Verdi Baritone: Studies in the Development of Dramatic Character

Verdi Baritone: Studies in the Development of Dramatic Character

by Geoffrey Edwards, Ryan Edwards


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253220394
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 09/11/2008
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 3 Months

About the Author

Geoffrey Edwardsis an award-winning author and stage director of both dramatic and operatic productions. Ryan Edwards, a leading performer with the Metropolitan Opera, has received international acclaim for his vocal and dramatic interpretations of Verdi’s baritone roles.

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The Verdi Baritone

Studies in the Development of Dramatic Character

By Geoffrey Edwards, Ryan Edwards

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2008 Geoffrey Edwards and Ryan Edwards
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-22039-4



Biblical spectacle, the crown jewel of early nineteenth-century French costume drama, seems an incongruous vehicle for intimate psychological character study, and yet it is in the setting of such an unlikely subject as Nabucodonosor (1842) that the dramatic potential of the Verdi baritone is first manifested. As Shakespeare's early history plays foreshadow the subtler and more profound vision of the great tragedies, so the character of Nabucodonosor, or Nabucco, as he is called in the opera, adumbrates the later dramatic portraits in which Verdis exploration of personal identity and humanity's place in a larger order of existence reach consummate expression.

Contemporary critics were enthralled by Nabucco, the reviewer for the Illustrated London News declaring, "The more we hear this opera, the more convinced we are that Verdis genius has here reached the highest point to which it can attain. The splendid harmonies and dramatic effects, and the no less varied and delightful melodies with which this opera abounds, entitles it to a place among the works of the greatest masters." Yet, in retrospect Verdi himself was less satisfied, declaring in a letter to Antonio Somma a decade after the première that he would now refuse to set another subject in the genre of Nabucco.

Verdi underscores with particular insight the essential limitations of an opera drawn from the tradition of historical spectacle. subordination of character to the implacable demands of theatrical effect and plot convolution. Although later in his career Verdi would take an active role in shaping his own libretti, as a young composer he accepted Temistocle Solera's text for Nabucco virtually unchanged and confined his musical characterizations within the epic structure of the libretto. As the Gazzetta Musicale di Milano noted with ironic praise, "Inoltre il soggetto biblico, ricco di grandiosità teatrale e di scenica poesia, si presta a dovere all'ampiezza delle nostre maggiori scene. Il signor Verdi mostrò di aver saputo ben comprendere le idee del Solera, e audacemente sicuro di sè adoperò a interpretare i suoi drammatici concetti." (In addition, the biblical subject, rich in theatrical grandeur and picturesque poetry, lends itself to the demands of our great stages. Signor Verdi showed he well understood Solera's ideas and, audaciously sure of himself, set about interpreting his dramatic concepts.) Thus, while Verdi's musical characterization frequently imbues Nabucco with a resonance and complexity that transcend the libretto, the parameters imposed by the text are often intractable.

The French source play for the opera, Nabuchodonosor (1836) by Anicet-Bourgeois and Francis Cornu, is a monumental display piece, in which the primacy of stunning coups de théatre, striking tableaux, and breathtaking decor makes subtlety of characterization irrelevant, if not impossible. Solera's libretto, in turn, hews closely to this source, condensing and conflating, but retaining the original dramatic structure and character delineations. As in the play, Nabucco himself appears only in several climactic crisis scenes, a dramaturgical technique that mitigates against nuanced psychological exploration and mandates episodic and often diffused character development.

A charged atmosphere of ominous anticipation is created in the opening scenes of the opera as the terrified Hebrews await the arrival of Nabucco and his conquering troops at the temple of Solomon. Heralded as an imperious subjugator, Nabucco fittingly mounts the steps of the temple on horseback,- this visual image is quickly subverted, however, by both the banal pomposity of the banda, which engulfs the king's arrival in a frenzy of triviality, and the anticlimactic nonchalance of Nabucco's first words. Anicet-Bourgeois' Nabuchodonosor declaims with suitable bombast, "Oui, gloire à Nabuchodonosor!.. c'est le vainqueur et le maître du peuple de Dieu" (Yes, glory to Nabuchodonosor! the conqueror and master of the people of God), Nabucco, in contrast, musters only an enervated "Di Dio che parli?" (What are you saying of God?).

The very nature of the dramatic situation in Solera's libretto further highlights a sense of hollowness in Nabucco's royal power. While Anicet-Bourgeois' protagonist enters the temple on his own terms, granting freedom to Ismaël as a favor to Phénenna, Solera's Nabucco is helpless because his daughter is held hostage by Zacearía. As he growls to himself, Nabucco's words are those of impotent fury: "Tremin, gl'insani del mio, del mio furore" (60; Let the madmen tremble at my fury). Verdi suggests the suppression of the king's volcanic potential with a sotto voce andante in which jagged dotted rhythms and propulsive triplets burst through the self-consciously restrained B on "Tremin" as does the ominous blast of a horn reverberating above the muted murmurs of strings in the orchestration.

As Nabucco vows that all Zion will drown in a sea of blood, his vocal line takes on a pattern of explosion and suppression, leaping a sixth to D-sharp only to fall again to F-sharp on "In mar,.. in mar di sangue" and "fra pianti, fra pianti e lai" (60 in a sea of blood, with tears and laments). Yet, the bel canto lyricism in these phrases subverts the sanguinary fury of the text. There is a greater depth of humanity in Nabucco than his public display of brutal authority will admit; as his vocal line swells to top E before an almost caressing denouement on "l'empia Sionne scorrer dovrà" (60-61; wicked Zion must drown), it is as if Nabucco were unconsciously revealing a glimpse of the inner man concealed behind his arrogant mask.

Verdi completes this dramatic subversion of kingly pretensions by quickly confining Nabucco within a static ensemble. The invincible conqueror is reduced to repeating sotto voce threats throughout a prolonged standoff as Fenena pleads for mercy, Abigaille hopes for the death of her rival, and the assembled Hebrews offer prayers to God. The limitations of his royal power are clear, and his hubris thus stands out in even sharper relief when Nabucco declares, "Ben l'ho chiamato in guerra, ma venne il vostro Dio? Tema ha di me: resistermi, stolti, chi mai, chi mai potrà?" (79; I called your God to battle, but did He come? He fears me: fools, who can resist me?).

Ironically, Ismaele, not Nabucco, finally saves Fenena, though the king immediately announces the execution of his own terrible revenge-. "Mio furor, non più costretto, fa dei vinti atroce scempio" (81; My fury, no longer constrained, will make terrible slaughter of the vanquished). Nabucco's gioja feroce is clear in the trumpeting vocal line and whirlwind orchestration of this Donizettian stretta, yet the king is quickly submerged in the maelstrom he has loosed, his individual identity lost in the massed cries of vengeance and lamentation that bring the act to a close.

The real source of Nabucco's strength as both a ruler and a man lies not in egotism and hatred but in love; and in the second act Nabucco gains new power and majesty through his selfless defense of Fenena. Again, the king's entrance becomes a coup de théâtre, coming in the final moments of the act as Abigaille tries to seize the regent's crown from Fenena. The parallels with the dramatic structure of the first act are clear, but in contrast to the hollowness of "Di Dio che parli," Nabucco finds a new voice as he seizes the crown from Abigaille and places it on his own head, turning his royal power into a bulwark of defense to protect his child. This act of self-abnegation and love imbues Nabucco with real strength, and, for the first time in the opera, the ringing declamation of the Verdi baritones top register is heard, the vocal line rising to a fortissimo sustained top F underscored with driving orchestration for the challenge, "Dal capo mio la prendi!" (139; Take it from my head!).

This compelling moment of music-drama is quickly obscured, however, by the conventionalities of the ensuing ensemble. The jagged leaps in Nabucco's andantino vocal line, marked sotto voce e cupo and underscored with the suspended menace of piano strings and woodwinds, are well suited to the king's "S'appressan gl'istanti d'un'ira fatale" (140/ The moments of fatal wrath approach). But as this melody is taken up in turn by principals and chorus, individual musical characterization inevitably gives way to a generalized emotional patina.

Faced with the betrayal of his friends and the defiance of his foes, Nabucco tries to reassert his own sense of kingship. He denounces the treacherous Babylonians, their priests, and the god that led them to betray their king; he reviles the defeated but intractable Hebrews and their God/ he even turns, at last, on his beloved Fenena when she declares that she will die with the condemned Hebrews. Confronted by ubiquitous denial of the royal power that has heretofore defined his self-identity, Nabucco struggles to stave off personal annihilation with an overreaching grasp at the power of Heaven. In his alienation and frustration, he finally cries out with disastrous hubris, "Giù! pròstrati!.. non son più re, son Dio" (155/ Down! Prostrate yourself! I am no longer king, I am God). Nabucco denies his very humanity, placing himself outside the realm of mortal men and abjuring the paternal love that was the source of his inner strength just moments before.

Drained of the indomitable power of love that infused his defense of Fenena, Nabucco's arrogation of divine right is pointedly uncompelling; after his daughter's defiant top G, the king reaches only an anticlimactic E-flat before the wrath of Heaven falls on him: "Un fulmine scoppia sul capo del Re. Nabucodonosor atterrito sente strapparsi la corona da una forza soprannaturale." (155; A thunderbolt strikes the head of the king. Nabucodonosor, terrified, feels his crown torn off by a supernatural force.) Entering a world of delirium, Nabucco embarks on a tortuous voyage of self-discovery. His fragmented and rhythmically unsettled vocal line builds incalzando to a terrified, syncopated collapse as his kingly façade disintegrates. "Chi mi toglie il regio scettro?.. Qual m'incalza orrendo spettro?.. Chi pel crine, ohimè, m'afferra?.. chi mi stringe?.. chi m'atterra, chi, chi m'atterra, chi, chi m'atterra?" (158; Who takes the royal scepter from me? What horrible specter pursues me? Oh, who seizes me by the hair? Who grips me? Who throws me down?)

But, even in his confusion, Nabucco soon senses a loss greater than that of his crown, a profound void that threatens the true essence of his being. With the tempo shifting fluidly into a lamenting adagio espressivo, his broken phrases are underscored by mournful woodwinds as he sobs, "Oh!., mia figlia!., e tu e tu pur anco non... soccorri al debil.. fianco?" (159; Oh my daughter!.. will even you not aid me in my weakness?).

Fueled by this torment, Nabucco's original hallucinations intensify, and the heightened tessitura of the Verdi baritone is now transformed into an expression of almost unbearable anguish at the loss of his daughter. Again and again the vocal line explodes to top F, only to plunge into an inferno of grief and horror: "Ah fantasmi ho sol presenti" (159 Ah, 1 have only phantoms around me). But out of this nightmare comes an instinctive understanding as Nabucco returns to a dolce adagio: "perchè ... perchè sul ... ciglio una lagrima, una lagrima spuntò?" (160; Why did a tear well up in my eye?). His conscious mind may not yet know what brings on this uncontrollable emotion, but his heart does. Subconsciously, he echoes the melody of "Oh mia figlia," the vocal line swelling with a need that defies articulate expression as it crescendos to top F on "ciglio."

At last Nabucco can bear his suffering no longer and sinks into a faint, a symbolic death from which he will ultimately be resurrected with a new and deeper understanding of himself and of the values that give true meaning to his life.

The Nabucco of Act III is a pathetic shadow of the arrogant monarch who ordered the sacking of the temple of Solomon. Disheveled and distracted, he wanders like a stranger through his own throne room, his feeble efforts to maintain some vestige of royal authority subverted by his tentative and unfocused recitative: "Vo' ehe mi creda sempre forte ciascun" (172; I want everyone to think me still strong). In the great duet "Donna, chi sei?" (173; Woman, who are you?), Nabucco is easily outmaneuvered by Abigaille, browbeaten into signing a death warrant for the Hebrews by her transparent mockery of his earlier self-image of power: "Preso da vil sgomento, Nabucco non é più" (176; Seized with cowardly fear, Nabucco is no more). Even his final effort to force Abigaille into submission by revealing her base birth is crushed as she destroys the incriminating document before his eyes, overwhelming his vocal line with a savage onslaught of fiendish coloratura.

The last shreds of pretense now drop away, and Nabucco recognizes that he has been stripped of the kingly role by which he has defined himself. With this new self-awareness, however, also comes new freedom of expression, and there is an unexampled emotional weight and majestic dignity in the andante "Oh di qual'onta." Nabucco has never seemed more regal than at the moment he recognizes that he is a king no longer. The sweeping phrases of his lament carry the vocal line first to a sobbing series of D-flats on "Oh di qual'onta aggravasi questo mió crin ... canuto" and then to a surging E-flat on "Invan la destra gelida ... corre all'acciar temuto." (179-80; Oh, what disgrace overwhelms my white hair. In vain my cold right hand now reaches for my feared sword.) At last, as words fail him, his sense of loss climaxes with a four-fold repetition of "l'ombra tu sei ... del re" (180-81; You are the shadow of the king). It is left to the melodic line to capture the cry of his heart through the haunting elegance of a pair of triplets, the stringendo top F, and the diminuendo as the denouement fades into oblivion, just as Nabucco's kingship itself has drifted away.

Abigaille answers his grief only with scorn, declaring Nabucco her prisoner. Like Shakespeare's Lear, Nabucco now understands that love, not power, is of paramount value in his life; prison holds no terrors as long as his daughter is saved. Returning to the original key of "Oh di qual'onta," Nabucco balances the loss of a crown with the return of paternal love. There is a new urgency in his affettuoso allegro moderato as he begins, "Deh perdona" (185-86; Ah, forgive). Abbreviated phrases, heightened with anxious triplets, emphasize his emotional tension as Nabucco freely casts aside his crown to plead for his daughter: "Te regina, te signora chiami pur ... la gente assira; questo veglio non implora che la vita del ... suo cor" (186; Let the people of Assyria call you queen and lady; this old man begs only for the life of his heart). But faced with Abigaille's contemptuous rejection of his pleas, he can only repeat his text in the second verse. At last, Nabucco is reduced to joining Abigaille on her musical terms, adopting her melodic lead in his plea for mercy, resigning himself to a subordinate role as she ascends to a high A-flat at the end of the duet, while he remains on middle A-flat. Nabucco has achieved a personal anagnorisis, recognizing that worldly power is dross compared with the richness of the love he shares with Fenena.

In the final act of the opera, this personal focus is expanded to provide a classical affirmation of humanity's place within a cosmic order of existence. Act IV opens with Nabucco asleep in a chair, and Verdi's prelude suggests the king's subconscious understanding of his downfall: the initial motif associated with his terror at being struck down by the hand of God thus gives way to melodic echoes of the Hebrews' pleas for mercy and Nabucco's triumphant conquest. In denying his own humanity, in turning a deaf ear to the claims of compassion and mercy, in trying to subordinate Earth and Heaven to his will, Nabucco has brought on his own self-destruction.

Significantly, however, it is the strength of his paternal love that ultimately propels Nabucco to a full conscious understanding of his hubris. He first awakens in a further delirium, calling on his troops to the sack Jerusalem. But the sight of Fenena, chained and weeping as she is led by his window to her execution, suddenly brings Nabucco back to reality: "Ah, prigioniero io sono" (213 Ah, I am a prisoner). Acknowledging his own grievous fault, the king humbles himself to the will of God, imploring, "Dio degli Ebrei, perdono" (213-14; Forgive me, God of the Hebrews). This acceptance of his place in a greater universal order immediately brings forgiveness and rebirth. The tempo shifts to andante as calm is restored, the strings return to the serene piety of Zaccaria's earlier prayer, and a flute cadenza shimmers like a ray of light in the darkness of a clouded mind.


Excerpted from The Verdi Baritone by Geoffrey Edwards, Ryan Edwards. Copyright © 2008 Geoffrey Edwards and Ryan Edwards. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents


La Traviata
Simon Boccanegra

Appendix: Plot Synopses

Selected Bibliography

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