paris. It was staged in Parma by the American avant-garde director Robert Wilson. Nobody I know has ever heard Il trovatore in French — with the tenor melody of the famous “Miserere” (known more widely from the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera) returning in the French finale, as the troubadour hero Manrico (here Manrique) is led to his execution. The French libretto, combined with Wilson’s Kabuki-style movements, and performed in the 17th-century baroque Teatro Farnese, brought stylized elegance to the Verdian tragedy, affording new insight into a familiar work. Instead of a full-blooded melodrama, Wilson and Abbado offered a dreamscape of intense and internalized emotions, sung by characters who rarely looked at each other, barely touched one another.

The current xenophobic moment in European politics has created an ominous context for Verdi’s engagement with outsiders in Il trovatore, as the opera’s Roma people — gli zingari — still face discrimination and persecution in Europe today. Verdi’s Roma celebrate their own identity in the percussive Anvil Chorus, led by Azucena, who, in Parma, was not an old witch but a seductive enchantress. Here it was sung by the only non-Italian among the leads, Georgian mezzo-soprano Nino Surguladze, whose glamorous presence and rich voice made the outsider seem simultaneously hypnotic and scary; the design of her headgear resembled that of Angelina Jolie in Maleficent. The tenor hero, Manrique — wondering whether he is or is not her true son — responded to her conjurings with trancelike compulsion. The scene offered dark resonances with the xenophobic fears that currently unsettle Italian political life. In 2018, the eminent Italian journalist Alberto Mattioli published a book about Verdi as the genius “who explained Italy to the Italians.” He saw Azucena as the crucially “destabilizing” figure in the opera on account of her Roma “alterity.” Mattioli speaks for contemporary Italians who believe that “we need Verdi today more than ever before.”

Like Verdi’s biblical Hebrews, his Roma also long for a lost homeland, and Abbado conducted Manrique and Azucena in a hauntingly delicate final duet as they languished in prison. The plaintive melody that we associate with mountain nostalgia in the Italian phrase “Ai nostri monti” becomes in French “Ô ma patrie!” In Verdi’s worldview, every diasporic community sings with longing for a lost homeland. Verdi himself lived and breathed the new national emotions of the 19th century, and it can be difficult for us to recapture the freshness of those feelings after the brutalization of nationalism in the 20th century, not least in fascist Italy. Academic historians like myself have, furthermore, become so accustomed to thinking of nationalism as a merely “imagined community,” in the phrase of Benedict Anderson, that we can scarcely credit the brilliance of such imagining when it was something creatively new in the 19th century, nor perhaps appreciate how meaningfully national sentiment resonated for 19th-century artists and intellectuals like Verdi. At a moment when all over the world people are responding to populist politicians who play upon national themes, academics are perhaps too inclined to see nationalism as a delusion, a false consciousness that should have been debunked in favor of more enlightened values. In Europe especially, where spokesmen for the European Union have been preaching a cosmopolitan supranational European identity since the end of World War II, it has been particularly distressing to discover that national chauvinisms are everywhere alive and kicking, ready to be exploited by demagogues.

In Verdi’s 19th-century lifetime the idea of a unified Italy was politically captivating, something beautiful to imagine and strive for in a peninsula under the fragmented domination of foreign dynasties. Verdi himself grew up in the Duchy of Parma that had been somewhat randomly assigned to the exiled Napoleon’s second wife, the empress Marie Louise; she was the Habsburg archduchess who supplanted his first empress Josephine and gave him an heir. But after his exile in 1814 and his death in 1821, she reigned as Duchess of Parma over the little Italian principality of Verdi’s childhood; it was she who built the beautiful Teatro Regio in which the Parma Verdi Festival now takes place. Verdi dedicated an opera to her, and she presented him with a pin of gold and diamonds. The composer, however, dreamed of a united Italian republic, as advocated by the revolutionary leaders Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, who represented to the world the cause of democratic nationalism conceived in republican form — without duchesses. In the revolutionary year of 1848, when Italy seemed to be in the making, Verdi composed a battle hymn and sent it with a militant message to Mazzini: “May this hymn soon be sung on the plains of Lombardy, amid the music of the cannon.” Unification would finally arrive in 1860, and Verdi served in the first Italian parliament of 1861.

Verdi’s operas invariably spoke to a patriotic sense of homeland, from the nostalgia of the biblical Hebrews of Nabucco in the 1840s to the noble pathos of the Flemish sextet in Don Carlos in the 1860s, representing the cause of oppressed Flanders to the oppressive Habsburg Spanish ruler King Philip II. Naturally, the 19th-century Austrian Habsburg emperors appeared as national enemies to Verdi, for they ruled over large parts of Italy, from Milan to Venice. In the 1870s, when Italy was fully unified, having finally annexed Rome from the pope in 1870, Verdi composed his most exquisite aria of patriotic longing, Aida’s aria “O patria mia,” spinning out the tremulous soprano fantasy of a homeland in Ethiopia that she will never see again: “Mai più.” Verdi believed that every homeland was beautiful in the eye of the patriot, and the patriotisms that he conjured on the operatic stage always transmuted his own love of Italy, which he himself was forging into one operatic nation by creating the body of work that would dominate Italian musical culture.

One 19th-century French critic commented:

Foreigners will never be able to appreciate the influence that was exercised during a certain period by the ardent, inflamed melodies that Verdi found when situations, or even single passages of poetry, reminded him of Italy’s unhappy condition, or its memories, or its hopes. The audience saw allusions everywhere; but Verdi discovered them even before the audience did; and he adapted to them his inspired music.

Whether the singers on stage were costumed as Flemish or Ethiopian, Hebrew or Roma, the Italian operatic public would recognize Verdian national longing as fundamentally Italian.

In addition to Verdi’s rarely performed early comedy Un giorno di regno, conducted by Francesco Pasqualetti in Busseto, the Verdi Festival of 2018 staged two major political works at Parma’s Teatro Regio: Macbeth, conducted by the great French conductor Philippe Auguin in the original 1847 edition (Verdi revised the opera in the 1860s); and the weirdly fascinating Attila, Verdi’s early opera about Attila the Hun and his attempted conquest of Italy in the fifth century, conducted by Gianluigi Gelmetti. These are both dark works, and magnificently dark Italian male voices, basses and baritones, carried the evenings: Luca Salsi as Macbeth, Michele Pertusi as Banquo, Riccardo Zanellato as the charismatic barbarian Attila. If Shakespeare himself was partly shaped by the Renaissance Italian spirit of Machiavelli when he explored Macbeth’s illegitimate ascent to power in Scotland, Verdi returned the drama to an Italian political idiom. The witches in Parma made their first appearance as old women in black — a scene from traditional Sicily — the possessors of a folk wisdom that the ambitious Machiavellian Macbeth could only regard with astonishment.

Italian politics has endured a long crisis of legitimacy, since the demise of the postwar political system in the corruption scandals of the 1990s. Silvio Berlusconi has presided over four governments while facing charges from bribery and tax fraud to patronizing a child prostitute. One of Italy’s longstanding prime ministers, Giulio Andreotti, faced charges not just of corruption but of Mafia complicity in ordering the murder of a journalist, Macbeth-style. The Mafia boss Totò Riina, who also ordered the assassination of two Sicilian anti-Mafia judges in 1992, was rumored to have been seen exchanging a “kiss of honor” with Andreotti. Riina himself died in prison in Parma last year. The entanglement of criminality and politics is something that was much on Verdi’s musical mind in the 19th century, and still shadows the world of Italian politics.

Verdi’s Macbeth, like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, is haunted by ghosts and witches, and while the drama is highly political, the opera is mesmerizingly introspective: after murdering Duncan offstage, Macbeth returns to sing “tutto è finito” (“everything is finished”) with an eerily sustained second syllable of “finito.” His internal drama, however, has only just begun, and we in the audience, who have never murdered a king, nevertheless recognize ourselves in his internal landscape of conscience and terror: from the long melodic Verdian line of the first act — “com’angeli d’ira” (“like angels of wrath”) — to the aria of tormented beauty in the last act that stands in for Shakepeare’s “tomorrow and tomorrow” — “pietà, rispetto, onore” (“mercy, respect, honor”). The rhythmic, somnambulant, orchestral music of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene sets up the prelude at the beginning of the whole opera and then returns to accompany her in the final act, as if the whole opera has been a sort of sleepwalking through the horrors of political life. Soprano Anna Pirozzi sang the sleepwalking scene with unusual delicacy, as if Lady Macbeth were, all along, more fragile than we imagined, while the woodwinds wove themselves around her sleeping consciousness. The wonder of listening to the 1847 version is that Verdi at the age of 34 already understood Shakespeare with so much subtlety that the young Verdi could discover the humanity in political criminals, that he could imagine them singing from the depths of their consciences, and resonating with our own.

Maestro Auguin, studying the 1847 score of Macbeth, followed carefully Verdi’s idea for the chorus of Scottish refugees, displaced by civil war brought on by Macbeth’s usurpation, solemnly singing their patriotic love for an oppressed country, “Patria oppressa.” At a slowed tempo, with hushed dynamics, sung by an almost motionless chorus, the patriotic hymn sounds very close to “Va, pensiero,” from Nabucco. Verdi, who gave expression to all the most intense Romantic emotions, could conceive a chorus of patriotism as a lament, a country even more beloved when lost and oppressed. The current Italian government has been particularly hostile to refugees seeking to enter Italy and Europe, and Parma presented Verdi’s chorus as sung by evident refugees, suitcases in hand, posed like the Italians of more than a hundred years ago who, even in Verdi’s lifetime, waited — while longing for their old country — to enter a new world at Ellis Island.


Larry Wolff is a professor of European history at NYU, director of the NYU Center for European and Mediterranean Studies, and executive director of the NYU Remarque Institute. He writes about the history of ideas, culture, and music, and his most recent book is The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage from the Siege of Vienna to the Age of Napoleon.

LARB Contributor

Larry Wolff is a professor of European history at NYU, director of the NYU Center for European and Mediterranean Studies, and executive director of the NYU Remarque Institute. He writes about the history of ideas, culture, and music, and his most recent book is The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage from the Siege of Vienna to the Age of Napoleon.


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