Mar 112017

On this date in 1851 Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered in Venice. I’ve already highlighted Verdi —  — and the post included a brief nod to Rigoletto because it was a milestone in the development of opera, not only intertwining complex dramatic elements but also showcasing a variety of musical styles, not least being the eternal favorite “La donna è mobile” (whose title I used just this week in pointing out the difference to my students in the use of the direct article in English and Italian). I’m not inclined to do a massive analysis of Rigoletto here, but I do feel the need to say something given that I live right behind a museum called “Rigoletto’s House” (opposite palazzo ducale), touristic tribute to the fact that the opera is set in Mantua.

Rigoletto was set in Mantua, in the long past, to escape problems with Austrian censors. Verdi was commissioned to write a new opera by the La Fenice opera house in Venice in 1850. By this time he was already a well-known composer and had a degree of freedom in choosing the works he would prefer to set to music. He then asked Francesco Maria Piave (with whom he had already created Ernani, I due Foscari, Macbeth, Il Corsaro and Stiffelio) to examine the play Kean by Alexandre Dumas, père, but he was not happy with the subject matter. Then Verdi stumbled upon Victor Hugo’s five-act play Le roi s’amuse. He later explained that “The subject is grand, immense, and there is a character that is one of the greatest creations that the theatre can boast of, in any country and in all history.” It was a highly controversial subject, and Hugo himself had already had trouble with censorship in France, which had banned productions after its first performance nearly twenty years earlier (it would not be performed again until 1882). As Austria at that time directly controlled much of Northern Italy, it came before the Austrian Board of Censors. Hugo’s play depicted a king (Francis I of France) as an immoral and cynical womanizer, and this subject did not sit well with the powers that be.

From the beginning, Verdi was aware of the risks, as was Piave. In a letter which Verdi wrote to Piave: “Use four legs, run through the town and find me an influential person who can obtain the permission for making Le Roi s’amuse.” Correspondence between a prudent Piave and an already committed Verdi followed, but the two underestimated the power and the intentions of Austrians and remained at risk. Even the friendly Guglielmo Brenna, secretary of La Fenice, who had promised them that they would not have problems with the censors, was wrong. At the beginning of the summer of 1850, rumors started to spread that Austrian censorship was going to forbid the production. The censors considered the Hugo work to verge on lèse majesté and would never permit such a scandalous work to be performed in Venice. In August, Verdi and Piave prudently retired to Busseto, Verdi’s hometown, to continue the composition and prepare a defensive scheme. They wrote to the theater, assuring them that the censor’s doubts about the morality of the work were not justified but since very little time was left, very little could be done. At the time, Piave and Verdi had titled the opera La maledizione (The Curse), and this unofficial title was used by Austrian censor De Gorzkowski in an emphatic letter written in December 1850 in which he definitively denied consent to its production, calling it “a repugnant [example of] immorality and obscene triviality.”

By January 1851 the parties were able to agree that the action of the opera would be moved from the royal court of France to a duchy of France or Italy, and some of the characters would have to be renamed. In the new version the Duke reigns over Mantua and belongs to the Gonzaga family. The House of Gonzaga had long been extinct by the mid-19th century, and the Dukedom of Mantua no longer existed, thus no one could be offended. So, even though the connexion with Mantua is purely pragmatic and not motivated by any dramatic necessity, we reap the benefit.

Rigoletto premiered on 11 March 1851 to a sold-out La Fenice as the first part of a double bill with Giacomo Panizza’s ballet Faust. Gaetano Mares conducted, and the sets were designed and executed by Giuseppe Bertoja and Francesco Bagnara. The opening night was a complete triumph, especially the scena drammatica and the Duke’s cynical aria, “La donna è mobile”, which was sung in the streets the next morning. Verdi had maximised the aria’s impact by revealing it to the cast and orchestra only a few hours before the premiere, and forbidding them to sing, whistle or even think of the melody outside of the theater. Many years later, Giulia Cora Varesi, the daughter of Felice Varesi (the original Rigoletto), described her father’s performance at the premiere. Varesi was very uncomfortable with the false hump he had to wear. He was so uncertain that, even though he was an experienced singer, he had a panic attack when it was his turn to enter the stage. Verdi immediately realized he was paralyzed and roughly pushed him on the stage, so he appeared with a clumsy tumble. The audience, thinking it was an intentional gag, was very amused

Numerous tenors and sopranos have performed the key roles and there are many recordings to choose from.  This one amuses me. It’s not stellar but I rather dislike Pavarotti’s renditions which are everywhere.  In his earlier years (in the 1960s) he was great, but fame got to him, I fear, and by the time he was a household name, in my oh so humble opinion, he had developed an oversized ego (and body) and an undersized style corrupted by a desire to please audience with cheap theatrics.  I’ll take Caruso (or most any other tenor) any day of the week and twice on Sundays over Pavarotti.

A Venetian dish might be in order given the location of the premiere, but I like Mantuan cuisine and the opera is set here.  So let’s go with another Mantuan specialty, luccio in salsa (pike in sauce). I’m sure you can make a reasonable simulacrum, but without Garda Lake pike and Italian anchovies it won’t be the same.  Pike is not an easy fish to prepare because it is riddled with small epipleural or Y-bones. It is best to get fillets from large fish and inspect them carefully, removing any bones you find with tweezers.

Luccio in Salsa


½ kg pike fillets
1 onion
1 carrot
1 celery stalk
1 cup dry white wine
salt and pepper to taste

150 g salted anchovies
150 g capers
150 g fresh parsley
extra virgin olive oil


Poach the fish gently in a pan with the water and wine plus the onion, carrot and celery all cut in large chunks. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Finely chop the capers, parsley and anchovies. Then mix in olive oil to taste. Too little oil will make the sauce over salty.

Separate the fillets into medium-sized pieces, place them on a serving dish and pour over the sauce. Let the fish and sauce rest so that the flavors marry.  Some Mantuan cooks mash the fish slightly with a fork and then add the sauce.

Serve with toasted polenta.

Oct 102013


Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was born at Roncole di Busseto, in the Duchy of Parma, on this date in 1813; son of Luigia Uttini, a spinner, and Carlo Verdi, farmer and landlord of an inn. Carlo came from a family of farmers in the Piacenza area in northern Italy between Bologna and Milan.  He had put aside some money and opened a modest tavern in Roncole where he divided his time between his role as a landlord and working in the fields.  From an early age Giuseppe had music lessons from the church organist and practiced on an old spinet that his father had given him.

Antonio Barezzi, a rich local tradesman, businessman, and music lover quickly recognized Verdi’s musical abilities and sponsored his early training in Busseto and later in Milan. Verdi wanted to enroll at Milan Conservatory but was unable to pass the entrance exam supposedly because of “an incorrect position of the hand while playing.” Ironically, the Conservatory is now named for him.  However, with economic assistance from Barezzi he began to frequent the world of La Scala, taking private lessons in composition and counterpoint, as well as attending performances and salons.

In 1836 he went back to Busseto to take up the position of music teacher.  Soon upon his return, Verdi married Barezzi’s daughter Margherita, and the couple had two children, Virginia Maria Luigia and Icilio Romano. Feeling confined by the limitations of Busseto, Verdi moved the family to Milan where his first opera Oberto opened at La Scala in 1839. It achieved a measure of success and Bartolomeo Merelli, La Scala’s impresario, offered Verdi a contract for three more works. However, during the writing of Oberto both Verdi’s children died, and while writing his second opera, Un giorno di regno, his wife died.  The opera was a failure and that, plus the deaths of his family, sent him into such a deep depression that he vowed to give up musical composition forever. However, Merelli persuaded him to read a new libretto, Nabucco, which engaged his interest.  He set to work, finishing the opera in a short period.  Verdi claimed that it was the words of the famous “Va, pensiero” chorus of the Hebrew slaves that inspired him to write music again.  The opera was a great triumph with people singing “Va, pensiero” in the streets.


There followed years of extremely hard and unceasing work with continuous commissions and little time available in which to complete them. Verdi called this period “the galley years.” From 1842-1848 he composed to an incredibly tight schedule. I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata (1843) was another success however it was heavily censored by the Austrian governor because, like Nabucco, it could be interpreted in the light of Italian patriotism. This success was followed by Ernani (1844), I due foscari (1844), Macbeth (1847), I Masnadieri (1847) and Luisa Miller (1849). In this period his much talked about relationship with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi began, and after writing Giovanna d’Arco (1845) Verdi moved away from Milan with her and settled in Paris.

Verdi and Strepponi were lifelong devoted companions but their cohabitation before marriage was regarded as scandalous in some of the places they lived. They did eventually marry in 1859 at Collonges-sous-Salève, in the Kingdom of Piemonte, near Geneva. In 1848, while living in Busseto with Strepponi, Verdi bought an estate at Sant’Agata in Villanova sull’Arda, two miles from the town. Initially, his parents lived there, but after his mother’s death in 1851, he built Villa Verdi there and made it his home for the rest of his life.  It was in this period that Verdi created one of his greatest masterpieces, Rigoletto, which premiered in Venice in 1851. With Rigoletto, Verdi firmly established his idea of opera as a complex patchwork of dramatic and musical elements – comedy intertwined with tragedy, pointed commentary on cultural values and social norms, along with plot twists involving disguise, betrayal, love, intrigue, and deception. Rigoletto‘s musical range includes band music such as the aria “La donna è mobile,” Italian melody such as the famous quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore,” chamber music such as the duet between Rigoletto and Sparafucile, and powerful and concise declamatos.


There followed the second and third of the three major operas of Verdi’s “middle period” – Il trovatore was produced in Rome and La traviata in Venice. The latter was based on Alexandre Dumas, fils’ play The Lady of the Camellias, and became the most popular of all Verdi’s operas. These three contain some of his best known pieces including . . . “La donna è mobile” (Woman is Fickle) from Rigoletto, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (The Drinking Song) from La traviata, and the “Coro di zingari” (Anvil Chorus) from Il trovatore.

Here is “La donna è mobile” sung by Enrico Caruso in 1908 in a style I take to be rather closer to what Verdi would have expected, than what you generally hear from modern operatic tenors. “La donna è mobile” is typical Verdi in that it has a simple catchy melody repeated in strophes, but with the novelty of the orchestral ritornello stopping short of completing the phrase each time around until the end, giving the feeling of a kind of hesitant incompleteness that drives the piece forward. It is reported that the day following the premiere of Rigoletto, gondoliers were singing “La donna è mobile.”

In 1861 Verdi was persuaded to enter politics. First he was elected as a deputy to the first Italian parliament, then in 1874 he was nominated senator. During that time he composed La forza del destino (1862), and in 1865 he rewrote Macbeth for the French theater, and composed Don Carlos for the Paris Opera in 1867. In 1862 he composed Inno delle Nazioni ( Anthem for the Nations)  for the Universal Exhibition of London with a text by Boito. With Aida (1871), commissioned by Ismail Pasha as an Egyptian “national” opera, Verdi reinterpreted the spectacular demands of grand opera from an Italian perspective, rivaling his German contemporary, Richard Wagner.

In 1873 Verdi wrote the Messa da requiem for the death of Alessandro Manzoni, Italian poet, novelist, and patriot. Verdi is quite rightly celebrated for his operas, but it is non-operatic works, such as the Requiem, that demonstrate the depth and range of his musical ability, and give the lie to many of the critics who see him as one dimensional.  Some critics, for example, claim that he paid insufficient attention to the technical aspect of composition, because he lacked the necessary schooling and refinement. Verdi himself once said, “Of all composers, past and present, I am the least learned.” But he added “I mean that in all seriousness, and by learning I do not mean knowledge of music.” I believe the Dies Irae from the Requiem makes Verdi’s point brilliantly.

I also admire Verdi for quite deliberately avoiding simple crowd pleasing tricks such as high C notes in tenor arias.  He felt that such high notes distracted the singer from the overall aesthetics of the piece, especially in the vicinity of a high note. He did provide high C’s to Duprez in Jérusalem and to Tamberlick in the original version of La forza del destino (but removed them from the revision). The high C, often heard in the aria “Di quella pira” from Il trovatore, does not appear in Verdi’s autograph score.

In 1869, the second version of La forza del destino signified a definitive return to la Scala. Verdi also found the time to devote himself to the well-being of those in need. In 1888 he founded a hospital at Villanova D’Arda which he had financed in its entirety, and in 1880 he bought the land where his Retirement Home for Musicians would be built. The home still exists today and he described it as his “most beautiful work of art.” However the home would not be opened until after his death since Verdi had no wish to be thanked for his generosity.

Verdi loved the high life of great cities such as Milan and Paris, but he also greatly valued his time in the country at his villa.  Besides composing there he also enjoyed cooking, and was apparently especially proud of the risotto alla Milanese he made himself.  The cooking of good risotto takes a lifetime to perfect.  All I can do here with a recipe is get you started on the journey.  You are aiming for a creamy, flavorful rice that is not overloaded with ingredients.  Risotto alla Milanese, for example, is nothing more than rice cooked in chicken broth with saffron and finished off with grated cheese.  It starts with simple ingredients but reaches sublime heights in the hands of an expert.  I will try to explain the process as best as possible, but you must keep working on it for yourself until you get it right.  One thing that is crucial is the choice of rice.  It must be a short-grain starchy rice such as Arborio, from the Po Valley where Verdi lived.   There are others, such as Carnaroli, Maratelli, or Vialone Nano, which make a wonderful risotto but can be hard to find.


Risotto alla Milanese


extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, cut into small dice
2 cups Arborio rice (or Carnaroli, Maratelli, or Vialone Nano)
2 large pinches saffron
chicken stock
1 ½ to 2 cups dry white wine
2 tablespoons butter
½ to ¾ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano


Set a pot of rich chicken stock to simmer on a back burner of the stove with a ladle in the pot. Add the saffron. Keep it simmering throughout the process.

Add a little olive oil to a heavy bottomed saucepan, heat on medium heat, and sauté the onions until translucent.  Turn up the heat slightly and add the rice.  Sauté for a few minutes.

Add enough wine to the pot to just cover the rice. Let cook until the rice has absorbed the wine.

Add a ladle of chicken stock to the rice.  Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.  At this juncture the level of heat is critical.  The rice should not be bubbling vigorously, nor simmering slowly, but somewhere in the middle.  As the liquid is absorbed by the rice add another ladle and continue to cook. You must pay constant attention, testing all the time to see when the rice is perfectly cooked. If you do this enough times you will eventually understand what I am talking about.

Keep this process up as many times as it takes for the rice to be cooked and creamy. Add the butter and cheese and remove from the heat. Whip vigorously for about a minute and serve plain.

Serves 4