Introduction to the Verdi Operas:
As an Italian operatic idol, Giuseppe Verdi kept his adoring fans streaming back to the opera houses again and again by producing a relatively steady stream of work in the course of his career. He composed a total of twenty eight operas, not counting the dubious “lost” first opera and the numerous revisions he made to works such as Macbeth and Don Carlos. Musicologists have cataloged the Verdi operas into four distinct, chronological periods characterized by the various musical influences Verdi was operating under at various periods in his life.
Chronology and Brief Synopses of the Verdi Operas: Period I: The Rossini Influence
1839: Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio This, the seminal work of Verdi’s operatic output premiered on November 17th, 1839 at La Scala in Milan. Oberto is the tale of Medieval count Riccardo who is slated to wed Cuniza, the sister of Ezzelino da Romano. Instead, he seduces Lenora, Oberto’s daughter. Oberto persuades Leonora to tell Cuniza who is heartbroken by the news of her future husband’s infidelity. Cuniza calls off the wedding, but Oberto wants revenge. He duels with Riccardo, who is slain, and Leonora retires to the convent, no longer suitable for marriage.
1840: Un giorno di regno, ossia il finto Stanislao (A One-Day Reign, or the False Stanislaus) This was the first and only Verdi opera to be hailed as “comedy” until his final work, Falstaff. Verdi composed this opera in the midst of losing his two children and his wife and, as a result, it was a total flop when it premiered at La Scala on September 5, 1840. The opera’s story takes place in Poland, and involves of a tangle of romances in the midst of war. The only real battle here is the battle of wits that takes place as catty women seek to snag the men of their dreams.
1842: Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar) This four act opera was met with wild acclaim when it premiered at La Scala on March 9, 1842, and thus was considered to mark the starting point of Verdi’s career. The storyline follows the Hebrew people as they are brutally exiled from Jerusalem by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar.
1843: I Lombardi alla prima crociata (The Lombards on the First Crusade) A four-act lyric drama, this opera was premiered at La Scala on February 11, 1843. Another tangled wartime love story, the tale involves two brothers who once vied for the love of the same woman. One is exiled over a murder involving mistaken identity, and the two meet up in the Holy Land where they eventually free the other’s kidnapped daughter from a harem and defeat the enemy forces, resulting in the final reconciliation between the brothers and the death of one of them.
1844: Ernani This tragic opera in four acts, based on the play Hernani by Victor Hugo, had its debut performance at La Fenice Theatre in Venice on March 9, 1844. In the story, Ernani finally wins the hand of his coveted Elvira via the emperor’s good graces. Ernani is, however, forced to kill himself when his arch-rival, Silva, reminds him of a promise made long ago.
1844: I due Foscari (The Two Foscaris) This three act opera premiered in Rome on November 3, 1844 at the Teatro Argentina. It is based on a text by Lord Byron and concerns an exiled murderer, Jacopo, who returns to his homeland after his release. An wrongfully incriminating letter to the Duke is intercepted that forces him back into exile for the rest of his life, leaving his family powerless to save him.
1845: Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc) A lyric drama in three acts, this opera premiered on February 15, 1845 at La Scala. The story is a wild retelling of the Joan of Arc story, where Joan’s father gives her over to the English, the King falls madly in love with her, and she is rescued at the last moment from being burned at the stake by her penitent father.
1845: Alzira Alzira consists of a prologue and two acts and had its first performance at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples on August 12, 1845, to mixed reviews. The story takes place during a Spanish invasion of Peru. Alzira is imprisoned and her life is traded for another who, in turn, stabs her suitor and marries her instead.
1846: Attila Attila was first performed in Venice on March 17, 1846 at the Teatro La Fenice. The opera follows the story of Attila the Hun as he celebrates yet another victory, falls in love with a woman warrior, and is eventually stabbed to death by his own sword that he gave to her as a gift.
1847: Macbeth Verdi’s rendering of the Shakespearean favorite was premiered at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence on March 14, 1847. The storyline involves the corrupt Macbeth and his desire to become King, which eventually leads to his downfall at the hands of supernatural forces and his equally corrupt wife.
1847: I masnadieri (The Bandits) This opera marked Verdi’s first non-Italian premiere when it was performed at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London on July 22, 1847. The story revolves around a typical prodigal son plot in which an estranged son is pronounced dead to his father by a brother who wants the family’s wealth for his own. This lie sets off a chain reaction resulting in more than one tragic death.
1847: Jerusalem This four act opera was another geographical milestone for Verdi, as it had its first performance at the Académie Royale de Musique in Paris on November 26, 1847. Its plot is very similar to that of Lombardi alla prima crociata as it involves the Crusades, a woman kidnapped into a harem, a case of an exiled hero disguising himself as a hermit, and justice being delivered roundly in the end.
1848: Il corsaro (The Corsair) Premiered at the Teatro Grande in Trieste on October 25, 1848, this work entails yet another daring rescue from a harem. The rescued Gulnara falls for her savior, Corrado, but he is sent to prison where he languishes remembering the true love he left at home who has poisoned herself and dies just as he steps ashore with his new lover. He then flings himself into the sea, leaving Gulnara to fend for herself.
Period II: An Emphasis on Character Development
1849: La battaglia di Legnano (The battle of Legnano) This opera enjoyed its first performance on January 27, 1849 at the Teatro Argentina in Rome. The story opens as the Italian troops war to rid their country of the Germans. Lida, the wife of Rolando learns that Arrigo, her ex-fiance, was not killed in battle as she had been told but was alive and well. She sends for him while her husband is on the battlefield. A misunderstanding erupts resulting in the death of Arrigo, but not before he sees Rolando and Lida reconciled.
1849: Luisa Miller The first performance of Luisa Miller took place at the Teatro San Carol in Naples on December 8, 1849. In this story, a wealthy youth, betrothed to a duchess, falls in love with a peasant girl, but keeps his identity disguised. After the peasant girl betrays her lover, he tricks her into drinking poison with him and they die together.
1850: Stiffelio This three act opera premiered on November 16, 1850 and the Teatro Grande in Trieste. In it, Stiffelio, a devout minister, returns from a mission to find that his wife has been unfaithful to him. After much prayer and great anguish, he absolves her of her sins in front of the entire congregation of his church.
1851: Rigoletto Rigoletto became an immediate sensation when it was first performed at La Fenice Theatre in Venice on March 11, 1851. It tells the story of the court jester, Rigoletto, who seeks vengeance on his lord, the Duke of Mantua for seducing his daughter. Justice is not served, as the jester’s daughter dies and Duke lives on.
1853: Il Trovatore Yet another hallmark of Verdi’s career, this work premiered at the Teatro Apollo in Rome on January 19, 1853. It is a complicated tale of the shared love for Leonora between Count di Luna and the troubadour Manrico–who is actually the count’s brother.
1853: La Traviata (The Woman Who Strayed) In a long list of Verdi operas, La Traviata is often at the forefront of peoples’ minds. It was first performed in Venice at the Teatro La Fenice on March 6, 1853 and involves the courtesan, Violetta, sacrificing her love for Alfredo to help preserve his family’s good name.
Period III: The Meyerbeer Grand Opera/Italianate Amalgem
1855: Les vêpres siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers) A five act opera, this work was performed near Verdi’s childhood home at the Teatro Regio in Parma on December 26, 1855. The work revolves around the French occupation of Sicily and a young woman named Helene whom, ordered to sing in a bar by the French, sings a song that rouses the Sicilians to fight back.
1857: Simon Boccanegra First performed on March 12, 1857 at the Teatro La Fenice, this opera consists of a prologue and three acts and is rather complicated, involving intrigue, an illegitimate daughter, kidnap, and, ultimately, the poisoning of the title character.
1857: Aroldo This, one of Verdi’s least performed works, was premiered on August 16, 1857 in Rimini at the Teatro Nuovo. It takes place during the Crusades and involves a knight who returns home to find his love has been unfaithful. In the end, love triumphs and the two are reunited.
1859: Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) A tragic opera punctuated by moments of wry comedy, this work debuted in Rome on February 17, 1859 at the Teatro Apollo. The story concerns the secret affair between Riccardo, governor of colonial Boston, and Amelia, wife of Riccardo’s secretary, Renato.
1862: La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny) Another Verdi powerhouse, this opera was premiered in yet another geographical (and cultural) landmark for Verdi—the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre of St. Petersburg, Russia on November 10, 1862. The plot revolves around Don Alvaro accidentally killing the father of his beloved Leonora which sets into motion the Force of Destiny.
1867: Don Carlos Known as Verdi’s most-revised opera, Don Carlos premiered in its original manifestation on March 11, 1867 at the Paris Opera. It is the story of a forbidden romance between the Spanish Infante, Don Carlos, and his stepmother, Queen Elisabetta de Valois.
1871: Aida The first (and undeniably atmospheric) performance of Aida was given on Christmas Eve, 1871 at the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo, Egypt. Aida follows the tale of the Egyptian commander Radames and his clandestine love for Aida, an Ethiopian slave girl.
Period IV: Verdi Coming Into His Own
1887: Otello Verdi turned once again to Shakespeare for the inspiration behind this work which premiered at La Scala on February 5, 1887. In the tale, the villainous character Iago spreads vicious rumors about Otello’s wife, Desdemona, which inflames his jealousy and results in tragic consequences.
1893: Falstaff Ironically, Falstaff, Verdi’s final opera, was in a genre he had never really experimented with beyond his failed second opera. Far from failing, Falstaff was hailed as a work of genius after its La Scala debut on February 9, 1893. It weaves a Shakespearean tale in which the rotund Sir John Falstaff is taught an important lesson after attempting to romance two women simultaneously.