Over at ionarts, there's a burning at the stake. Prompted by an unexciting performance of that "garbage" of an opera called I Vespri Siciliani, Jens F. Laurson asks everyone (including himself) why we're all wasting our time with early/middle Verdi crap, about which he says the following: "The drama is staid and silly, the text plenty hackneyed and boring and only in place, it seems to give the singers something more than just vowels to discharge. Gluck's lessons ("to confine music to its true purpose ... expressing the poetry and reinforcing the dramatic situation without interrupting or obstructing the action with superfluous embellishments") never penetrated most Italian opera." An indictment of Italian opera worthy of Tom DeLay & Co.! (Superfluous embellishments in opera-- are you kidding. No, seriously, are you kidding?)
I thought we'd all be nice to JFL and help him out with his dilemma. First off, we believe that our boy from D.C. is really trying his D.C. best to at least have a healthy, nonconfrontational relationship with such things as Nabucco and Vespri, but didn't he get that memo about Oceanliner Guleghina? Here's the gist: no love can come out of an evening with Maria. Next, I'd suggest a re-reading of Alex Ross's essential New Yorker piece from 2001 called "Verdi's Grip." In the essay, Alex defends Verdi from Regietheater directors who attempt to cure the "silliness" out of Verdian plots by reworking them within their own little staging scenarios, meant to distract the audience from what they think as a vast Verdian emptiness.
OK, it's no secret that Verdi plots blow. No one's arguing otherwise. But dear D.C. citizens, that doesn't mean that Verdi's operas blow too. Here, Alex provides the escape clause (what I think is the key to my uninterrupted bliss and happiness with Verdi), observing that "a Verdi aria is like a camera that zooms in on a person’s soul." To clarify, Alex raises the example of Violetta's "Amami, Alfredo" (from La Traviata, created before Vespri and is therefore included in JFL's summary execution).
Now, regarding the Vespri. When Elena enters in Act I, for instance, to begin her "L'altro mare" parable (ladies, take out nearest Vespri CD and cue to appropriate track), the arc of the scene appears from the quietness of her entrance to ride every rising wave of the cellos. Suddenly, the darkness of Elena's voice recedes to deliver the "Deh! tu calma" prayer. But no, "E Dio risponde" and she tells her dear Sicilians that God's not always about manufacturing miracles. What the f*? But quickly they get their answer: "Mortali! il vostro fato e in vostra man," at which point the soprano spills out some blood-curdling chest: "in vostra man!" The "Coraggio" that follows is a direct command that speaks to the loins (with some vocal calisthenics thrown in, for the fans in the upper tiers), and when everyone chimes in with "O quai detti! Quale ardor," I am taken up in the swirl of a revolution: Verdi takes us there: I don't need Callas: even an Arroyo can midwife the drama. When Elena's voice reappears above the choral frenzy, I'm dancing, and with my arms raised, I vocalize "si sprezzin i perigli!" The high note is optional; I've already interpolated it in my mind's ear.
Verdi scenes in themselves, like his arias, situate familiar truths in a kind of music that resonates in our chests. (If I'm ever to address Sicilians to rouse them to courage, I'd want Verdi to write it for me. If I'm ever to "Amami, Alfredo" a lover, I'd surely use Verdi's "Amami, Alfredo", not Britten's or Puccini's or Mozart's.) His scenes may fall together awkwardly in a murky narrative, whose logic defies our modern, Hollywood-dominated conventions; the ride may be bumpy and long, but Verdi takes me, with some patience (where else am I supposed to be?), to simple mirrors of my humanity. The confrontation between Abigaille and Nabucco (Part III, "Donna, chi sei?"), punctuated with the kind of oom-pah-pah that turns off Wagnerites, rocks in my mind like a Coldplay track. When Abigaille is pushed to the throne by the Gran Sacerdote (Part II, "Chi s'avanza?"), I can feel the cursed crown on my own head. Are Rigoletto and Il Trovatore part of JFL's "middle Verdi" gang? Don't even get me started on those "silly" works.
The bouquets of Forza, Don Carlo, Aida, Otello, and Falstaff (an opera I've yet to reach) are all acknowledged masterpieces. Is it only because their narratives have finally coalesced into a drama worthy of comparisons to Wagner, Puccini, and Spielberg? Musically, the seeds of their successes are all over Verdi's earlier works, and when I'm sitting in the opera house and such a scene stumbles awkwardly into focus, my skin tells me it's familiar, and so it resonates in the human world Verdi knows very well.