Verdi: the Liberal Patriot

Viva La Liberta! Politics in Opera
Book by Anthony Arblaster; Verso, 1992

The achievement of modern opera, the opera of the past two centuries, is crowned by three great composers, Mozart, Verdi and Wagner. The reputations of all three are surely now secure, but it was not always so. All have been the victims of fashion and neglect to an extent which must now seem remarkable. Verdi, born in 1813, began his operatic career at the end of the 1830s, produced his final operatic masterpiece, Falstaff, in 1893, and died in 1901. Although his death was the occasion for national mourning in Italy, and his funeral was attended by more than 200,000 people, much of his music was by then already falling into neglect, and its future was by no means certain. George Bernard Shaw's quasi-obituary made this clear:

It may be that, as with Handel, his operas will pass out of fashion and be forgotten while the Manzoni Requiem remains his imperishable monument. Even so, that alone, like Messiah, will make his place safe among the immortals.

Shaw was healthily sceptical about those obituarists who claimed a knowledge of Oberto and Un giorno di regno; the list of those operas he knew 'honestly right through' included only eight out of the twentysix (or twenty-eight, if you count second versions). 1 It included Emani and Un ballo in maschera, but not Simon Boccanegra, Laforza del destino or Don Carlos. Shaw could hardly be blamed for that. Boccanegra was not staged in Britain until 1948, and did not reach Covent Garden until 1965. Don Carlos was not seen in Britain between its first performances in 1868 and its revival by Sir Thomas Beecham at Covent Garden in 1933. La forza del destino has fared better, at least since the 1920s, but in the fifty years from 1877 to 1928 it was produced only once at La Scala: in 1908 under Toscanini's direction. The neglect of so much of Verdi's work, which set in well before his death, has only slowly been remedied. Most of the early (pre-Rigoletto) operas were not recorded until the 1970s, and several have not been professionally performed in Britain within living memory. As with certain other great and productive composers -- Handel and Haydn are two outstanding examples -- we are still in the process of discovering the full range of Verdi's work and achievement.

That Verdi had strong political convictions, took a constant interest in political events, and even allowed himself at one period to be drawn into active politics are all beyond contention. His life, his letters and recorded opinions are the testimony. That his politics and his involvements in politics feed into his music is more disputed; but in Verdi's case there seems to me to be one simple reason for believing that they do: Verdi himself was all of a piece, a direct, integrated if complex personality, not divided or compartmentalized in the way that some creative personalities seem to be. With Verdi, as with Beethoven, we sense the pressure of a powerful personality behind the music: there is not that feeling of distance between creator and creation that we may find with Mozart or Rossini or Stravinsky.

Commentators have often remarked on the sympathy with which Verdi treats parent-child relations in his operas, and especially fatherchild relations; this is often related to the terrible tragedy of his early adulthood, when within two years ( August 1838 to June 1840) his two infant children died, to be followed by their mother Margherita. Setting down his memories of those griefs some forty years later, Verdi remembered these three deaths as occurring within two months -- a mistake that has puzzled some biographers, but surely shows how for Verdi these three deaths made up a single cumulative tragedy. There were no more children to replace the lost ones, and it does not seem fanciful to think that the composer poured his frustrated fatherly feelings into scenes such as those between Rigoletto and Gilda, and between Boccanegra and Amelia. But if this is plausible, why should critics baulk at the comparable suggestion that Verdi's political feelings and commitments also found their way into his operas?

Verdi was generally reticent about his personal life and feelings. But about his political views he was always candid and, without wishing to oversimplify, it seems to me that his politics were as clear and consistent as one would expect from a person of such strong and open character. Verdi was a nationalist liberal of a classic nineteenth-century kind. He was a fervent patriot who identified himself unhesitatingly with the Italian struggle for independence and unity, and he was known to do so. So much so, indeed, that in 1859 the apparently innocent slogan VIVA VERDI was used as an acronym for the more subversive Viva Vittorio Emmanuele, Re d'Italia. In fact Verdi was a republican, though not an inflexible one: in the 1850s he came round to the idea that the most realistic prospect for Italian unification lay in supporting the King of Piedmont. He was also strongly anti-clerical. Although he was not a pacifist, being prepared to be actively involved in the armed struggle against Austria and the Bourbons, he viewed war with horror and detested those who gloried in it. He despised mere conventionality and claimed the right to live his personal life as he pleased, free from the pressure or censure of conventional opinion. If he had read John Stuart Mill On Liberty of 1859, he would, I think, have found little to disagree with, allowing for its Anglocentric bias.

In all these respects he was quintessentially liberal in his attitudes. And that is how he described himself, according to Giuseppina Strepponi, his second wife:

I am a Liberal to the utmost degree, without being a Red. I respect the liberty of others and I demand respect for my own. The town [he was referring to his home town of Busseto] is anything but Liberal. It makes a show of being so, perhaps out of fear, but is of clerical tendencies. 2

That liberalism's chief enemy in Italy was the power of the Catholic Church was something he took for granted. When in the 1830s he had been involved in a lively rivalry for the post of Maestro di Musica in Busseto, he was already identified as the candidate of the liberals, whilst his competitor, Ferrari, had the support of the Church.

As for conformity to orthodox morality and behaviour, Verdi made his position abundantly clear in a famous letter to his one-time father-in-law and long-time friend, Antonio Barezzi, written in January 1852. By then Verdi had been living for some years with Strepponi, whom he married in 1859, and who was his constant companion until her death in 1897. It was a relationship that lasted longer and better than many a sanctified marriage. Inevitably, though, there was gossip, and worse. The pair were more or less ostracized in Busseto, and whilst Verdi cared little about such behaviour, the situation was much more difficult and painful for Strepponi. She was 'ignored in the street and no one sat near her in church 3 (she attended this alone: Verdi would drive her there, but refused to go inside). Eventually Barezzi must have raised the subject (his letter does not survive), provoking an indignant response from the composer:

I do not believe that, of your own accord, you would have written a letter which you knew could only cause me displeasure. But you live in a district that has the bad habit of continually interfering in other people's affairs, and disapproving of everything which does not conform to its own ideas. It has never been my habit to interfere in other people's business unless asked to, precisely because I require that no one should interfere in mine. . . . This liberty of action, which is respected even in less civilized communities, I claim as a right in my own vicinity. . . . With this long chatter, all I have meant to say is that I claim my right to freedom of action, because all men have a right to it, and because my nature rebels against mere conformity. 4

Both Verdi's liberalism and his anti-clericalism are exemplified in his reaction to the momentous events of 1870, when almost simultaneously France was defeated by the Prussians at Sedan, and the Italian army took over the Papal States, thus completing the unification of Italy. In a letter to Clarina Maffei Verdi lamented the French defeat, because ' France gave liberty and civilization to the modern world; and, if she falls, let us not delude ourselves, the liberty and civilization of us all will fall.' The Prussians he deeply mistrusted: 'a strong race but uncivilized'. As for the annexation of the Papal States:

The business in Rome is a great event, but it leaves me cold: . . . because I cannot reconcile Parliament with the College of Cardinals, liberty of press with the Inquisition, civil law with the Syllabus . . . Pope and King of Italy: I cannot envisage them together even in this letter. 5
This was written when he was working on Aida, and these themes and sentiments found their way into the opera, as we shall see.

The annexation of Rome took place essentially because the French garrison protecting papal authority had been removed and France had been defeated. It was not a glorious or even a very honourable finale to the process of unification, and Verdi's disillusion is understandable. He had lived through the entire period of the Risorgimento, and had identified himself wholeheartedly with its heroic spirit. He was in Paris in early 1848 when the revolution broke out in Milan. As soon as he heard about it, he hurried home:

You can imagine whether I wanted to remain in Paris, after hearing there was a revolution in Milan. I left the moment I heard the news, but I could see nothing but these stupendous barricades. Honour to these heroes! Honour to all Italy, which in this moment is truly great! The hour of her liberation has sounded.

Verdi was writing to his librettist, Francesco Piave, but music was the least of his concerns at that moment:

You speak to me of music!! What's got into you? . . . Do you believe I want to concern myself now with notes, with sounds? . . . There must be only one music welcome to the ears of Italians in 1848. The music of the cannon! 6

Later that year, at Mazzini's request, Verdi composed a patriotic hymn, 'Suona la tromba', and started work on his most overtly patriotic opera, La battaglia di Legnano. This had its premiere, appropriately enough, in Rome in January 1849, at a time when the Pope had been expelled from the city, and a republic was about to be proclaimed. But in July the Pope and his power were restored through the agency of French troops, and hopes of an independent and united Italy were set back for a decade. Verdi was in despair:

Let us not talk of Rome!! What would be the use!! Force still rules the world! And justice? What good is it against bayonets!! We can only weep over our misfortunes and curse the authors of so much disaster! 7

After this Verdi turned away from politics to compose some of his most intimate and least public operas. They include Luisa Miller, Stiffelio, and La traviata.

When the prospect of unity opened up once more in 1859, Verdi was again much involved: raising money for those wounded at the Battle of Magenta, buying arms for the local militia in his home state of Parma (from which the Austrians had fled), acting as one of the delegates sent from Parma to Turin with the results of the plebiscite on union with Piedmont. Verdi was excited by Garibaldi's stunning conquest, in 1860, of Sicily and Naples -- 'By God, there truly is a man to kneel to!' -- and by the concerted advance of the Piedmontese and Garibaldian troops on Rome later that year: 'Those are composers,' he wrote of Garibaldi and Cialdini, the Piedmontese general. 'And what operas! What finales! To the sound of guns!' 8 That Verdi should see life as opera seems natural enough. But the metaphor also indicates, I think, Verdi's desire to bring opera closer to life.

In 1861, in response to pressure from Cavour, Verdi agreed to stand for election to the new national parliament, and was duly elected. He attended dutifully, but after Cavour's death in June of that year Verdi's commitment declined, and he did not stand for re-election when his term expired in 1865. He continued to follow events closely, but the heroic period of the Risorgimento was over, and Verdi became disillusioned with the politics of manoeuvrings and compromises that replaced it. He had had high hopes for a united and independent Italy, but by 1870 it was already apparent that these hopes were not being realized.

Luigi Dallapiccola wrote, 'The Verdi phenomenon is inconceivable without the Risorgimento. It makes little or no difference, for our discussion, whether or not Verdi played an active role in the movement. He absorbed its atmosphere and tone.' 9 This is certainly true: and it is in the operas themselves that we find the most eloquent expressions of his involvement and commitment.

In different forms, politics enters into many of Verdi's operas; they bear witness to his extraordinary grasp of social dynamics as well as to his feeling for large public issues and his ability to understand and express collective emotions. But among his more thoroughly political operas a rough and ready division can be made between the patriotic operas, which belong mainly to the 1840s (the early part of his career), and the political operas of his maturity, from Les vêpres siciliennes to Aida, which generally cover a wider canvas and dig deeper into the complexities of power and public life, Church and State, war and peace.

Verdi's first real success as an opera composer was also his first venture into the territory of heroic patriotic opera. Nabucco had its premiere at La Scala, Milan, in March 1842. It had a further 50 productions in Italy in the next two years.

Verdi had prudently chosen a biblical subject, the captivity of the Jews in Babylon. It is almost a sequel to Mosè in Egitto, and the Moses figure in this opera, the High Priest Zaccaria, reminds the Israelites in his very first utterance of how God had previously brought Moses out of Egypt. Who, trusting Him in time of adversity, has ever perished? he asks. In Nabucco the Israelites must struggle against the persecution of Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco) to preserve their identity and their religion. But Nabucco's blasphemous proclamation of himself as God proves his undoing; he is turned mad by a divine thunderbolt. His resentful and ambitious supposed daughter Abigaille assumes the throne, but is subverted by the opposition of her father and his supporters. In the end both Nabucco and Abigaille, who has poisoned herself, acknowledge the supremacy of the Hebrew god.

The opera has a double focus: on the collective resistance of the Israelites, led by their High Priest, Zaccaria; and on the relations between Nabucco and his two daughters, the illegitimate Abigaille and the legitimate Fenena, who is in love with Ismaele, an Israelite prince, and has been converted to the Jewish religion. Verdi finds it almost impossible to give us outright villains as black as Pizarro in Fidelio, or Gessler in Tell. Here, the two most flamboyantly wicked characters are the most fully drawn as individuals, and have the largest individual parts. Nabucco the arrogant blasphemer learns wisdom and humility after his fall, and is genuinely moving in his pleas to Abigaille for mercy. We notice in particular the tenderness with which the stricken king appeals to his daughter for help immediately after the thunderbolt (the music moves from F minor to A flat, the relative major), and the deep feeling with which he pleads with Abigaille for her sister's life.

Abigaille is a splendid figure: cruel and vengeful certainly, but her motivation is interestingly depicted. Her resentment is like that of Edmund, the illegitimate son of Gloucester in King Lear. Her discovery that she is actually the daughter of slaves, not of the king, only fuels her anger and ambition; in her long duet with her father in Act Three, she harps constantly on the fact that she, a slave, now reigns as queen over her royal sister and father. She exemplifies the malevolent passions nourished by a society in which birth and rank are the absolute arbiters of power and success.

It is surely not accidental that the fierce and brilliant cabaletta of vengeance that ends Abigaille's aria in Act Two is followed immediately by the serene sound of six unaccompanied cellos setting the scene for Zaccaria's beautiful prayer 'Tu sul labbro', in which he asks God to speak through his mouth to heathen Assyria. This is the contrast at the heart of the drama, between the cruel and egoistical rulers of Babylon and the patient, oppressed Israelites, keeping their national faith alive even in the darkest hours of persecution and exile:

. . . at the point where the prayer actually begins . . . the bass voice is supported by a single cello. Like the solitary candle that burns on stage, the orchestral scoring is a vivid symbol of the old priest's loneliness in Israel's darkest hour. 10

Zaccaria is not an individual in the mould of Nabucco and his daughter. As leader of an oppressed people, he cannot afford their vanities and excesses. He is wholly absorbed in his public role. That role is to speak to the Hebrews as the voice of God, and to the Babylonians as the voice of the Hebrews and their God. His prayer, like so many others in Italian opera from Mosè onwards, is not so much a religious act as a gesture of personal or collective dedication to a cause. And Verdi depicts two faces of religion in Nabucco. For while Zaccaria is a dedicated, spiritual figure, the High Priest of Baal is Verdi's first in a long line of bloodthirsty, vengeful clerics which culminates with the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos and the Egyptian priests in Aida. It is the High Priest of Baal who encourages Abigaille in her ambitions, and who then demands the extermination of the Jews once she is on the throne.

But Zaccaria himself is almost dwarfed by the chorus of the Israelites, who express with unforgettable eloquence their resistance to persecution, their determination to survive as a community and, in the famous chorus 'Va pensiero', their nostalgia and longing for the land they may never see again:

Oh, mia patria si bella e perduta!
Oh, membranza si cara e fatal!

(Oh my country so lovely and lost! Oh memory so precious and

This is the first of Verdi's great choruses, the one that was spontaneously sung by the vast crowd at his funeral sixty years later, and it remains the best known of all. In it we hear the collective voice of a people, a nation, a community. As Julian Budden has written: 'The great swing, the sense of a thousand voices is something inherent in the melody even if it is sung as a solo or played on an instrument.' 11 The main melody is sung in unison, which makes the break into harmony at the climax, 'arpa d'or', all the more splendid and imposing. But the use of unison here, in the first scene of the opera -- and elsewhere -- is itself indicative that what Verdi was trying to do was to express a feeling in which all were united: 'the choral texture becomes a musical metaphor of the democratic ideal'. 12

In some later operas Verdi focused more strongly upon individuals, with the chorus playing only an incidental role. But in Nabucco and several of the works that followed it the chorus is more strongly present. It is sometimes suggested that Verdi was unaware of the political significance that would be read into this story of national resistance and this chorus of patriotic yearning, and that he thus 'inadvertently became the composer of the Risorgimento'. 13 This seems perverse. Why should Verdi, of all people, be the one person not to see the significance or make the connection perceived by everyone else? But whether or not he was fully aware of what he had done in Nabucco, it is wholly implausible to suppose, as Charles Osborne does, that he could have continued to compose operas on themes of national struggle, exile and patriotism without realizing what he was doing or how his music would be received. 14 On the contrary, it seems much more likely that, having discovered that he could voice the patriotic feelings of his fellow Italians, he should try to go on doing so. For one thing it offered a potential recipe for success in the opera house. And that is exactly what he attempted to follow in his next opera, I lombardi alla Prima Crociata, which was first performed at La Scala just under a year after Nabucco.

Budden has observed rightly that Nabucco is a 'triumph of the whole over the parts': weak sections are saved by the dynamism and coherence of the work as a whole. The problem with I lombardi is, simply, its lack of that coherence. Some of its individual numbers are warmer, more characteristically Verdian than almost anything in Nabucco. But a ludicrously convoluted plot and layout of the drama prevent Verdi from achieving the dramatic tightness and momentum that could have unified this often very attractive work. Once again the importance of a good libretto and scenario are demonstrated by their absence.

For I lombardi Verdi chose an Italian subject but retained, as the political situation required, the device of historical remoteness, placing events at the time of the first Christian crusade to recover the Holy Land from Moslems in 1095. Within this context is set a complicated story of sibling rivalry, parricide and penitence, and a love affair that, as so often in Verdi, transgresses the boundaries of political and national loyalties, and is consequently doomed (the happy ending of Nabucco is very much the exception to the general rule).

Verdi was working once again with the young patriot Temistocle Solera, who provided the libretti for most of his most nationalist operas of the 1840s: Nabucco, Giovanna d'Arco and Attila as well as I lombardi. In 1839 Verdi had set Solera poem 'L'esule' ('The exile') to music in the form of a two-part aria preceded by recitative. It is as if Verdi saw exile from the first as a theme for opera. The exile amongst the beauties of nature in countries not his own sighs for his native land. The sentiment is much the same as that of 'Va pensiero', and of the chorus the crusaders and pilgrims sing in the final act of I lombardi, when amid the and sands near Jerusalem, they wistfully recall the fresh breezes, the meadows and vineyards of their native Lombardy ('O Signore, dal tetto natio'). Their longing has been anticipated by the heroine Giselda in her Act Three duet with Oronte, when in its most eloquent section ('O belle a questa misera') she too bids farewell to her homeland, knowing that she and Oronte are both forever outcasts from their warring communities.

In Nabucco, the Jews, as an oppressed nation, were treated with unhesitating sympathy. Verdi's and Solera's treatment of the Christian crusaders is decidedly more ambivalent. On the one hand the crusaders may appear as dedicated people fighting for an ideal, which in the 1840s it was easy to identify with the goal of national independence. Arvino's proclamation, before the final battle, 'La santa terra oggi nostra sara' ('Today the Holy Land will be ours') was liable to provoke nationalist demonstrations. The chorus 'O Signore', which is clearly modelled on 'Va pensiero' and is hardly less successful, was for long as popular as its predecessor. And when, in the other great chorus for the pilgrims as they come in sight of the Holy City, they sing 'Oh, sangue bene sparso' ('Oh blood well shed'), we are not, I think, meant to shudder but to accept, as the Italian nationalists did, that if it was necessary to fight and die in the struggle for independence, then that was indeed blood well shed.

But in its other dimension I lombardi is a tragedy, in which both Oronte and the penitent Pagano die as a result of the crusade. Verdi does not allow us to think that struggle and heroism, courage and selfsacrifice, are without their high human costs. This is the difference between Verdi's treatment of Risorgimento themes and that of Rossini in Guillaume Tell, where the general rejoicing finally blots out all else. Perhaps because Verdi was closer to the struggle, he found it harder to be wholly optimistic about it. Tragic heroism is the core of much of his work. 15

In I lombardi Verdi pushes this dialectic a stage further by having Giselda denounce the crusade to her father's face at the moment when he has come to rescue her from captivity. Appalled by the news that her lover Oronte has apparently been killed, she denounces the bloodshed in vehement terms:

No! No! giusta causa non e d'Iddio
La terra spargere di sangue umano.

(No, no! It is not the just cause of God to soak the earth with human blood.)

And her cabaletta finale to Act Two is a deliberate denial of the motto of the crusade -- 'Dio lo vuole' ('God wills it') -- earlier mentioned by Pagano. 'No, Dio nol vuole', she sings repeatedly, words her father interprets as blasphemy and sacrilege. Her hearers conclude that she has gone mad, but the passion with which Verdi invests her outburst suggests that it was a sentiment he shared. At any rate this is the first of several moments in the opera when he reminds us of the horror and cruelty of war. The complexities of I lombardi, an opera of splendours as well as some crudities, extend well beyond the convolutions of the plot.

The rest of Verdi's operas of the 1840s can be roughly divided into those that are primarily dramas of individuals and those which are primarily political, public and patriotic. Into the first category fall Ernani, I due Foscari, Il corsaro, I masnadieri and Luisa Miller, with Alzira and Macbeth as borderline cases. Into the second fall Giovanna d'Arco, Attila and La battaglia di Legnano.

Having made this distinction, it must be said at once that it is both approximate and debatable. Ernani, I due Foscari and Macbeth are all to some extent public dramas, in which kings, doges and other eminences play leading roles, in which a struggle for power is taking place, and in which political issues matter. This is also true of some later operas such as Il trovatore, Un ballo in maschera, and even Otello. It is also true that a distillation of the spirit of the Risorgimento, that spirit of tragic, self-sacrificing heroism about which George Martin has written so perceptively, is to be found in many of these latter works, and perhaps in none more powerfully than Il trovatore. But it is a distillation. Il trovatore, like Ernani, channels public passions and energies into individuals. The individuals can be seen as representative of different and conflicting social forces and groups, but that is not a dimension that is insisted on. Groups, as represented by the chorus, become shadowy, or at best picturesque, as in Il trovatore.

Nevertheless, much that in these dramas may appear to us romantic, or merely colourful, undoubtedly had a more substantial intention and a greater political resonance when the operas first made their appearance. We should notice, for example, how often the theme of exile, and sometimes happy return, features in these operas: glancingly in Ernani, but importantly in I due Foscari, Attila and Macbeth. Imprisonment is another recurring theme: even before we reach the final scene of Il trovatore, Verdi is writing sombre and evocative prison scenes in I due Foscari and Il corsaro.

However, it is difficult, at this distance in time, to grasp exactly what it was about Victor Hugo play Hernani which caused so great a political furore that Bellini was deterred from turning it into an opera in 1830, and Verdi's version could only be performed in the kingdom of Naples under a different title. No doubt part of the trouble was that
the play depicts a band of largely aristocratic conspirators plotting to assassinate a king, and takes as its hero a bandit who claims equality with the king when it comes to competing for a woman's love. Ernani is an intensely exciting opera, and most of that excitement derives from the clash of three figures who can also be felt to represent different social groups and forces: Silva, the traditional nobleman with his strict code of honour, who in his conflict with the king makes a temporary alliance with his rival, the aristocratic outlaw Ernani, and the king himself, the Emperor Charles V, whose attempt to impose centralized monarchy on Spain stirs up furious resentments among the established nobility. This conflict can be sensed, but is not dwelt upon, until we reach Act Three, in which the malcontents gather together in an effort to prevent Carlo (Charles) becoming emperor. It is a scene of muttering conspiracy and dramatic oath-swearing, which climaxes in the famous chorus 'Si ridesti il Leon di Castiglia'. In this characteristically rousing Risorgimento chorus, the plotters present themselves as the gallant resisters of oppression, looking forward to the day when

Spain will be rich in heroes,
she will be liberated from bondage.

Since this opera was written for Venice, it would not have been surprising if its first audiences had mentally substituted the lion of St Mark for the lion of Castille, and heard in it 'a battle hymn of the Venetian republic'. 16 But Carlo hardly fits the role of oppressor, since in response to Elvira's pleas he agrees both to pardon the conspirators and to allow her to marry Ernani. It is the relentless Silva who destroys their happiness in the last act.

Of the other mainly 'non-political' dramas, Alzira is discussed later in relation to La forza del destino; but Verdi's treatment of Macbeth must be considered here, if only because of the striking way in which the composer enhanced the work's political dimension. Of course Macbeth is not in any case a plain tale of crime and punishment, of wrongdoers who are finally destroyed, morally and psychologically as well as physically, by their crimes and their guilt. The horror of their crimes is that they are political crimes to which they are driven by the logic of their ruthless pursuit of power; their effect is inevitably felt not only by individuals, but by a whole society. This is why the chorus, although not so central to the drama as in Nabucco or I lombardi, is nevertheless vital to the story, which cannot, or should not, be presented as an essentially private or domestic tragedy.

At the end of both Acts One and Two the chorus is there to express its anxiety and horror at what is happening to the country. Of course, in Italian opera exclamations of 'orrore' and 'terrore' are a stock choral response to tragic or terrible events; choral finales were entirely conventional, too. But at each of these points in Macbeth it is the function of the chorus to express the sense of moral outrage among ordinary people at political events. In the finale to Act One the chorus, horror-stricken at the murder of King Duncan, prays to God to punish the murderer. Act Two concludes with the feast at which the ghost of Banquo appears to Macbeth. Macduff decides to flee to England, while the chorus exclaims with disgust that the country has become a den of robbers:

Uno speco di ladroni
Questa terra divento.

It is not until the opening of Act Four that we are made fully aware of the plight of the people under Macbeth's rule in the great chorus of exiles, 'Patria oppressa'. It is worth noting that the version that we know now was the product of Verdi's extensive revision of the score for the Paris production of 1865. The words received a quite different and far more pedestrian setting in the 1847 version. Verdi's feeling for national and popular oppression, far from being only an aspect of his nationalist feelings in the Risorgimentale 1840s, actually deepened and intensified as part of his growth in maturity and subtlety as a composer. There is no grand melody such as that in 'Va pensiero', which inevitably gave that lament a collective power which counteracted the grief itself. Here the atmosphere is far bleaker and darker. There is an affinity with the depiction of popular misery at the opening of Don Carlos, Verdi's next project after the revision of Macbeth.

So intense is this chorus that the following aria of Macduff, and even more the rousing duet and chorus in which Malcolm and Macduff together summon the people to take up arms to rescue the oppressed, inevitably strike a jarringly crude note. Yet the cavatina/cabaletta duality is not inappropriate here, for this is the turning point of the whole drama. 'Patria oppressa' is the opera's darkest moment, but it is the darkest moment before the dawn. Once the tyrant's opponents have been rallied, he is doomed. Whilst the original version ended effectively with Macbeth's death, in the 1865 version it is the chorus which, with Macduff and Malcolm, has the last word. Quite apart from its wonderful portrayal of the terrible, tortured pair of evildoers, the popularity of Macbeth in Italy and elsewhere owed something to its clear political message: tyrants do not last for ever. They can be overthrown. This message was reinforced in the revised version.

If Macbeth lies on the border between my two rough categories, the same might be said of Giovanna d'Arco, better known to Englishspeakers as Joan of Arc, for despite its patriotic theme it is also a study in conflicting personal loyalties and emotions, and it is these that increasingly dominate the opera. This was the first of four operas Verdi based on plays by Schiller. It revolves around a number of Verdi's most constant preoccupations: the anguished love of a father, Giacomo, for his daughter, Giovanna, in which he anticipates Rigoletto and Boccanegra; a woman's guilty, repressed love for a man who is forbidden to her (Giovanna is in a similar position to Amelia in Un ballo in maschera); and the consequent conflict between patriotic duty and personal emotions, or rather between love of country and love of one person, which Giovanna shares most clearly with Aida. In fact she sometimes sounds like a less accomplished, less assured version of the Ethiopian princess, particularly in her Act One aria; this takes place on the eve of the coronation of Charles VII, whom she has rescued from military disaster and guiltily loves; she wanders away from the crowds into a garden, and resolves to return to her father, her cottage and the forest full of prophetic voices. She is a case of the reluctant warrior who, like Garibaldi, will retire modestly to her or his home when duty has been done.

The opera begins strikingly with the harried and desperate French prepared to accept that their plight is a punishment for having tried to conquer 'other shores'. The king accepts that it is better to end the bloodshed by surrender than to prolong the war. Hence he absolves his followers from their allegiance. This is an early example of that horror of bloodshed that is as strong a Verdian theme as straightforward patriotism. Meanwhile Giovanna yearns to take up arms to end the miserable fate of oppressed France. Angels appear to grant her wish, but on condition that she renounces worldly love. She then assumes her new role of reviving the king's flagging determination, and prays that her country may be her only thought: 'Or sia patria il mio solo pensiero', a prayer that perhaps betrays her uneasiness about her love for the king. It is her guilt about that love that prevents her from denying her father's angry accusations, and leads ineluctably to the final tragedy. But we know that her guilt is excessive, and is in itself a sign of her purity and dedication. She has not allowed love to come before duty. Hence, although the opera ends with her death, it is a glorious, redemptive death. She has saved France and is taken up into heaven.

Strangely perhaps, a woman warrior is prominent in Verdi's next patriotic opera. Attila is one of the most fiercely and insistently patriotic of Verdi's early operas, even though it was adapted from a German play that had quite different themes and implications. It is also one of the most ambivalent, whether intentionally or not. This is already indicated by its title. Attila was the barbarian leader who around AD 450 invaded and overran Italy and came near to capturing Rome. The opera tells of how he was deterred from attacking the Holy City and how he was finally killed by the Italians. Attila's name is still a byword for brutality and barbarism, and this image is partially sustained by the opera, at least in relation to his followers, who sing cheerfully about feasting all night on limbs and severed heads.

All this combines to make Attila the villain of the piece. But Verdi was not in the habit of naming operas after their villains, if that is all they are. Hence his treatment of the Macbeths rivals Shakespeare's in insight and complexity. Attila is the opera Verdi composed immediately before Macbeth, so it is not surprising to find that the bass Attila, like the baritone Macbeth, is a guilty and haunted figure who is losing his appetite for slaughter and power, rather than the elemental brute of popular myth. Having been persuaded to withdraw from Rome by the majestic appearance before him of the Pope, Attila could presumably have been given a penitent death of the kind that Verdi often uses to end a tragedy. But then, of course, he would cease to be seen as the enemy of Italian independence. So, instead of having that kind of finale, to which the opera seems to be moving at the end of Act One, the Italian protagonists vie with each other to stab him to death, and the curtain finally comes down on this crude act of vengeance, which by then seems only half deserved. Solera, who had left the libretto unfinished, was justifiably indignant at the way in which Piave, under Verdi's guidance, had wound up the drama.

The consequence of the ambiguity with which Attila is treated is that the Italian patriots emerge in a less than heroic or even honourable light. All three of them seem motivated less by disinterested patriotism than by personal motives of ambition or vengeance. Ezio, the Roman general, pursues his vendetta against Attila even after a truce has been declared and the latter has withdrawn from Rome. Foresto, who is in love with Odabella, is obsessed with the jealous fear that she will succumb to Attila's wish to marry her, whilst she is equally obsessed with avenging her father's death, and casts herself in the biblical role of Judith, who drove a tent peg through the head of the sleeping Holofernes. In the end it is she who successfully claims the 'privilege' of stabbing Attila to death. Attila's final reproaches to all three seem not at all misplaced.

Nevertheless, all three also appear as Italian patriots, champions of their country and its capital against the barbarian invaders. In the first scene a band of captured Italian warrior women are brought before Attila. The latter, a conventional man beneath the savagery, is amazed. 'Whoever inspired unwarlike women with bravery?' he asks. Their leader, Odabella, replies with a splendid dramatic flourish spread over more than two octaves: 'Santo di patria indefinito amor' ('the unbounded holy love of our country'). This opening line sets the mood for the rest of the Prologue. She goes on to boast that while Attila's women stay weeping in the waggons, Italian women fight on the battlefield; this boast forms the fine melodic and structural climax of her aria: 'Ma noi, donne italiche'. Attila is bewitched by this heroic woman.

Ezio is called in, and offers Attila a deal: he would gladly cede the whole world to the conqueror, he sings, but leave Italy to me:

Avrai tu l'universo,
Resti l'Italia a me.

These lines form the musical as well as textual climax of his stanza in the duet with Attila. It is a characteristically Verdian melodic arch, warm in its use of the F major arpeggio. Budden has referred to these lines, which evoked huge enthusiasm from Italian audiences of the 1840s, as 'the eternal cry of small patriotic nations'. 17 This seems unduly patronizing. What they express is the ideal essence of liberal nationalism, a nationalism that is not expansionist, nor aggressive nor overweening, but demands simply independence, self-determination for the nation in question, be it large or small. This was the spirit of Mazzini's principled nationalism.

When Foresto makes his first appearance in a scene evidently intended as a piece of flattery to Venice and its opera house, he too establishes his patriotic credentials, by lamenting the lot of the exile and prophesying that his cara patria will rise once again like a new phoenix and become the wonder of both sea and land.

This is the substance of the Prologue, in which different aspects of patriotism are portrayed: the warlike, the political and the prophetic. Fancifully, each character could be compared to the great triumvirate of Italian nationalism: Garibaldi the inspired general, Cavour the politician, and Mazzini the visionary and philosopher. This comparison of course could not have been intended in 1846, but it would not have been surprising if Italian audiences a few years later had made analogies of this kind.

After the Prologue things do not go simply. The final act of assassination has to be justified by each of the three patriots reminding Attila and us of their reasons for killing him. 'Ezio', writes Budden, I embodies all the more squalid aspects of resistance warfare.' 19 His behaviour is too individualistic for that comment to be quite accurate, I think. But it may be that behaviour that repels us did not strike nineteenth-century Italians in the same way. Assassination of political leaders is not, after all, always greeted with universal horror. It depends on the particular political circumstance. Charlotte Corday, who murdered Marat in his bath, became a hero to counterrevolutionaries all over Europe. So if Benjamin Lumley was right in saying that 'None, perhaps of Verdi's works has kindled more enthusiasm in Italy', a different response to Attila's murder and murderers may constitute part of the explanation.

'Viva Italia!' The very first words of La battaglia di Legnano establish its mood and theme. Even before that, the march that dominates the Prelude, and is the theme of the Lombard League, has ended with a clear echo of the Marseillaise. The chorus goes on to rejoice that a holy pact has united all Italy's sons, and at last made out of so many a single people of heroes. Composed in 1848, the opera had its premiere in republican Rome in January 1849. It is Verdi's chief contribution to the nationalist uprisings of those stirring years.

Set in the year 1175, when the Lombard League combined to defeat Frederick Barbarossa, the text is nevertheless full of references to recent events and contemporary hopes and emotions. It is Milan that, as in 1848, is at the heart of the resistance to the foreign invader, and it is Milan that the hero, Arrigo, hails in his first utterance:

O magnanima, e prima delle città Lombarde, O Milan valorosa, io ti saluto. . .

This first scene culminates 'in another of those oath-swearing ceremonies that were so important to nineteenth-century resistance movements. The Italians all swear to defend Milan, the doom of 'the Austrian', that is, Barbarossa, is prophesied, and everyone sings enthusiastically of chasing this fierce nation back to the Danube. Let our cities be ours and free, they cry.

Verdi's most explicitly patriotic opera is fervent, but also moving, and far from simplistic in its treatment of its theme. The first celebratory scene is immediately followed by a scene in which Lida, the woman at the core of the usual love triangle, grieves over her dead parents and brothers and also over another unnamed grief, the apparent death of her old love, Arrigo. We are at once reminded of the costs of commitment and courage, and the balance between cause and cost, between public and personal, is finely sustained throughout this unfairly neglected work. Only in the figure of Arrigo is there an ambiguity that vitiates the overall pattern. When Arrigo reappears and discovers that Lida has married his close friend and comrade in arms Rolando, he rushes off to join the Knights of Death, those ready to die for the patriotic cause. As Budden aptly puts it: 'Is his heroism prompted by patriotic ideals, or is it that of the jilted lover who goes to Africa to hunt big game?' 19

That uncertainty apart, private and public are balanced and interwoven in a most skilful manner. Thus in Act Three, after the second oathswearing scene, in which Arrigo joins the Knights and they swear to put an end to Italy's injuries and chase her oppressors beyond the Alps (another obvious anti-Austrian gesture), the scene shifts again to Lida's apartments. In a short but superb scene she confesses to Imelda her love for Arrigo; this is immediately followed by the arrival of Rolando, who like Hector in The Iliad has come to bid her and their child farewell on the eve of battle. He knows that he may never return. The price of victory is blood. If it is mine that is shed, tell my son that he is of Italian blood, and teach him to respect, after God, his country ('E dopo Dio la patria'). The music tenderly dwells on these words, before Arrigo arrives and Rolando appoints him guardian to his wife and child should he fail to return. Both these scenes were suggested by Verdi himself But it is Arrigo's death that brings the opera to an end. He dies rejoicing that Italy is saved. As in I lombardi and Giovanna d' Arco, tragedy and rejoicing are combined.

One of the great achievements of this opera is the short but powerful Act Two, entitled 'Barbarossa'. This is entirely political and demonstrates what is sometimes doubted: the capacity of opera to deal with public issues even when they are not personified in individuals. Arrigo and Rolando come as emissaries to Como to appeal to the Comaschi to forget their ancient feud with Milan and join forces against Barbarossa. 'We have one enemy and one fatherland', they plead. The Comaschi reply that they are bound by a pact with Barbarossa. The Lombards denounce them, but are suddenly confronted by the enemy himself. They are ready to defy him, for only with the sword can the oppressed argue with the oppressor. They are confident that a mercenary army cannot conquer a people that rises up for its liberty. Italy will be great and free ('Grande e libera Italia sara!'). The aptness of all this to the situation in Italy in 1848-49 needs no stressing (this whole act too was sug gested by Verdi to his librettist, Salvatore Cammarano). And musically, it is splendid. A muttering chorus by the Comaschi is followed by the entry of Arrigo and Rolando to the strains of the Lombard march. They then sing a duet that is a harangue full of scorn, more an act of abuse than persuasion. When Frederick Barbarossa appears and reveals that his troops surround the town, the two ambassadors continue to express their defiance in a stormy and complex ensemble that forms one long crescendo to the end of the act. The whole sequence lasts less than fifteen minutes. It is masterly in its speed and compression.

Of course, La battaglia di Legnano was received with great enthuv siasm when first performed, but after Austria, the Papacy and the Bourbons had reasserted their authority it inevitably fell foul of the censors and the location of the story had to be transferred to Holland. The new title was L'assedio di Haarlem ('The Siege of Haarlem'), and Barbarossa became the Spanish governor, the Duke of Alva. Verdi must have recalled all this when he returned to the theme of the revolt of the Netherlands when composing Don Carlos in the mid 1860s.

The defeat of the Italian uprisings of 1848-49, culminating in the fall of the Roman republic in July 1849, threw Verdi into despair. Passing through Rome, then under French occupation, late that year, Verdi wrote to Leon Escudier, 'The affairs of our country are desolating! Italy is now only a vast and beautiful prison!' 20 It is not surprising that in these depressing political circumstances Verdi turned away from public and political subjects to compose a series of operas set mainly in intimate, domestic contexts in which personal dilemmas are search ingly explored, and large public issues only glanced at. These operas include Luisa Miller, Stiffelio, La traviata and, more ambiguously, Rigoletto. Il trovatore is more difficult to categorize, but whilst being in no way domestic, it does focus primarily on the strong passions of its protagonists. All these operas were composed in the years 1849-53.

The first of these operas, Luisa Miller, was composed for Naples and premiered there in December 1849. It is another of Verdi adaptations of Schiller, this time of the play Kabale und Liebe (Love and Intrigue), and the opinion of most commentators is that Verdi's librettist, Salvatore Cammarano, converted a play full of harsh social criticism into a romantic mixture of pastoral idyll and conventional tragedy. Certainly he was mindful of the constraints placed upon any opera destined for performance in Bourbon Naples. The atmosphere of the opening scene, a gentle pastoral chorus, does indeed put us in mind of La sonnambula, as has often been pointed out. But what has been less remarked on is the similarity of social theme and pattern: there is the same contrast between honest and straightforward villagers (epitomized by Miller and his daughter) and a devious, corrupt and tyrannical aristocracy (represented by Count Walter and his adviser, Wurm). Bellini's opera being a relatively light work in touch and tone, this contrast is not treated there too weightily. But it is central to Luisa Miller, which is not as empty of social content as is sometimes supposed.
Verdi, with his perennial concern with parent-child relations, draws a sharp contrast between Luisa's relationship with her father, and Rodolfo's with his, the Count Walter. This contrast is established in the first two scenes of the opera. Miller is visited by Wurm, who suggests that Miller should compel Luisa to marry him; Miller replies that the choice of a husband is a sacred matter and must be freely made. In the final climactic lines of his aria Miller asserts that a father should resemble God in His kindness rather than His severity. In the very next scene Walter brusquely informs Rodolfo that he has arranged for him to marry the Duchess Frederica d'Ostheim. Like many tyrannical parents, he does love his son in his way, and in his aria he laments with some tenderness that fatherly affection has not brought him the consolation he had hoped for. He has convinced himself that he knows what is best for Rodolfo, and that Luisa is a scheming girl who has seduced his son in order to marry into the aristocracy.

Miller, for his part, once he knows who Rodolfo really is, is sure that it is the young aristocrat who is the seducer, if anyone is. When the Count insults Luisa to her face, calling her a 'vendutta sedutrice', Miller is outraged. The aristocracy can no longer get away with such abuse. He forbids her to kneel before the Count. Kneel before God, but not before a man with the heart of a beast, he tells her. The villagers are not so bold. They pity Luisa, but say that the Count must be obeyed, for he is their father and lord: 'egli e padre, egli e signore!', they sing with unconscious irony. The Millers stand for the bourgeois principle of love as the basis for marriage, whilst Walter the aristocrat clings to the manifestly cynical, wealth and property-based principle of arranged marriages. The idea of romantic love, so central to nineteenth-century opera, was always an anti-feudal, individualist aspiration.

Miller is arrested, and Wurm tells Luisa that he can only be saved from execution and freed if she writes a letter confessing that she loves Wurm, not Rodolfo. He mocks both her and the principle of freedom by telling her that she is free to choose whether or not to write the letter. Of course she does so, and her apparent betrayal of Rodolfo and his credulity (so like that of Alfredo in La traviata, but with even less justification) lead to the final tragedy. Although it is not insisted on overmuch, this is a tragedy in which conflict between classes and their different ethics plays an important part.
Of Verdi next opera, Stiffelio, there is less to say "in this context. Apart from La traviata, whose originality and boldness have been obscured by familiarity, this is Verdi's most original choice of subject. Based, like La traviata, on a recent play, it concerns a Protestant clergyman, Stiffelio, who discovers that his wife Lida has committed adultery; he is torn by conflicting emotions and pressures in deciding how to respond. In the end it is Lida's father who murders her lover, a deed that so shocks Stiffelio that he publicly forgives his wife by reading in church the story of Christ and the woman taken in adultery.

The opera ran into trouble with the censors, not so much over particular lines and sentiments as because of its basic premise: that a priest could be married. Since this notion could not be portrayed on an Italian stage, Stiffelio was mangled even at its premiere, and was rendered almost unintelligible when the entire final act was omitted, as it sometimes was. These difficulties led Verdi, who rightly believed in the qualities of his score, to transmute Stiffelio into Aroldo, which had its premiere in 1857, a tale of medieval crusaders which, although it contains some excellent additional music, lacks the coherence and power to shock of the original. Stiffelio shows Verdi trying to push back the boundaries of opera to take in serious and contemporary moral issues, issues that lie at the core of relations between marital and sexual partners. It was too much for Catholic Italy in the 1850s to cope with, and Stiffelio was only rediscovered in the 1960s.

Rigoletto is the work that is generally recognized as marking a turning point in Verdi's musical and dramatic development -- although the better we know the once neglected works that immediately preceded it, especially Luisa Miller and Stiffelio, the more clearly can we see Verdi's operatic art steadily growing in confidence, subtlety and flexibility. But Rigoletto is the triumphant outcome of this evolution, a dramatic masterpiece of exceptional power and conviction. Its popularity hardly needs explanation. The drama is clear, swift and exciting, the music magnificent, especially in the assurance and clarity of the characterization.

Yet there is something puzzling. This is an exceptionally grim tale, even by Verdi's standards. The censors inevitably found it subversive: the notion of a court jester trying to kill a king, the king who employs him, was quite unacceptable, and hence Victor Hugo's King of France becomes the Duke of Mantua. But it is also sordid. As David Kimbell has written, 'we have a story pivoting on a curse, a seduction, and an assassination' in which the principal characters are, with one exception, 'a libertine monarch, a hunchback buffoon, a professional assassin and his harlot sister'. 21 Rigoletto is not exactly family entertainment. What is more, it is very clearly a tale in which class antagonism and class hatred feature prominently. And they are hardly favourite themes of the average opera audience. Conflict in Verdi is usually between individuals, often within the same family, between nations and between Church and State. The dimension of class is not usually of great significance. But in Rigoletto it is the key to everything that happens.

The Duke himself bears an obvious resemblance to Don Giovanni. Like Mozart's aristocrat, he abuses his power and position in pursuit of pleasure. He is not malevolent and destructive by intent so much as by carelessness and egoism. Like Don Giovanni he hardly seems to notice how he is disrupting the world around him. This insouciance or arrogance, expressed in both his songs -- 'Questa o quera' and 'La donna è mobile' -- is not so much a personal quirk as an attitude that comes naturally to an aristocrat and an absolute ruler. Like Giovanni, he sees the world, and especially its women, as entirely at his disposal. It is a view shared by his court, and it is the Duke and his court who determine the whole course of events.

Rigoletto is a member of that court, and under normal circumstances he aids and abets his master's arrogance and licentiousness, as Leporello does Glovanni's. But when the courtiester discovers that his own daughter is not exempt from the general licence, he turns into a more angry and determined Masetto: he is consumed with grief and rage, and inexorably bent on revenge.

His revenge is inspired above all by his protective and indeed possessive love for his daughter. His wife is dead, and Gilda is all he has. 'Il mio universo è in te.' he tells her. So he confines her to his household, to be watched over by the supposedly trustworthy Glovanna. This is necessary because of the lawless and predatory behaviour of the Duke and his associates. But inevitably she yearns to escape, and is easily bowled over by the charming 'student' who pays court to her.

Rigoletto's attachment to Gilda, and his rage when she is abducted and seduced (or raped?), also reflects his self-disgust, the shame he feels at his own involvement in the Duke's court, and the hatred he feels for the courtiers whom it is his job to amuse and abuse. 'Pari siamo' ('We are alike'), he says, after meeting Sparafucile, the hired assassin. 'Odio a voi, cortigiani schemitori! . . . Se iniquo son, per cagion vostra e solo.' ('I loathe you, you sneering courtiers. . . . If I am evil, you alone are the cause.') He has always concealed from Gilda the truth about where he works and what he does. He hates the servility that is forced upon him by his employment. Gilda's kidnapping opens the floodgates through which rush all the bitterness and fury held back during the long years of toadying and humiliation. So when he goes to the court in search of his daughter, he is not afraid to attack the courtiers directly: 'Cortigiani, vil razza dannata. . . .' This is the nearest that Verdi and Piave get to the celebrated outburst in the original play in which Triboulet attacks the aristocracy and their pretensions: 'Your mothers gave themselves to their lackeys. You are all bastards.' At the solitary performance of Le Roi s'amuse that was allowed in 1832, this line stopped the show. The aristocrats in the boxes were furious, while the bourgeoisie and intellectuals in the pit shouted their approval.

Fatherly feeling is all that sets Rigoletto apart from the court he serves. As he says, when he reaches home in the second scene, 'Ma in altr'uom qui mi cangio!' ('Here I become another person.') All his humanity is invested in Gilda and in his relationship with her. Hence her infatuation with, or devotion to, the Duke represents the collapse of his only refuge from the taint and corruption of the Duke's court. His response, to arrange for the assassination of the Duke, is tragically in tune with the cruel and ruthless ethos of the society he belongs to. The law of the court, and of the wider society in which Sparafucile can make a living, is the law of the jungle. Rigoletto shows that he is as dangerous as any of the animals of the jungle, and perhaps more so, because of the bitter resentment that he as a servant and an outsider feels towards those who dominate this dreadful world. So Rigoletto, though Verdi ensures that he wins our sympathy, can hardly be the hero of this opera. He is too much a part of the evil of which he is also a victim.

Only his daughter Gilda brings a ray of moral light and gentleness into the darkness of this sordid society. She alone is capable of selfless, self-sacrificing love, thus contradicting the cynical view of women as fickle that is held by the very man for whom she gives her life. Her very goodness had made her survival unlikely. Her love, placed in conjunction with her father's remorseless pursuit of vengeance, both destroys her and frustrates his purpose. The intrusion of something so unexpected as self-sacrificing love in so cruel and cynical a world brings about a catastrophe far worse than the business murder her father has paid for.

Rigoletto, unlike Stiffelio, was not fatally mutilated by the changes the Austrian authorities required. Despite many departures from the original play, the disturbing and subversive content of the work remains intact. The notion that there could be a moral justification for a wronged subject seeking revenge upon his ruler is still clearly present. So is the thoroughly anti-aristocratic tone of the piece, and the strong current of class resentment embodied in Rigoletto himself.

The last of these generally more intimate operas, which deal with social rather than political issues, is of course La traviata, and although it is musically and structurally less original than Rigoletto, its choice of theme and its central figure make it a work of exceptional boldness, even in Verdi's output. But I have chosen, however awkwardly, to consider it in Chapter Seven, in the wider context of the portrayal of women in modern opera.

After La traviata Verdi career underwent another important change of direction. Of the six operas he composed in the next eighteen years, only two were for Italian theatres. The other four were variations on the pattern of grand opera, particularly as it had been established at the Paris Opéra. Indeed two of the four were written specifically for the Opéra, including his next opera, Les vipres siciliennes, which had its premiere there in June 1855. This was not Verdi's first experience of the Opéra. He had converted I lombardi into Jerusalem for Paris in 1847, so he knew what was required of him. Paris, as Verdi himself said, had 'the world's leading opera house'; it was only natural that, like Wagner some years earlier, he should want to achieve a success there.

The established conventions of grand opera were in many ways the exact opposite of what Verdi had so successfully achieved in operas like Il trovatore and Rigoletto. These had been works of speed and compression. Verdi's concern with drama had led him increasingly to break with the stale conventions of Italian opera. Rigoletto, for example, has no formal arias to sing; Gilda's one aria, 'Caro nome', has no cabaletta and almost dispenses with a formal ending, and so on. Grand opera, by contrast, was by its very nature lengthy and discursive. Its four or five acts were expected to include a ballet, substantial choral episodes and, of course, arias and duets for the leading singers. If Verdi career had ended with Les vêpres, critics would probably have concluded that, for all the magnificent music it contains, he had taken a wrong turning, away from his 'natural' aptitude for fastmoving, economical musical drama. But when we look ahead to La forza del destino and Don Carlos, we can see that Verdi became a master of this more expansive type of opera too, and in fact needed it to achieve the Shakespearian breadth and richness that were precluded by the more compressed and single-minded forms he had worked with in earlier years. As early as 1853 he was writing: 'Today I would refuse subjects of the kind of Nabucco, Foscari etc. . . . They harp on one chord, elevated, if you like, but monotonous. . . . I prefer Shakespeare to all other dramatists, the Greeks not excepted. . . .' 22

Grand opera, whose patterns were partly fixed by AuberLa muette de Portici and RossiniGuillaume Tell, dealt with historical subjects, but they often had a strong political dimension. This was by no means uncongenial to Verdi, and the years after La traviata mark his return to treating public and political issues in his operas, but now with the public matters and private agonies interwoven, and the balance between them sustained, with far more assurance and imagination.

Les vêpres siciliennes or I vespri siciliani (it is more often performed and recorded in Italian and in Italy) is another tale of foreign occupation and national resistance, focusing on a famous episode in Palermo in 1282 during which the Sicilians slaughtered numbers of the French who were then occupying their island, under the rule of Charles of Anjou. The libretto originally suggested by the leading French librettist of the period, Eugène Scribe, was Le Duc d'Albe, a plot based on the sixteenth-century revolt of the Netherlands, which had been previously offered to Halévy and Donizetti, and had been partially set by the latter. Verdi, however, was insistent that the setting should be in a climate less cold than that of the Low Countries; a climate full of warmth and music such as Naples or Sicily'. 23 The libretto was accordingly adapted, but its generic, all-purpose character did lasting damage to the opera. The project was a difficult one in any case. Les vêpres was intended for a French audience, but the French appeared in it as a typically crass, much-loathed army of occupation. And Verdi, who was certainly not anti-French (he was living in Paris at this time), was nevertheless quite determined not to slander his compatriots: 'In any event I am Italian above all and come what may I will never be an accessory to any injury done to my country.' He was particularly dismayed by Scribe's portrayal of the Sicilian patriot Procida, whom according to Verdi he had made 'according to his favourite system -- a common conspirator with a dagger in his hand'. 24

The worst of it was that Scribe proved to be the least accessible and cooperative of librettists. He failed to attend rehearsals and he seemed deaf to Verdi's pleas for revisions. The result was that the composer found himself working with a scenario and libretto that he could see had many faults, but which he could not get amended. Not surprisingly, the end result has serious weaknesses. It is undeniable that the work is too long. There is neither plot nor character interest enough to sustain the five-act structure, and the fault lies, not with Verdi, but with Scribe and his hackwork.

The wonder is that Verdi does so much with such and material. The score is extraordinarily inventive, varied and brilliant. Verdi's harmonic language is richer and more adventurous than ever before, and the orchestration is almost everywhere subtle, original and imaginative. The basic political conflict is presented with characteristic complexity, even if some of the ambiguities are not quite what Verdi intended. The most fully drawn character, and in some ways the most sympathetic, is Montfort, the French governor whose love for his son Henn" (Arrigo) is complicated by the latter's commitment to the Sicilian resistance and his love for the even more strongly committed Hélène (Elena). As Budden has said, he is 'a King Philip who has not yet become old and bitter' 25 -- another of Verdi's unhappy fathers whose paternal love comes into conflict with their public roles and duties. His Act Three scena and aria is splendid, as are his two difficult emotional dialogues with his son.

The revelation to Henri that he is the governor's son means that he can no longer behave as a wholehearted member of the resistance led by Procida, since it is plotting to assassinate his father. This revelation should produce classic agonies of conscience and choice, but the libretto makes far too little of them, and even the dilemma it produces for him and Hélène is not very effectively explored or exploited. Henri is a one-dimensional tenor lead. The same, alas, is true of the patriot bass, Procida. His opening scene of arrival from exile, with its famous address to Palermo ('Et toi, Palerme'), establishes his credentials as a genuine, deep-feeling patriot. But thereafter his single-minded obsession with plotting and assassination does indeed, as Verdi feared, make him seem like a cardboard conspirator.

The most interesting and impressive member of the resistance is Hélène, the Austrian duchess whose brother Frederick has been executed by the French along with Conradin, the German claimant to the Sicilian throne. She is a more bold and brilliant figure than the dour Procida, as she shows in the opera's very first scene. The French soldiery compel her to sing for them, but she turns the tables on them by singing a song that stirs up the Sicilians to attack the French. The key is in the phrase 'Your destiny is in your own hands' -- 'dans vos mains', ominous words that she repeats five times. But the French soldiers, the worse for drink, miss her meaning.

Gradually, however, the intertwined dilemmas of the three principals come to monopolize the music, so that the act of massacre that occurs in the final moments of the opera seems both ill-prepared and wantonly cruel, since it destroys the happiness of Henri and Hélène, whose marriage Montfort has generously agreed to. He is another tyrant who, like Attila, turns out to be more magnanimous than his patriotic but vindictive enemies.

Overall, Les vêpres is less convincing, less sincere than its immediate successor, Simon Boccanegra; but heretical as this may sound, it seems to me to be musically richer, more brilliant and inventive, with the wealth of melodies that Boccanegra lacks. Its neglect in Britain is astonishing. The production by English National Opera in 1984 was the first London staging since its premiere there in 1859. Despite this the critical response was tepid. The rediscovery of Verdi still has some distance to go.

The late William Mann entitled an essay on Simon Boccanegra 'Verdi on Politics and Parenthood', and politics and parenthood are indeed the central and intertwined preoccupations of this opera. 26 If this were a Shakespeare play, the woman known in the opera as Amelia (who is really Simon's daughter Maria) would be called Perdita, the daughter who was lost and then found. It is through the reconciliation of father and daughter and their love for each other that Boccanegra achieves the political reconciliation of class-based factions that is his aim as ruler. The price of that reconciliation is his own life.

Like Les vêpres, Boccanegra takes it subject from Italian history, in this case fourteenth-century Genoa. But unlike its predecessor this is not a tale of struggle against foreign oppression. In that respect Les vêpres was, as Rodolfo Celletti has pointed out, 'his last opera with a patriotic risorgimentale theme', 27 though by no means his last operatic reflection on the theme of patriotism. Responding to the changing Italian political situation, Verdi's operas now take in new and often more complex political themes. The theme in Boccanegra is unity, internal harmony and an end to class conflict. Boccanegra, as Doge of Genoa, strives constantly for that harmony; especially in the council chamber scene, which Verdi added to the score when he came to revise it in 1881, he appears as the advocate and prophet of Italian unity. That theme had appeared before, in La battaglia di Legnano, the most openly and thoroughly patriotic of all his operas, and the scene in which the Lombard ambassadors plead for unity against Barbarossa is the obvious predecessor of the council chamber scene, although musically it is cruder.

In the Prologue to Simon Boccanegra we see how Paolo and Pietro, leaders of the popular party in Genoa, persuade a somewhat reluctant Simon to stand for election as Doge by suggesting that this is the only way in which he, a mere pirate ('il corsaro', as the crowd call him), could marry Maria, daughter of the aristocrat Jacopo Fiesco, who hates Simon for having seduced her. The episode takes place with great speed, but the impression is given that Paolo expects Simon to be a mere figurehead for the popular party over which Paolo wields the real power. This turns out to be a mistake, but it is one often made by over-devious political manipulators. The disappointment of this expectation may account in part for the viciousness with which Paolo later turns against Boccanegra. At the very moment when Simon discovers that his beloved Maria is dead, the crowd returns, hailing him as Doge. His one personal motive for seeking the office has been snatched away. So ends the Prologue.

The remainder of the action takes place twenty-five years later (twenty-five years was more or less the time between the historical Simon's accession as Doge and his death). The Prologue had been solely for male voices. Now the mood lightens: we are in a garden near the sea, and the young woman known as Amelia Grimaldi is reflecting on her state as an orphan and on the contrast between the modest home of her childhood and the austere grandeur of the Grimaldi palace. She is in love with the young nobleman Gabriele Adomo, who presently appears, but their love is shadowed for her by the fearful knowledge that Gabriele is plotting against the Doge; she also believes that Boccanegra is planning to marry her to his favourite, Paolo. The prospect of happiness is being undermined by political scheming on every side.

The political conflict in Boccanegra is a class conflict. Until Paolo turns against him, the Doge's fiercest enemies are the nobles Fiesco and Adomo. Paolo seeks to exploit this by trying to persuade first Fiesco and then Adorno to murder the Doge. Fiesco, outraged, rejects the idea as dishonourable. To Gabriele, Paolo suggests that Boccanegra intends to seduce Amelia, and the excitable young man -- he is, after all, a tenor -- prepares to murder the sleeping Doge. Amelia prevents him, and when it is revealed that Simon is her father, Gabriele's shame leads him to change sides. Finally his marriage to Amelia and Simon's nomination of him as his successor hold out the hope that the class strife that has bedevilled Boccanegra's period as Doge may at last come to an end. But not before Paolo, furious at having his expectation of marrying Amelia frustrated, has poisoned Simon. In the trio that follows Gabriele's attempt to kill the Doge, the latter asks himself whether he must hold out the hand of friendship to his enemy. He answers yes, for the sake of peace in the state. May my tomb be an altar to Italian friendship. At the point of death he refers to his own martyrdom. He knows what he has achieved, and what it has cost him.

The moment at which these themes are most clearly developed is in the council chamber scene that ends Act One of the revised version of the opera. This stupendous scene, one of the most exciting and powerful in all opera, would alone justify performances of this once neglected work. It is an essentially political scene, yet it draws together all the major figures in the story. It opens, rather like Act Three of Otello, with the curtain rising on a meeting that has started some time earlier. The Doge is transacting routine business, but then comes to the poet Petrarch's plea for peace between Venice and Genoa. This plea too has its basis in real history, and it was Verdi who suggested to Boito its incorporation in the scene. It is received with hostility by Paolo and the councillors. Then proceedings are dramatically interrupted by the noise of an angry crowd in the streets, which turns out to be chasing Gabriele with cries of 'Morte ai patrizi' ('Death to the nobles'), and later 'Morte al Doge!' Nevertheless, Simon orders the gates to be opened and the rival parties are admitted. There follows a superb confrontation between Gabriele and the Doge, in which Gabriele accuses Simon of being the man behind the abduction of Amelia that he has just frustrated. Amelia appears to give her account of events. No culprit is named, but both parties are convinced that blame lies with the other.

It is at this point that Simon intervenes with his eloquent plea for peace, not only between the parties in Genoa but, by implication, in Italy as a whole. This rises to its climax with the wonderful phrase

E vo gridando: pace! E vo gridando: amor!
an adaptation of Petrarch's own words. All respond to this moving appeal in an ensemble over which Amelia's voice soars, making a personal plea for peace to Fiesco. This does produce at least a temporary calm, and the scene ends with the chilling and (melo?)dramatic confrontation between Simon and Paolo.

It is striking that Verdi in the 1880s should have returned to the theme of Italian unity that was naturally so great a preoccupation in the 1850s. Apart from wishing to improve what he recognized was the rickety structure of the opera, it seems likely that he felt, in the context of the uninspiring politics of the new Italy, that there was still something relevant to be said about the need for unity and patriotic spirit, and that the revision was Verdi's way of reminding his fellow Italians of the ideals that had inspired their long struggle in the earlier part of the century.

I have said nothing about the moving and utterly characteristic scene in which Simon and Amelia discover that they are father and daughter. Here Verdi explores further the theme of parenthood that was so dear to him. Simon Boccanegra is close to its predecessor Les vêpres siciliennes vêpres siciliennes in its handling of this theme. For in both operas it is clear that the ruler needs his child and his child's love as an antidote to the burdens and loneliness of power. It is a theme in Shakespeare Henry IV and King Lear (an operatic version of which Verdi constantly planned to write, but never did), and Verdi returns to it in Don Carlos. The exploration of the nature of government is a feature of these 'middle period' works, and Verdi provides us with a varied gallery of rulers, from the generous and far-sighted Boccanegra and the forgiving Gustavus to the racked but inflexible Philip II and the stonyhearted Amonasro.

Un ballo in maschera, which is based on the story of the assassination of King Gustavus III of Sweden, is a less political opera than its ostensible theme might suggest. Naturally the story fell foul of the Neapolitan censors even before it was staged. They were concerned not so much about the expression of liberal ideas, but about anything that implied disrespect for the institution of monarchy. Even in more liberal Rome, where the opera had its premiere in 1859, there were objections from the Vatican censor, and the whole story had to be transferred from Sweden to the rather improbable setting of colonial New England, with Gustavus becoming Riccardo, Earl of Warwick and Governor of Boston.

Despite all this brouhaha, Un ballo in maschera is far less concerned with public issues than with private passions, and the way in which these feed into politics. The two long-standing conspirators have their grievances against the king: one has had property confiscated, the other a brother killed. They could well be representatives of the nobility whose privileges the historical Gustavus curtailed. But at no point do they elevate their opposition to the political level: they do not speak of justice or oppression, but simply of personal vengeance. When the decisive step is taken, and the king's closest counsellor and friend, Anckarstroem, joins them, it is similarly for personal reasons: he has discovered the king at a nocturnal assignation with his wife Amelia, and he too wants his revenge. Prior to Anckarstroem's involvement, Verdi treats the two conspirators as rather comic figures, muttering away at the bottom of the big ensembles, usually to the effect that the time is not yet ripe to strike. Anckarstroem is a more effective conspirator and assassin because his sense of betrayal is stronger, and his baritonal rage, powerfully voiced in the aria 'Eri tu', is much greater. He is also better placed to obtain the confidential information necessary to effect the murder, as we see from his conversation with Oscar at the ball.

Anckarstroem is a powerfully drawn and by no means unsympathetic figure. It emerges in the last scenes of the opera that the king has resolved to put temptation out of reach by sending Anckarstroem to Finland as ambassador, and with him Amelia. He will not attend the ball to get a last glimpse of Amelia. But warnings of a plan to kill him alter his plans. Courage and reputation demand that he attend and defy the threats. By these twists of the plot, and by giving Gustavus his only scene of isolated reflection just before the fatal ball, Verdi and Somma seek to dispel any thoughts we might have of comparing this playful and passionate ruler with the playboy duke of Rigoletto, and to counterbalance the sympathy that Anckarstroem inevitably gains from his agony of betrayal and misery.

So Gustavus remains at the tragic centre of this swift and compact drama. And it is through him that a significant political dimension is added to the opera. For what we are offered here, as in Simon Boccanegra, is a portrait of a basically good ruler; Gustavus's benevolent sway is flawed, perhaps by a degree of the wilful frivolity so tempting to any absolute ruler, but indisputably by an illicit love for the wife of his best friend and most trusted adviser.

As to the frivolity, what are we to make of his response in the first scene of the opera to the Chief Justice when he brings forward the case of Madame Arvidson (Ulrica), recommending that this supposed troublemaker be banished? On the one hand Gustavus can be seen as exercising both mercy and a rational scepticism appropriate to the Age of Enlightenment: let us find out for ourselves whether there be any harm in her. On the other it seems arbitrary and even insulting that, rather than accept his Chief Justice's opinion, he should turn directly to ask his court favourite, the page Oscar, for his opinion on the matter. This response has all the typical wilfulness of the absolute ruler, even if he is an enlightened one.

As for the king's proposal to visit the fortune-teller in disguise, we should note first that the responsible Anckarstroem advises against it, and second that the use of disguise is not simply a passing joke: disguise is necessary to rulers who wish to act in ways that are either morally outrageous -- such as the Duke in Rigoletto -- or socially unacceptable -- such as Gustavus here or Macbeth in his more seriously motivated consultations with the witches. The implication is always that what these monarchs are doing is incompatible with their public dignity and reputation. Since the sceptical Gustavus is in any case indisposed to believe Arvidson's prophecies, and derides them when they are made (even if a trifle nervously, to judge from the opening of 'E scherzo od e follia'), it is clear that this visit is very much an act of self-indulgence on his part. It shows him in an attractive but ambivalent light. Is Anckarstroem right in thinking his behaviour irresponsible?

The figure of Oscar is a remarkable invention. But he plays no vital role in the plot. So why did Verdi attach such importance to him? He embodies the atmosphere of gaiety and brilliance that Verdi wants to suggest was characteristic of the Swedish court, and indeed of the king himself. Without Oscar the whole opera would be much more sombre. His contribution to its atmosphere, its tinta, is indispensable. But we may also see him as epitomizing the frivolous and careless side of the king, the side that causes him to run the risks that lead to his death.

Despite this frivolity, and despite the passion that overwhelms both him and Amelia in their confessional love duet in Act Two, Verdi's Gustavus is a ruler who is genuinely loved by his people, as is clear from the chorus in his praise which ends Act One. He sees that love as the secure basis of his power and rule:

Del popolo mio L'amor mi guardi, e mi protegga Iddio.

(May the love of my people guard me, and God protect me.)

This is his response when Anckarstroem warns him that people are plotting against him. Anckarstroem has the list of names, but Gustavus refuses to look at it. This refusal may seem like foolishness and over-confidence, or like Boccanegra's clemency towards his enemies, or even suggest a death wish, a hankering after martyrdom as suggested in David Alden's production for English National Opera in 1989. But it is a refusal that Gustavus adheres to, right to the end, when the crowd is calling for death for the traitor Anckarstroem.
The king reasserts his authority, 'Signor qui sono', and pardons everyone, inspiring even Ribbing and Horn to exclaim along with everyone else, 'Core grande e generoso!' Thus magnanimity pays off, even if Gustavus pays for it with his life.

A remarkable number of the details of the opera are historically accurate. Gustavus did pardon those involved in the conspiracy to murder him, whose leaders were called Ribbing and Horn, and only Anckarstroem, the actual assassin, was executed. The conversation about the conspirators that Gustavus has with Anckarstroem in Act One is based on a deathbed conversation with his favourite Armfelt.

Bello il poter non è, che de' soggetti Le lagrime non terge

(Power is not fine if it cannot wipe away the tears of its subjects)

So sings Gustavus in his very first utterance. That Verdi should have followed Simon Boccanegra with a second opera in which a merciful and magnanimous ruler pits the example of his own generosity of spirit against the ethics of vengeance and vendetta that have been traditionally dominant in his society can surely be no coincidence. Gustavus and Boccanegra (somewhat anachronistically in the case of the latter) are presented as harbingers of a much longed-for, more humane and civilized society, in which the barbarous codes of feudal factionalism are banished for ever. Writing these works in the later 1850s, Verdi surely hoped, and perhaps believed, that Victor Emmanuel of Piedmont might fill such a role for all Italy when the great moment came.

The most panoramic, the most inclusive of all Verdi's operas is La forza del destino, first performed in St Petersburg in November 1862. Piave's libretto was adapted from a play, Don Alvaro o La fuerza del sino, by the Spanish liberal writer and politician Angel Perez de Saavedra, Duke of Rivas, and it was the 'truly vast' character of this story that Verdi especially liked. Usually Verdi was preoccupied with sustaining narrative and dramatic tension by eliminating everything that held up the action or was irrelevant to the opera's central themes. But in this case he deliberately enlarged the already generous scope of Saavedra's play by adding material taken from another play about war, Schiller Wallenstein's Camp. La forza del destino is a sprawling work, especially in its ill-shaped third act. But Verdi knowingly opted for spread rather than compression; the sense of a range of social types and situations, and an action spread across the map of Europe, is integral to the opera's character. George Martin has dubbed it ' Verdi's imitation of Shakespeare'; we might also be tempted to call it Verdi War and Peace. 28 It includes his most profound and imaginative treatment of war, and his richest portrayal of organized religion.

The Force of Destiny is how the title is always translated. Despite the archaic ring of these words, they do convey the sense of fate that all three of the principal characters refer to more than once, and which is felt in a particularly oppressive way by the hero, Don Alvaro. This sense of fate emerges with special clarity in his superb recitative and aria at the opening of Act Three. 'Sara infelice eternamente . . . è scritto' ('I shall be eternally unhappy . . . it is decreed'). In the aria he refers to himself as 'Che senza nome ed esule. In odio del destino' ('a nameless exile, defying fate'). Alvaro incarnates with a special intensity the condition of the exile, which is a recurring preoccupation in Verdi's operas. Usually, the exile yearns to return to his or her homeland, but although Alvaro plans to return with Leonora to his native South America in Act One, once he has despaired of finding her, return comes to seem pointless. Now he wanders from land to land, homeless and hopeless. His music is throughout imbued with a sense of being accursed; having accidentally killed Leonora's father, when at the end of the opera he fatally wounds her brother Carlo, who then kills Leonora herself, it is small wonder that Alvaro should curse God for the horrors fate has visited upon him. The original 1862 ending, in which he hurls himself to his death shouting 'pera la razza umana' ('let the human race perish'), was surely true to the logic of the situation and to his responses. Joachim Herz used this ending in his production of the work for Welsh National Opera in 1982, in order, according to Peter Conrad, 'to make the work more philosophically acceptable to himself -- as if it had not in fact been composed by Verdi and Piave. 29 But its utter bleakness was not popular with audiences, and Verdi agonized a good deal over this 'infernale scioglimento' ('infernal denouement') before replacing it with the trio with which we are now familiar.

The idea of fate or doom -- 'destino avverso as Alvaro calls it -- is characteristic of Spanish romantic pessimism; but it can be, and has been, argued that this idea, in the context of Laforza del destino, is a mystification: there is no impersonal overarching force driving the characters to disaster, and everything is perfectly explicable in terms of human choices and actions and the social pressures and conventions which determine them. Leonora's brother Carlo, whose pursuit of vengeance provides the dynamic of most of the action, may see himself as the appointed instrument of fate; but this is plainly a classic piece of what Sartre called 'bad faith', an attempt to shuffle off responsibility for his own actions. It is his sense of what the honour of his family requires that drives him on: a traditional social code reminiscent of the Mafia, not some vague fate or destiny.

Similarly Leonora is doomed to unhappiness because she is caught between two conflicting attachments: to her family and to Alvaro. Both her father and her brother despise Alvaro, on class and racial grounds. She of course does not share their disdain, but neither does she want to put herself at odds with them. Hence her reluctance to elope with Alvaro. The accidental death of her father the marquis is the disaster that means that at a stroke she has lost Alvaro, whilst being saddled with grief for her father and dismay at her brother's determination to hunt down not only her lover but herself Small wonder that she should seek to escape into the hoped-for tranquillity of the hermit's life.

But it is with Alvaro above all that we can see clearly that impersonal fate is not the driving force of the opera: Alvaro's unhappiness is not endemic or metaphysical, but due essentially to a single fact: the prejudice evoked by his racial background, and his consequent sense of being isolated in a hostile society. Not without reason, Alvaro tends to interpret any slight as an expression of this hostility, unintended if not intended. Thus in Act One it looks as though he interprets Leonora's reluctance to elope with him in this way, which may be unjust but is hardly surprising, since as soon as her father appears, he explicitly insults Alvaro by suggesting that his behaviour is just what one would expect from someone of his base origins. The marquis has already urged his daughter to forget about this foreigner who is unworthy of her, 'lo straniero di te indegno'.

If the Marquis of Calatrava is insulting, his son Carlo is a vicious racist. He never misses an opportunity to abuse Alvaro in racist terms, once he has discovered who he is. In the last act it is his racist insults, followed by a blow on the face, which finally provoke the peaceable Alvaro into fighting a fatal duel with him. So, as Nicholas Payne has written about Alvaro, 'It is the laws of society that have condemned him: racial prejudice, conventions of honour, the circumstances of war.' No abstract or impersonal fate or destiny is to blame. 30

I should add that the background to Alvaro's experiences and the explanation for his presence in Spain lie in Spanish dominion over South America (this is the middle of the eighteenth century). Alvaro is in Spain to obtain the release of his father, the Viceroy of Peru, who has married the last descendant of the Incas. It is through his mother that Alvaro claims royal descent, and he is naturally angry that he, of all people, should be treated as an inferior and an outcast by the Spanish. But it is equally 'natural' that the Calatravas, as aristocrats within an imperial culture, should despise and hate those they believe to be of inferior or tainted blood.

Laforza del destino was not Verdi's first opera with a Spanish/South American background. Alzira, written for Naples in 1845, is based rather distantly on a play by Voltaire in which the basic conflict is once again between the indigenous Americans and their Spanish conquerors. The Spanish governor of Peru, Gusman or Gusmano, wishes to marry the the Inca princess Alzira. He loves her, but he also sees the political usefulness of the union, as does her father, the chief Ataliba, who thinks it could bring an end to the conflict with Spain, to whose power he has already submitted.

But Alzira is in love with another Inca chief, Zamoro, as he is with her. When Zamoro is taken in battle, Gusmano tells Alzira that unless she consents to marry him Zamoro will be killed. The situation is similar to that in Tosca, but less crudely sexual. Under this pressure, Alzira consents. When Zamoro hears the news he resolves to murder Gusmano, which he does in the midst of the festivities for the planned wedding. In his dying moments the Spaniard remembers his Christian faith, and forgives and blesses the Inca pair. But for most of the opera the Spanish behave with the customary arrogance of conquerors, and it is Zamoro who displays the virtues of the civilized and the Christian. Thus as the opera opens, a bloodthirsty group of Indians who have captured Gusmano's father, Alvaro, are preparing to put him to death; but Zamoro, their long-lost leader, suddenly appears and, not wishing the joy of the reunion to be stained with blood, lets Alvaro go free. Tell your people, who call us savages, how you owe your life to a savage, he sings. And when he tells his followers how he was tortured by Gusmano, he repeats the point, exclaiming, 'E i barbari slam noi' 'It's we who are supposed to be the barbarians'.

Zamoro seems in more than one respect a sketch for Alvaro in La forza del destino, not only in exemplifying a greater magnanimity than his Christian opponents, but also in the vein of melancholy that suffuses the cavatina 'Irne lungi ancor dovrei', in which, just before the final denouement, he contemplates a further spell of life as a fugitive, burdened with shame and separated from the woman he loves. Interestingly, like Alvaro's 'O tu che in seno', this song is preceded by a sad clarinet solo.

The unifying thread of La forza del destino is the vendetta or hunt pursued by Carlo not only against Alvaro but also, and even more horribly, against his own sister, Leonora, who has degraded her noble family by her intimacy with this 'base Indian'. His vendetta represents a terrible perversion of normal family feelings. This is one of the aspects of the opera which make it especially interesting. Usually, as we have seen, Verdi depicts family relations with great sympathy and depth of feeling. But Carlo can be seen as exemplifying the destructiveness of the family when it is treated as an idea or an institution to be upheld at whatever cost, rather than as a set of loving relationships.

Religion also receives unusual treatment in this opera. It is certainly the only one of Verdi's operas in which the spiritual beauty and comforts of religion are dwelt on more than its fierce and vengeful aspects. The latter are not wholly ignored. The monks, like priestly choruses in so many Verdi operas, clearly get a great deal of pleasure out of threatening evildoers with divine punishment. They sing their 'Maledizione' chorus at the end of Act Two with great relish. Then there is the comic figure of Fra Melitone, who belongs to the wellestablished tradition of satirical portraits of monks whose spirituality is doubtful, to say the least. In fact it is not clear which of the so-called Christian virtues Melitone actually possesses. His sermon to the soldiers is in the style of a crabby schoolmaster rebuking naughty children, only half-seriously; and he is plainly out of sympathy with the crowd of beggars -- 'bricconi' ('rascals'), he calls them -- whom he has to feed in Act Four.

But Melitone is overshadowed in every way by the austere but benign figure of the Padre Guardiano , who embodies a genuine spirituality, and it is he and the fervent Leonora who set the tone for the long second part of Act Two. Leonora's prayers at the beginning and end of this sequence are exceptionally beautiful. It is these radiant and passionate pleas, and the grave tones of Guardiano, that provide the dominant image of religion in the opera, and it is a positive and consolatory one.

The third major theme to receive unusual treatment is war. Verdi usually treats this theme by stressing, on the one hand, the heroism of those who are willing to die to liberate or defend their country, and, on the other hand, the grievous human costs of such heroism. In La forza del destino neither of these two aspects is wholly neglected. But Verdi looks at war from a new angle. War is presented from the point of view of its victims, the peasants whose land is plundered and laid waste, and the young men who are forcibly conscripted into the armies; but it is also examined, more conspicuously and more originally, from the point of view of hangers-on, the commercial baggagetrain that simultaneously services the army and seeks to profit from it. In this rumbustious but disreputable pageant of appendages the principal figure is Preziosilla, who is politely described in the cast list as a 'young gipsy girl' -- which no doubt she is. But she is also a cheerleader and entertainer for the troops, and in addition does a bit of informal recruiting along the way. 'E bella la guerra! Evviva la guerra!' is the chorus of her first song at the inn in Act Two. Then there is Trabucco, whose whining tenor is intended to make him sound like a caricature Jew, and who is in the business of offering low prices to soldiers who are selling what goods they have because they need cash. It is a squalid picture that Verdi paints, and the more we see of it the hollower becomes the gaiety that Preziosilla so insistently displays.

By the time we reach the Rataplan chorus with which she tries to raise morale at the end of Act Three, we have seen too much of this bella guerra to be so easily persuaded. Budden insists that she is merely 'a good-hearted girl . . . all too typical of that kindly world of common sense from which the principals are excluded'. This seems a bland, not to say evasive, characterization. Consider what has happened before she reappears to offer her final celebration of war. Alvaro has been wounded, so seriously that he is expected to die. A group of starving peasants has appeared begging for bread, and followed at once by a group of conscripts longing to return home. These laments are heartlessly interrupted by Preziosilla and the vivandières, offering them their 'consolations'; then comes Melitone's mock sermon, full of puns. Comparison of these scenes with Brecht's Mother Courage is derided by Budden as 'a post-Brechtian anachronism'. But the reference seems apt to me. 31

As Budden himself has pointed out, Verdi had long been anxious to make use of the picture of military life presented in Schiller's play Wallensteins Lager, and at last, in Act Three of La forza del destino, he saw his opportunity. Schiller's play, the first and shortest part of the Wallenstein trilogy, is an extraordinary piece of work, in effect an extended conversation, with interruptions, about military life among a group of soldiers taking part in the Thirty Years War (which was also, as it happens, the setting for Mother Courage). It is realistic, antiheroic, unsentimental. Undoubtedly it appealed to that side of Verdi that always recoiled from the cruelty and tragedy of war. He draws on Schiller for the text of Melitone's sermon, but also for the women who make themselves sexually available to the soldiery, and the peasants begging for bread.

It's a merry life, it can't be gainsaid, To gallop over another man's head.

Lines like these were doubtless too strong meat for operatic audiences, but it would be odd if Verdi, having turned to this particular source, had not intended to convey something of the same resolutely unvarnished picture of war.

It is also relevant to recall that the opera was composed in the aftermath of the disillusioning war of 1859 between France and Austria, which Italian patriots had hoped would achieve the dream of a free and united Italy, but instead left Austria still in control of the Veneto and the Pope still ruling the Papal States. Verdi wrote to Clarina Maffei: 'What a result! What blood spilled for nothing! How our poor young men have been deluded. And Garibaldi, who has even made a sacrifice of his old and constant convictions in favour of a king, has still not achieved his wishes. It's enough to drive one mad!' 32 We should note, even if it is not of great musical significance, that in the opera the war is placed in Italy, the enemy is once again Austria, and the battle in Act Three is that fought in 1744 at Velletri near Rome in which the Austrians were defeated by Neapolitan and Spanish forces. When Preziosilla is busy drumming up recruits in Act Two, a general cry goes up of 'Morte ai Tedeschi' ('death to the Germans'), and she refers to them as:

Flagel d'Italia eterno E de figliuoli suoi (eternal scourge of Italy and of her children)

The patriotic note is worked in, despite its inappropriateness to the denizens of a Spanish inn.

With Don Carlos we come to what is surely Verdi's masterpiece among his treatments of political themes, for it is neither essentially a drama of personal relations where the characters are involved in politics or public life almost incidentally, as is the case in Otello and Un ballo in maschera to some extent; nor is it solely a drama of public issues in which individuals are wholly subsumed into their public roles and become exclusively symbols or representatives of political forces or groups, like Zaccaria in Nabucco or Procida in Les vêpres siciliennes. Here Verdi, thanks in part to Schiller, portrays a range of characters, all vividly individualized, all of whom are involved in a mesh of conflicts that are both personal and political. Of the six leading figures, only one, the Grand Inquisitor, is a purely public and political figure; only one character, the Princess Eboli, could plausibly be seen as a purely private person, caught up in political conflicts against her will. Philip II, the king of Spain, the queen, Don Carlos and the Marquis of Posa are the more complete and credible individual characters precisely because they are both political and private beings. Conflicts between personal feelings and loyalties and political hopes and responsibilities occur within each of them, and the drama becomes a far more complex affair than the simple clash between duty and feeling that had been a staple of musical drama since its inception.

It is rare for a single production of a work to compel a revision of traditional evaluations of it; yet that, I think, was the case with the production of Don Carlos first mounted at Covent Garden in 1958 by the great film and opera director Luchino Visconti. Until then Don Carlos had been either neglected or underrated. It was not seen at all in Vienna until 1933, and after its first run of performances at the Paris Opéra in 1867, for which it was written, in French, that house did not revive it again for nearly one hundred years. When Beecham performed it at Covent Garden in 1933 after decades of neglect, the Wagnerian Ernest Newman dismissed the music as mostly bad and followed up his criticisms with a generalized attack on Verdi as a poor dramatist and a worse psychologist. 33

But the integrity and comprehensibility of the opera suffered even before the first performance from the need to make cuts, which even Verdi recognized, simply to reduce its length. These cuts impaired the political meaning of the work, and the tradition thus established of pushing its political meaning to one side has survived in performance up to the present day. The most damaging of these first cuts comes at the very opening of the opera -- the opening, that is, always assuming that it is the five-act version that is being referred to, not the truncated version which entirely omits Act One. Originally the work opened with a sombre prelude making much use of the gloomy grace notes that are most familiar from the opening to Act Four and the soliloquy for King Philip for which it sets the scene. Then we hear a chorus of woodmen and their wives telling of their hardships. Winter in the forest of Fontainebleau compounds the miseries of wartime, and they want to know when the war with Spain will end. When Elisabeth de Valois appears, she responds with sympathy, promising that the war will soon be over. The climax of the chorus comes with these words:

Avec la paix, o travailleurs, Nous reverrons des jours meilleurs.

(With peace, o labourers, we shall again see better days.)

There then follows the scene for Don Carlos with which the opera normally opens.

Quite apart from the odd abruptness of the revised beginning, the inclusion of this first scene has two merits. First, it immediately establishes the European political context within which the principal characters have to live and make their decisions. Their decisions are seldom purely personal: issues of war and peace, freedom and oppression, are bound up with them. Second, this scene explains the particular hard decision that Elisabeth takes later in the act when, after she has met and fallen in love with Don Carlos, the Spanish Infante, they learn that, after all, she is destined to marry not him, but his father, King Philip II. It is the renewed entreaties of the impoverished forest women that persuade her to agree to this proposal, even though she is thereby sacrificing her hope of happiness. As Count Lerma reminds her, 'Une guerre cruelle est finie à ce prix' ('this is the price for ending a cruel war'). It thus becomes clear that Elisabeth shares, to some extent, the political attitudes of Carlos's friend Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa; so when in the final act she urges Carlos to continue Posa's struggle on behalf of Flanders and its freedom -- another section of the work that has often been cut in performance -- her words seem in no way gratuitous or out of character.

Don Carlos is an opera that it is hard to cut without making nonsense of the way its characters behave. That it has nevertheless been so frequently mutilated reflects not only a lack of faith in the work as a whole on the part of both managements and audiences but also, in view of what has been cut, a casual disregard of its political dimension, a disregard that has historically been all too typical of the operatic world. Yet that dimension is, I would suggest, essential to the work. Elisabeth's fateful decision to marry a man she does not love, and does not come to love, is inspired by political considerations; from that decision, comprehensible only in relation to the opening chorus, flows much of what follows: Carlos's reluctance to leave Spain and the court, Philip's unhappiness, his adultery with Eboll, and his mistrust of his son.

After the Fontainebleau act, the rest of the action takes place in Spain, but we are never allowed to forget that this is an opera about European rather than Spanish politics. Elisabeth never forgets the land she has left behind. When her lady-in-waiting, the Countess of Aremberg, is dismissed, Elisabeth's touching farewell suggests that she would be happy to return with her to France:

Tu vas revoir la France, Ah! porte-lui mes adieux!

And she muses on her homeland, ' France, noble pays', in her last-act soliloquy. Her exile may be elevated, but it is no less sad for all that.

But the country -- never seen in the opera -- that looms largest over the action is of course the Low Countries, referred to in the text as Flanders. As in Goethe's Egmont and Beethoven's response to that play, so in Schiller's Don Carlos and Verdi's interpretation of it, the revolt of the Netherlands is taken as the symbol and starting point of the modern struggle for liberty, national, religious and personal. At only one point in the action, the grandiose spectacle of the coronation cum auto-da-fé in Act Three, do Flemish deputies actually appear, sponsored by Carlos, to plead their cause with the king. But by then we are well aware that the war in Flanders is the great political issue that places the king at odds with his son, and with his most trusted adviser, Posa, and to a lesser extent the queen as well. Flanders is the issue Posa urges Carlos to take up and make his own, and which leads to their famous duet of solidarity and dedication to liberty ('l'amour de la liberté'). It is also the issue over which Posa challenges the king himself in the interview that concludes Act Two. It is Carlos's involvement with the Flemish that leads to his imprisonment and to Posa's death at the hands of the Inquisition.

Of course, much of this is fiction rather than history. The historical Carlos shared some of the manifest instability of the operatic figure, and he was harshly treated by his father, dying in prison in 1588 at the age of twenty-three. But there is little reason to think that he was at all concerned with the issues of Flanders or religious freedom, even though legends to that effect grew up soon after his death. The figure of Posa, both in Schiller's play and the opera, has frequently been described as an anachronism, an idealist 'who would hardly have lasted a day at Philippe's court'. 34 No doubt this is true (indeed, Verdi himself recognized it, calling Posa 'an imaginary person who could never have existed in Philip's reign'), 35 but that is beside the point. Schiller and Verdi wanted to dramatize the issue of liberty, and chose to do so by making it the core of a confrontation between Philip II (upholder of the traditional authority of both Church and State) and Posa (the champion of liberty). The Spanish king would never have listened to the heretical spokesmen for the Flemish people, but he has to listen to a trusted counsellor in his own court; that much at least is plausible. And however inaccurate the details may be, the sense of a political situation dominated by one overriding issue of war or peace, authority or toleration, which invades the lives of all those involved, generating divisions in ruling groups and even within families, is powerfully conveyed. We need look back no further than the traumas the United States went through in the course of its war against Vietnam to find a contemporary parallel.

The dialogue between Philip and Posa that ends Act Two caused Verdi difficulties in its composition, and Budden has suggested that this was really because being 'nothing less than a political argument about the value of freedom' it was 'hardly a natural subject for an opera'. 36 But it was at Verdi's suggestion that this scene was included in the scenario, as well as the comparable scene between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor in Act Four. To my knowledge, no one has ever suggested that the latter is anything but one of the most powerful scenes Verdi ever composed, and Budden suggests that this 'is because, beneath the cut and thrust of logic, it deals in feelings rather than intellectual ideas'. 37 The implied antithesis is not really very convincing. Both are essentially scenes of heated political argument. It is true that the later scene is a direct confrontation between the power of the State and the power of the Church, a confrontation which is also a personal struggle between the two men who embody those powers, and therefore it has a tension which does not belong to the earlier scene. But Posa's passion for peace and freedom comes through strongly and effectively in the earlier scene. There are few more astonishing and powerful moments in all opera than that of Posa's response to the king's claim that he is bringing the peace that prevails in Spain to Flanders. To this the marquis bursts in with

Arrière Cette paix! La paix du cimetière!

(Away with such a peace! The peace of the graveyard!)

And on the word cimetière, or the Italian sepolcri, the orchestra explodes with a cataclysmic fury that has to be given time to subside before Posa can elaborate on what he means, and appeal to the king to replace terror and misery with liberty. The whole paragraph, which Verdi inserted when he came to revise the opera in the 1880s, is magnificently eloquent. Now in his seventies, once a rain Verdi pours out his compassion for the victims of war and repression, and reminds us of his lifelong devotion to liberty, for nations and for individuals. The production book of 1884 states explicitly that 'the two characters who stand face to face . . . represent two great principles in the history of mankind'. This certainly sounds like Verdi himself. 38

In at least one respect Don Carlos is more daring than anything Verdi had done before: it embodies his most unqualified, frontal attack on
the Catholic Church. Of course a play set at the time of the Inquisition was a gift, from that point of view. But once again we should note that it was at Verdi's request that the crucial encounter between the king and the Grand Inquisitor was included in the opera. Even as the conflict between nation and papacy was coming to a head in Italy, Verdi sought to dramatize the conflict of Church and State in the most vivid way. And as between the two, Verdi leaves us in no doubt that it is the Church that is the more powerful and the more ruthless. Philip wishes to shelter both his son and Posa from the Inquisition. The cleric is unrelenting, and even threatens the king himself with the Inquisition. At the end of this chilling interview Philip, defeated, comments, 'L'orgueil du Roi flêchit devant l'orgueil du prêtre.' ('The king's pride bends before that of the priest.') His phrase descends through two octaves to a low F.

It is an agent of the Inquisition who shoots Posa dead in Carlos's prison. Subsequently, it is the appearance of the Grand Inquisitor that overawes the angry crowd which gathers at the prison. In the auto-dafé scene we have a classic Verdian confrontation within the overall ensemble between the churchmen and the rest. The scene opens with a cheerful crowd praising the king, but the mood changes as soon as the monks appear, dragging their victims to the stake and chanting grimly about the day of wrath. When the Flemish representatives appeal for mercy, their pleas are supported by Elisabeth, Carlos, Posa and the people, while the monks, as ever, support Philip in his refusal to listen. These suppliants are rebels, they remind him. The scene ends as the flames rise from the pyres where the 'heretics' are being burnt.

The opera was certainly perceived as being anti-Catholic. The Empress Eugènie, who attended the 1867 premiere, turned her back on the stage during the scene between the king and the Grand Inquisitor, reportedly at the moment when the king tells the cleric to be quiet: 'Tais-toi, prêtre.' Even as late as 1950 the opera was picketed in New York by protesters who objected to its anti-Catholicism. It is unlikely that the protesters were mistaken. Verdi had no love for the organized power of the Roman Church, as we have seen, and his hostility to the secular power of the papacy, which remained as the final obstacle to Italian unification in the late 1860s, was probably increased by the publication in 1864 of the notorious Syllabus of Errors, in which Pope Pius IX denounced all the basic liberal principles as among 'the principal errors of our times'. These included freedom of conscience, religious toleration, freedom of discussion, and the idea that the Papacy should reach an accommodation with 'progress, liberalism and recent civilization'. It is not hard to see in Don Carlos Verdi's response to the Syllabus, and a reaffirmation of his belief in the very ideas that Pio Nono had denounced as 'errors'. 'Of all Verdi's operas Don Carlos was the most finely tuned to the politics of its day,' George Martin has written. 39

Martin has written interestingly about Posa, arguing that his behaviour shows him to be a more complex and ambivalent character than the model of liberal idealism he has usually been seen as. As far as Posa's actions are concerned, rather than Verdi's music, Martin has a good case. Posa is treated as a confidant by both the king and Carlos, and these two roles are irreconcilable. In persuading Carlos to surrender his sword to the king in the auto-da-fé scene he appears to side with the king. But for the most part he is actually working against Philip, through his support for the Flemish rebellion. In the end he saves Carlos through his death in the prison, but it was the pressure he put on Carlos to involve himself with the Flemish issue that landed Carlos in prison in the first place. The truth is that it would be impossible for Posa to take up the Flemish cause in the context of Philip's court without being devious and even manipulative.

But the music does, I think, show Posa to be noble and idealistic. To some commentators, notably Julian Budden, this also makes him boring and one-dimensional: 'musically rather uninteresting'. Even his death scene is 'bland and heroic . . . but somewhat monochrome'. 40 It is hard to be sure whether this is a purely musical judgement, or whether Budden, like some other commentators, is simply out of sympathy with the kind of liberal idealist that Verdi portrayed in Posa. I have always found the entire prison scene, and Posa's farewell to Carlos and life, apt and moving.

If there is a tendency to undervalue Posa as a musical character, there is a corresponding tendency to view the king with a good deal more indulgence than did Verdi himself It is quite true that the king's soliloquy is magnificent, and that in his confrontation with the Inquisition, our sympathies are inevitably with him. He is given an exceptionally full realization, in a whole series of scenes, and his personal sadness places him in that gallery of burdened, unhappy rulers that includes Wotan and Boris Godunov as well Verdi's Francesco Foscari, Montfort and Boccanegra. But Verdi never allows us to forget that Philip II is also an inflexible ruler and a harsh husband. The scene with the Inquisitor is immediately followed by a meeting with Elisabeth in which the king accuses her of adultery with Carlos: the very sin of which he himself is guilty, as Eboli is shortly to confess to the queen. And in both the final scenes of the opera Philip appears in the company of the Grand Inquisitor, reminding us that when push comes to shove, Church and State unite against the challenge of rebellion and the threat of liberty. Verdi had visited Philip's famous palace, the Escorial, a few years before beginning work on Don Carlos. He did not like it. 'It is severe, terrible, like the fierce sovereign who built it.' 41 From Nabucco on Verdi had always looked for the complexity and colour in his tyrants and villains, but that did not blind him to the roles they played. Verdi was a realist, not a sentimentalist.

A further word should be said about Elisabeth, who is too easily seen as an apolitical victim, at sea in the world of male power politics. I have already noted that the drama begins with her politically motivated decision to accept the plan of marriage to Philip. Moreover, it is she who dominates the last act, which opens with her magnificent aria and continues with the last of her three duets with Carlos. This may easily be seen simply as her farewell to the man she loves and to her hopes of happiness, and no more. Such an interpretation is made more plausible when the marziale section of the duet is cut, heightening the pathos. But this is misleading. Elisabeth has taken a brave decision: to send Carlos off to Flanders to continue the work begun by Posa. She recognizes that this may well mean death for herself So there is grief here, but there is also bravery, and commitment to a noble cause, and that is part of the meaning of both the aria and the duet.

It is true that Verdi himself cut the marziale section, in 1872, but he restored it in the more far-reaching revisions of the 1880s, so there is no reason to think that he regarded it as weak or superfluous. And as in Simon Boccanegra and Un ballo in maschera, the conclusion, if fully realized, though tragic, is not only tragic or negative. There is hope as well, and that is very much in the spirit of Verdi himself.

The reputation of Don Carlos has grown greatly in the past forty years. It is now much better appreciated than it used to be. But a full understanding of it will always elude those who, consciously or unconsciously, disregard the political dimension, which shapes the drama and the fate of the characters from beginning to end.

The musical splendours of Aida, apart from its opportunities for spectacle, will always ensure its popularity. But it is evident that Verdi was working here with a scenario a good deal less original and challenging than any he had tackled since The Sicilian Vespers. Verdi seems to have recognized this himself when he first read the synopsis: 'It is well done; it offers a splendid mise-en-scène, and there are two or three situations which, if not very new, are certainly very beautiful.' 42 The story is clear, coherent, but hardly original; apart from Amneris, perhaps, the characters are not especially complex or subtly drawn. Amonasro is fierce and passionate, but somewhat monotonous. Aida herself has spirit as well as pathos, but lacks individuality. Radames, although made sympathetic by his love for Aida and his compassion for her people, is limited and conventional -- 'the eternal school captain', as Budden has called him. 43 They cannot interest or move us as deeply as the leading figures in Laforza del destino or Don Carlos.

But perhaps their very lack of individuality, of complexity, is part of the meaning of the opera. For what we find portrayed here is the absolute triumph of a system over all those individuals and groups who oppose or deviate from it. And part of its ascendancy consists precisely in the absence of individuality among those it controls. Consider what happens in the later stages of the opera. Radames is trapped by Aida into revealing the Egyptians' battle plan to her father Amonasro, the Ethiopian king. Overcome with remorse, Radames surrenders himself to the priests. It turns out that his inadvertent betrayal is immaterial: the Ethiopians are defeated anyway. That makes no difference: he is condemned to be buried alive, and the protests of Amneris, who is, after all, the king's daughter, are as ineffectual as if she were trying to demolish his prison with her own furious fingers. The theocratic system of Egypt has crushed Ethiopia, destroyed the lives of Amonasro, Aida and Radames, and brushed aside the anger of a princess. It is a terrible, despairing conclusion, mitigated only by the mutual devotion of Radames and Aida.

Aida is often thought of as an Egyptian opera: naturally enough, since it is set in Egypt, was composed to an Egyptian commission, and had its premiere in Cairo in 1871. Everyone remembers the scenes in which the Egyptians are cheered off to the battlefront ('Ritorna vincitor') and return victorious, to be greeted with the equivalent of a New York ticker-tape victory parade. If these are thought to be the core of the opera, Aida can seem a rather bombastic and imperialistic work. And it has sometimes been interpreted in that way. Under Mussolini (a later conqueror of Ethiopia), one production presented a Blackshirt Radames triumphing over the barbarous Africans. Seen from outside the West, its first half at least may look and sound like a triumphalist work from the high noon of European imperialism.

But this is to miss the emotional and even the musical balance of the work, and also the significance of its title. Aida is the emotional centre of the opera, and with her her country, Ethiopia. Aida is the classic Verdian exile, her plight worsened by the humiliation of slavery, and her yearning for her country is as strong and important to her as her love for Radames. Her superb Act Three aria, 'O patria mia', might well be considered the very heart of the opera, especially as the feelings she expresses here explain why she succumbs to her father's pressure to act as the bait to trap Radames. So it comes as a surprise to find that this aria was a late addition to the score. Aida's attachment to her homeland affects even her patriotic Egyptian lover, who in their Act Three duet seems finally to accept that flight to Ethiopia offers the only chance of happiness for them both -- as Amonasro certainly understands. But even in Radames's first aria, 'Celeste Aida', he shows that he understands her longing to return home. As for her first aria, in a sudden, dramatic shift of focus our attention is directed to her unhappiness, abruptly undercutting any tendency we might have to identify uncritically with the bellicose mood of the Egyptians. They have been glorying in the prospect of war, Amneris has exultantly urged Radames to return as a conqueror -- 'Ritorna vincitor' -- and everyone else takes up her words. The stage empties, and Aida repeats the same words, horrified to think she has been urging Radames on to victory over her father, her brothers, her country. Thus Verdi reminds us that victory for some is always defeat for others.

Verdi did not like or even admire the civilization of ancient Egypt: 'a land which once possessed a grandeur and a civilization which I could never bring myself to admire'. 44 Those who let themselves be carried away by the pomp and circumstance of the triumph scene in Act Two may overlook the ways in which it replicates the auto-da-fé scene in its predecessor, Don Carlos. At Radames's request, the Ethiopian prisoners are brought before the king, and Amonasro pleads for mercy. In the big ensemble that grows out of this plea, it is the high priest Ramfis and his fellows who demand that the prisoners be put to death, while the popolo urge the priests to be merciful.

Throughout Aida it is the Egyptian priests who incarnate the most unbendingly cruel and bloodthirsty aspects of their national culture. It is they who, in the first scene, lead the demands for Egypt to respond to the Ethiopian challenge with war -- 'Guerra! Guerra!' When in the next scene the priests invest Radames with armour, Ramfis prays that his sword may be a thunderbolt bringing terror and death to the enemy. It is to the priests that Radames gives himself up when he believes that he has betrayed his country. It is the priests who try him, denounce him and decide on his punishment, inspiring Amneris to denounce them as ministers of death, whose thirst for blood is never sated: 'Ne di sangue son paghi giammai'.

Verdi's anti-clericalism was never more overt than in Aida, and there were topical reasons for this. He was composing the opera at the time of the Franco--Prussian War and the collapse of the Papal States. The latter might have been expected to excite Verdi's patriotism, but the episode was too sordid, and too much of a compromise with church power, to afford him much pleasure. And when in the following year the collapse of the Paris Commune was followed by the massacre of many thousands of the Communards, Verdi wrote to a friend in Rome, 'Your priests are certainly priests, but they aren't Christians. The Papal Court couldn't find a word of pity for those poor martyrs of Paris, and that is really scandalous.' 45

It seems likely that Verdi intended a comparison between his operatic Egyptians and the Prussians, whose success in the FrancoPrussian war he regretted and whose growing power and ambition he (rightly) feared. When it came to devising words for the vindictive priests in the triumph scene, he told his librettist Ghislanzoni, 'You must . . . add eight more [lines] for the priests to the effect that "we have conquered with the help of divine providence. The enemy is delivered into our hands. God is henceforward on our side". (See King William's telegram.)' 46 The telegram he referred to was the one sent by the King after the Prussian victory at Sedan.

Verdi was no militarist, and although he was more than capable of
investing the scenes of pageantry in Aida with all the requisite brilliance and grandeur, even in the first two acts he does not conceal the harshness of the Egyptian regime, while in the last two only the repressive and malevolent aspects of this priest-dominated system are apparent. Nor is the system based solely on repression. Part of the tragedy of Radames is that he is so much a part of that system that he does not know how to defy it or break away from it. Amonasro tries to drag him away at the end of Act Three, but all Radames can see is that he has betrayed his country and dishonoured himself. So he insists on turning himself in -- to the priests. His silence when they make their formal charges against him is the silence of a man who feels the guilt of which he is accused. Amneris finally perceives the iniquity of the system more clearly than Radames, with his simplistic ideas of loyalty, ever could. The Egypt of Aida is indeed a closed society, even a monolithic one, but Budden is surely wrong to suggest that the opera conveys 'an implicit acceptance' of such a society.
47 Such a message would be contrary to everything that Verdi believed in. Ultimately, it is the ruthless cruelty of that society that stays in our minds, not its capacity to stage impressive victory parades. Aida is a fearsome tragedy, not a mindless celebration.

With Aida we have reached the end of Verdi's great line of political, or partially political dramas. Otello and Falstaff were to come, as well as the revisions of Simon Boccanegra and Don Carlos, which show that he neither changed nor abandoned his fundamental convictions in later years. Nor, of course, were his two final masterpieces without their connections with the earlier works. Indeed in Otello we hear the final refinement and even sublimation of many features of his earlier works, including the Risorgimentale ones. There is the last of the comradely duets, this one, of course, being shot through with strains of irony and horror. There is the huge ensemble at the end of Act Three, as grand as anything he had composed for Paris or Cairo, and entirely justified by its context, for what we are witnessing once again is the ruin of a public figure, whose fall is a cause for general dismay, not a mere domestic tragedy. And in Act One we hear Otello, the hero and lover, successful and happy for a moment as so few of Verdi's tenor heroes had been. But there are no topical references, such as we can find in Don Carlos and even Aida, and the old patriotic note is not sounded. As George Martin has said:

In earlier days he might have composed an Otello in which Desdemona sings of Venice O patria mia. Instead he concentrated with more power than he had ever brought to an opera before on the two great mysteries of existence, love and death. 48

Falstaff too, despite being the only comedy since Un giorno di regno more than fifty years earlier, has links with earlier works. Verdi's talent for comedy was apparent in parts of Un ballo in maschera and La forza del destino, and espisodes of light-hearted brilliance are to be found even in darkly tragic works like Rigoletto, La traviata and even Otello. But we can also see in Falstaff a merry variation on the pattern of conflict between a scheming aristocrat and the supposedly gullible, available lower orders, especially the women, which is also the pattern of Luisa Miller and Rigoletto. Falstaff, the decaying aristocrat with his rag-tag retinue, is pitted against the prosperous bourgeoisie of Windsor, whom he foolishly supposes will be impressed by his status and title; as in Figaro, it is the lower orders who win the day. As in Figaro, too, it is the women who get the better of the men, including not only the predatory aristrocrat but also the jealous husband or husband-tobe. But the class dimension is only lightly sketched in; it is far less important than it was in Mozart buffo operas. Verdi Windsor is a magical, serene world. He has at last moved beyond all the struggles and tragedies, political and personal, that had dominated his life and art, and has found, through music as always, 'nothing . . . for tears . . . nothing but well and fair', working once more, and for the last time, with his beloved Shakespeare.


4 Verdi: the Liberal Patriot
1. Dan H. Laurence (ed.), Shaw's Music, Vol. III, London 1981, pp. 583 and 570.
2. Quoted in William Weaver, Verdi: A Documentary Study, London 1977, p. 215.
3. Julian Budden, Verdi, London 1985, p. 53.
4. Charles Osborne, Letters of Giuseppe Verdi, London 1971, pp. 82-3 and 84. It is extraordinary that this brief selection, which predictably omits many of Verdi's more political letters, should be all that we have of Verdi's letters in English.
5. Ibid., pp. 161-2.
6. Quoted in Weaver, pp. 174-5.
7. Quoted in George Martin, Verdi, His Music, Life and Times, London 1965, p. 205.
8. Quoted in ibid., pp. 310 and 311.
9. Rudy Shackelford (trans. and ed.), Dallapiccola on Opera, London 1987, p. 134.
10. David Kimbell, Note to the Deutsche Grammophon (DG) recording of Nabucco ( 1983) conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli.
11. Julian Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Vol. I, London 1973, p, 107.
12. Kimbell. See the same author's Verdi in the Age of Italian Romanticism, Cambridge 1981, pp. 456-7.
13. See Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Verdi, London 1973, p. 43.
14. Ibid., p. 58.
15. See George Martin, "'Verdi and the Risorgimento'", in his Aspects of Verdi, London 1989, pp. 17-18.
16. Budden, The Operas, Vol. I, p. 163.
17. Julian Budden, Note for the Philips recording of Attila ( 1972) conducted by Lamberto Gardelli.
18. Budden, The Operas, Vol. I, p. 265.
19. Ibid., p. 414.
20. Quoted in Martin, Verdi, His Music, p. 214.
21. David Kimbell, Note to the DG recording of Rigoletto ( 1980) conducted by Carlo Maria Glulini.
22. Quoted in Andrew Porter, "'Giuseppe Verdi'", in The New Grove Masters of Italian Opera, London 1983, p. 218.
23. Quoted in Budden, The Operas, Vol. II, London 1978, p. 173.
24. Quoted in ibid., p. 180.
25. Ibid., p. 209.
26. William Mann's essay was written for the DG recording of Simon Boccanegra ( 1977) conducted by Claudio Abbado.
27. Rodolfo Celletti, "'An Historical Perspective'", in Simon Boccanegra, ENO Opera Guide 32, London 1985, p. 11.
28. Martin, Aspects of Verdi, pp. 79-91.
29. Peter Conrad, "'War and Peace'", in The Force of Destiny, ENO Opera Guide 23, London 1983, p. 7. For the revision of the ending, see Bruce A. Brown contribution to the same guide, "'That Damned Ending'".
30. Nicholas Payne, "'I Am What I Think'", in the Welsh National Opera programme book for Laforza del destino ( 1981).
31. Budden's remarks on Preziosilia and the end of Act Three are quoted from his Note for the EMI recording of Laforza del destino ( 1988) conducted by Riccardo Muti.
32. Osborne, Letters, p. 122.
33. See Andrew Porter's Note to the EMI recording of Don Carlos (in Italian, 1971) conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini.
34. Budden, Verdi, p. 267.
35. Quoted in Martin, Aspects of Verdi, p. 98.
36. Budden, Verdi, p. 263.
37. Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Vol. III, London 1981, p. 125.
38. Ibid., footnote pp. 97-8.
39. Martin, Aspects of Verdi, p. 110. My information on the perceived antiCatholicism of the opera is taken from the same source, Martin essay "'Posa . . . The Flawed Hero'".
40. Budden, The Operas, Vol. III, p. 139, and Verdi, p. 268.
41. Weaver, p. 212.
42. Hans Busch (ed.), Verdi's Aida, Minneapolis 1978, p. 17.
43. Budden, The Operas, Vol. III, p. 258.
44. Quoted in ibid., p. 161.
45. Quoted in Martin, Verdi, His Music, p. 382.
46. Quoted in Michael Rose, 'Verdi's "Egyptian Business" ', in Aida, Opera Guide 2, London 1980, p. 12.
47. Budden, Verdi, p. 272.
48. Martin, Aspects of Verdi, p. 27.