Verdi’s Disappearing Act
“Verdi has a way of escaping his biographers. The known facts of his long and busy career have been told and retold, but the man himself remains a distant figure, protected still by his habitual reserve and mistrust. . . . One of the consequences of Verdi’s reticence has been that, in Italy in recent years, the gaps in our knowledge have been filled by inventions, which, endlessly repeated and amplified by ignorant and unscrupulous journalists, and popularized by films, have come to be accepted almost as gospel.”—Frank Walker, The Man Verdi (London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1962), xi.
What his biographer Frank Walker wrote nearly a half century ago holds true today: the life of Giuseppe Verdi remains laden with the accretions of cultural myth and wishful thinking, simple-minded attempts at glorification and a naïve desire to posthumously weave a created image of the composer into the fabric of his historical political context. Meanwhile, that elusive figure who insisted on his privacy and jealously guarded his thoughts from public exposure continually withdraws from the grasp of his ardent admirers.
This is not to say that advances in the scholarly understanding of Verdi’s life have been lacking. Biographical studies by scholars such as Walker, Roger Parker, and Mary Jane Phillips-Matz have endeavored to strip away the legend to reveal the life of an assiduous and proud man determined to have his way in the theater. The problem is that the legend is by now so deeply entrenched in the popular conception of the composer that many Verdi enthusiasts prefer to blithely reiterate it with a willful blindness rather than confront the actual facts of his life.
We might justifiably expect a documentary that bills itself as “a major film on the life and work of Giuseppe Verdi” to disabuse its viewers of their misprisions, to demonstrate that by understanding Verdi apart from the myth that emerged toward the close of his life (a myth he helped in some ways to perpetuate) we come to a greater appreciation of his accomplishments. We might demand that a documentary teach us something rather than merely help us to imbibe once again the same tired stories we have heard bandied about by patrons at any given opera house during intermission. If that is what viewers want (or need) from a documentary, then they can only be sorely disappointed in Verdi: The Pursuit of Success & The Burden of Success.
These two short films (each clocking in at about an hour) traffic in the same well-worn clichés, the same contrived images, and the same convenient fudging of reception history that has plagued Verdi biography from the first. The films were “created, conducted, and presented by Mark Elder” and it is clear from the outset that this is the pet project of a conductor who believes Verdi to have been “at the center of [his] musical life for thirty years”. We do not expect conductors to be musicologists or biographers. Insofar as Elder attempts to be a bit of both here, he fails miserably.
He announces his intentions in the clearest of terms (or at least the clearest of terms that Elder can muster):
In these two films, I wanted to show how his personality and the landscape from which he came helped to forge his creative style. Extracts from the vast range of his operas will show, I hope, what wonderful tunes he wrote and how skillfully he embeds those tunes in music full of theatrical excitement. I wanted the scenes to be staged in a style that emphasizes the muscularity and passion of his art, a style of spare, even stark imagery that keeps the taut humanity of these operas in the sharpest focus.
However, in these films we get little sense of Verdi’s personality aside from the impression that he was a difficult man to have around at rehearsals (a fact, I suppose, that particularly appeals to a conductor). Moreover, Elder’s own statement of aims demonstrates how utterly incapable he is of fulfilling them. Why artificially segregate “wonderful tunes” from the “music full of theatrical excitement” in which they are embedded? Is this not utter nonsense? What on earth is “taut humanity”?
Furthermore, how does one demonstrate that the “landscape” helped to forge a creative style? A kinder reading would grant that Elder meant a political and cultural landscape but at times Elder (acting also in the capacity of narrator) reveals that he means landscape literally. Here Elder reaches the height of the purple prose that suffuses his narrative: “To me, Verdi is the sound of Italy, the sound of its people, their dreams, their aspirations. It rises up out of the landscape, the very essence of the Italian soul”. What can such empty drivel possibly hope to convey?
Elder avoids many of the conventions of the documentary—most notably the discussions of various scholarly talking heads—but he replaces them with the worst possible substitutes: his own silly stabs at biographical detail (every narration feels like a useless aside) and the man-on-the-street interview. The first film opens with a wizened Italian man who fervently describes Verdi as “an accomplished man who with Silvio Pellico and the people fought to the end to bring about the Risorgimento” while accompanying each an every syllable with an emphatic hand gesture.
The problem isn’t just that Elder seems to have sought out the most stereotypical elderly Italian he could find. More to the point, this man on the street is simply wrong. While Verdi was hardly apolitical, he was by no means the staunch rebel that Pellico was—a man who was sentenced to death for his political convictions while Verdi, at most, was forced to squabble with censors. But the Verdi legend long ago projected the composer-as-rebel onto the history of the Risorgimento (Italy’s struggle for political unity and independence) and there he is likely to stay.
The correspondence and diary entries of Verdi (read by Bob Peck) and his longtime mistress (and later his wife) Giuseppina Strepponi (read by Juliet Stevenson) do little to ameliorate the situation. The overly dramatic renderings by Peck and Stevenson resemble the flamboyant exaggerations of old radio plays.
Even the titles of the films are misleading. While the first film inevitably does manage to deal with Verdi’s “pursuit of success”, the second film never justifies the title Burden of Success. While I can imagine various ways in which one might have portrayed Verdi in his later years struggling with the effects of his renown, the film never bothers to make a case for it. It would seem that Elder simply wanted some contrasting phrase to balance the title of the first film but this slack approach toward organization makes the “documentary” aspect of the film appear to be a mere afterthought.
And perhaps it is. While Elders may have wanted to produce a documentary, in the end he managed to achieve something much more suitable for a conductor: a collection of filmed excerpts from Verdi’s operas. The performances range from adequate to brilliant while the staging, arranged by David Alden, ranges from engaging to risible.
The first bona fide performance is of the Act I duet of Attila between the eponymous military leader of the Huns (sung by Willard White) and the Roman Consul Enzio (sung by the remarkable Jonathan Summers). The staging here establishes a trend that will be followed throughout the films—a dimly lit room containing a minimum of distraction (a door, some spears stuck in the ground) serves as the space within which the singers pace tensely as they revolve around each other.
It is the following performance, however, that utilizes this manner of staging to its greatest effect. Here Summers and Josephine Barstow portray Macbeth and his wife in the Act I duet of Verdi’s rendering of the Shakespearean drama. Both singers navigate with aplomb the realm Verdi established for these characters between declamation and a strained melodiousness. Barstow’s voice, in particular, simply vibrates with the overwrought mania that possesses Lady Macbeth.
Meanwhile, Summers fashions his performance into the vocal counterpart of the orchestral jabs and erratic gestures that Verdi employs in the orchestra to depict Macbeth’s wretched mental state; he only turns to pure melody in order to express his admiration for his victim. The staging complements the performance to perfection: the bloody knife, the dark spaces, the single beam of streaming greenish light emerging from the door that remains perpetually ajar, threatening the traitors with discovery. Toward the close of the duet, the couple is reduced to terrified, amelodic whispering.
From the heights of imagination the film plunges into the abyss of tediousness. The bizarre staging of the celebrated Act III quartet from Rigoletto has Maddalena, Rigoletto, Gilda, and the Duke (along with numerous other random people) sit in the audience before an empty stage—this despite the fact that the quartet was expressly designed to portray Rigoletto and Gilda secretly observing the flirtation between the Duke and Maddalena so that Gilda may bear witness to the treachery of her supposed lover. Moreover, the costumer has dressed the Duke (sung in a lackluster manner by Dennis O’Neill) to look like a slovenly, besotted Napoleon—making him decidedly unattractive and thus making the plot utterly unconvincing.
This perverse treatment of Rigoletto gives way to an even more disturbing staging of the Act III show-stopping aria for Manrico of Il Trovatore, “Di quella pira”. While Manrico (another mediocre outing by O’Neill) passionately insists that he will risk his own life to save that of his mother (in spite of the fact that the deed may entail losing his love Leonora), the object of his passion begins to writhe about the room and, as far as I can tell, turns into some kind of witch. The room fills with smoke (although it is the mother and not Manrico who was to be burned at the stake). Then Manrico grabs a huge crucifix, and dips it as though they were dancing some kind of sacrilegious tango. Christ must not have been too good a partner though because Manrico then inexplicably tosses the crucifix through a window—I suppose in order to air out the smoke that has no business being in the room. I am by no means averse to experimental staging but at the very least it ought not to make nonsense of the music.
The remainder of the two films contains mostly fine performances (Barstow’s outing as the Leonora of The Force of Destiny particularly rewards the listener with some extraordinary singing) coupled with rather bland stagings. As a collection of performances of some of Verdi’s greatest hits, the DVD is worth the price. It should be noted, however, that Elder makes some strange decisions regarding pieces to include or to leave out. Why do we have a full performance of the Prelude to La Traviata in lieu of Violetta’s amazing Act I aria or perhaps an excerpt from the Act II duet between Violetta and Germont? Why is there nothing here from Aida?
Of course, the problem is that these films have been created with a different aspiration. Elder wants to pass off renderings of Verdi’s music as explication of that music; he wants to imagine that light anecdotes are equivalent to substantive commentary, that blind adulation is critical insight. In the end, we are left with the same problem Frank Walker diagnosed so long ago. We have the music and it speaks eloquently but Verdi recedes into the distance. Like a skilled magician, he executes another fine disappearing act just as Elder endeavors to reveal him to us.