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GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813–1901)

Come dal ciel precipita from Macbeth, Ella giammai m’amò from Don Carlo

May 15, 2016: James Morris, bass-baritone; Rafael Figueroa, cello; Ken Noda, piano

In 1846 Verdi was given free rein by the Teatro della Pergola to choose an opera subject and opted for Shakespeare’s Macbeth when he learned that the cast would include first-class singer-actor baritone Felice Varesi. Francesco Maria Piave wrote the libretto, bullied by Verdi into making certain changes, along with Andrea Maffei, whom Verdi hired to pen some additional material. Verdi closely supervised rehearsals, which resulted in a successful premiere on March 14, 1847, but Verdi was criticized, much to his outrage, for not knowing his Shakespeare.

Verdi lavished great care on several revisions and personally oversaw many productions, but Macbeth met with relatively little success during his lifetime. He was especially baffled when the production at Paris’s Théâtre Lyrique, for which he had made substantial revisions in 1864, was largely unsuccessful. Verdi’s annoyance at the opera’s reception, however, did nothing to alter its status in his eyes as the favorite of his early operas, and time has proved its merit.

In Act II Macbeth has murdered King Duncan and become king, but plots the murder of Banco and his son Fleance to thwart the prophecy that Banco’s children will rule Scotland. As the assassins lie in wait for Banco outside the castle, Banco sings his famous recitative and aria—unchanged in Verdi’s many revisions—“Studia il passo . . . Come dal ciel precipita” (Watch your step . . . How from the heaven falls), in which he warns his son about his feeling of foreboding. The aria’s noble, rich unfolding comes to an impassioned peak just before the coda, when the assassins strike him down but fail to halt his escaping son.

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In 1865, when Verdi was planning a grand opera for the Paris Opéra, he returned to the idea of Don Carlos, a subject he had rejected in the 1850s, but now fit his conception of a “magnificent drama,” offering the perfect potential for both spectacle and sympathy for the lovers. He closely supervised the preparation of the libretto, which François Joseph Méry loosely adapted from Schiller’s play, and which Camille de Locle completed after Méry’s death. Verdi had completed most of the opera in 1866 before arriving in Paris that July to supervise the long rehearsal period, but found his five-act opera far too long and made substantial cuts. Despite his careful attention to all aspects of the production, the premiere on March 11, 1867, met with only modest success.

Verdi made numerous revisions for Italian revivals over twenty years, ending with a four-act version for La Scala in 1884 that cut the entire first act. Since then companies have juggled versions, cuts, and restoration of certain portions, but the opera, typically performed in Italian and called Don Carlo, has now emerged from the filter of history as one of Verdi’s most respected and beloved. Verdi’s unsurpassed dramatic and musical mastery culminates in his depiction of the power struggles, private loves, and tragic consequences of these historic personages.

The story is based on the son of Spanish King Philip II, Don Carlos, who plots with Marquis Posa against the tyrannical king. Carlos is betrothed to Elisabeth of Valois, but she instead marries his father, Philip II, as part of a peace treaty. The heartbreak of the two lovers lies at the heart of the opera, but equally tragic is Philip II’s role. Verdi gives him one of the best bass arias in the repertoire, “Ella giammai m’amò” (She never loved me), in which he poignantly laments that his wife has never loved him. A moving cello obbligato interlaces his heartbreaking expression of his loneliness and the powerlessness of his crown to see into others’ hearts.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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