Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (Italian pronunciation: [dʒuˈzɛppe ˈverdi]; 10 October 1813 – 27 January 1901) was an Italian Romantic composer, mainly of opera. He was one of the most influential composers of the 19th century. His works are frequently performed in opera houses throughout the world and, transcending the boundaries of the genre, some of his themes have long since taken root in popular culture – such as “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto, “Va, pensiero” (The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Nabucco, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (The Drinking Song) from La traviata and the “Grand March” from Aida. Although his work was sometimes criticized for using a generally diatonic rather than a chromatic musical idiom and having a tendency toward melodrama, Verdi’s masterworks dominate the standard repertoire a century and a half after their composition.
Romantic opera, which placed emphasis on the imagination and the emotions began to appear in the early 19th century, and because of its arias and music, gave more dimension to the extreme emotions which typified the theater of that era. In addition, it is said that fine music often excused glaring faults in character drawing and plot lines. Gioacchino Rossini (1792–1868) initiated the Romantic period. His first success was an “opera buffa” (comic opera), La Cambiale di Matrimonio (1810). His reputation still survives today through his Barber of Seville, and La Cenerentola. But he also wrote serious opera, Otello (1816) and Guilliame Tell (1829).
Rossini’s successors in the Italian bel canto were Vincenzo Bellini (1801–35), Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848) and Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901). It was Verdi who transformed the whole nature of operatic writing during the course of his long career. His first great successful opera, Nabucco (1842), caught the public fancy because of the driving vigour of its music and its great choruses. Va, pensiero, one of the chorus renditions, was interpreted and gave advantageous meaning to the struggle for Italian independence and to unify Italy.
After Nabucco, Verdi based his operas on patriotic themes and many of the standard romantic sources: Victor Hugo (Ernani, 1844); Byron (Il Duo Foscari, 1844); and Shakespeare (Macbeth, 1847). Verdi was experimenting with musical and dramatic forms, attempting to discover things which only opera could do. In 1877, he created Otello which completely replaced Rossini’s opera, and which is described by critics as the finest of Italian romantic operas with the traditional components: the solo arias, the duets and the choruses fully integrated into the melodic and dramatic flow.
Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff (1893), broke free of conventional form altogether and finds music which follows quick flowing simple words and because of its respect for the pattern of ordinary speech, it created a threshold for a new operatic era in which speech patterns are paramount.
Opera had become a marriage of the arts, a musical drama, full of glorious song, costume, orchestral music and pageantry; sometimes, without the aid of a plausible story. From its conception during the baroque period to the maturity of the romantic period, it was the medium through which tales and myths were revisited, history was retold and imagination was stimulated. The strength of it fell into a more violent era for opera: verismo.
As the “galley years” were drawing to a close, Verdi created one of his greatest masterpieces, Rigoletto, which premiered in Venice in 1851. Based on a play by Victor Hugo (Le roi s’amuse), the libretto had to undergo substantial revisions in order to satisfy the epoch’s censorship, and the composer was on the verge of giving it all up a number of times. The opera quickly became a great success.
With Rigoletto, Verdi sets up his original idea of musical drama as a cocktail of heterogeneous elements, embodying social and cultural complexity, and beginning from a distinctive mixture of comedy and tragedy. Rigoletto’s musical range includes band-music such as the first scene or the song La donna è mobile, Italian melody such as the famous quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore”, chamber music such as the duet between Rigoletto and Sparafucile and powerful and concise declamatos often based on key-notes like the C and C# notes in Rigoletto and Monterone’s upper register.
There followed the second and third of the three major operas of Verdi’s “middle period”: in 1853 Il Trovatore was produced in Rome and La traviata in Venice. The latter was based on Alexandre Dumas, fils‘ play The Lady of the Camellias, and became the most popular of all Verdi’s operas, placing third in the Opera America‘s list of 20 most performed operas in North America.