There has been a lot about Wagner in the media recently, and in October there will no doubt be a lot about Verdi: it’s always useful to have an anniversary (in this case a bicentenary) as a hook on which to hang productions, re-interpretations and books.
We at the CLC have a modest offering of two books: Richard Wagner: His Life and his Dramas; a Biographical Study of the Man and an Explanation of his Work by the American writer and music critic W.J. Henderson (who aims ‘to supply Wagner lovers with a single work which shall meet all their needs’) and the less conventional Verdi: Milan and Othello: Being a Short Life of Verdi, with Letters Written about Milan and the New Opera of Othello, published in 1887.
Its author, Blanche Roosevelt (1853–98), was a noted American beauty (her picture appeared on a cigarette card in the ‘Second Series of the World’s Beauties’ and you could buy her photograph for your stereoscope). More to the point, she was an opera singer, who, after training in Paris (with Pauline Viardot) and Milan, made her debut as Violetta in La Traviata at Covent Garden in 1876. She toured widely in Europe, and joined the D’Oyley Carte Company in 1879, appearing as Josephine in H.M.S. Pinafore in London, and then creating the roles of Josephine, and Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance, in the first American performances of these operettas.
She next formed her own opera company, but it was not a success: she retired from the stage soon afterwards at the behest of her husband, an Italian marchese, and turned to writing, both novels and non-fiction. From her first visit to Europe she had written as a ‘special correspondent’ for the Chicago Times, and the book reproduces her first interview with Verdi, in Paris shortly after the first performance of the Requiem in 1874, as well as her review of the work itself.
The first part of the book is a short and rather gushing life of Verdi (a little known fact about whom is that he was by birth a Frenchman: the duchy of Parma being in 1813 a département of the first French Empire). The second is an account of Milan in the six weeks around the first performance of Otello at La Scala on 5 February 1887. In epistolary form (the conceit being that the letters are to the author Wilkie Collins, to whom the book is dedicated), Roosevelt provides fascinating insights into the city and the opera house, depicting the frantic activity behind the scenes as tights had to be re-embroidered, wigs refitted, and performers’ tantrums placated, while apparently the whole population, as well as hordes of visitors, were in a frenzy of anticipation at the prospect of the maestro’s first new opera since 1871.
Her review of the actual performance is long, thoughtful and on the whole very positive, though she does not fail to point out what she considers as the work’s failings, to say nothing of the performers’ inadequacies. (The tenor Tamagno roared his way through the role on the first night, and wrecked his voice, causing the further planned performances to be cancelled. On the other hand, judging from the photograph of him in the book, he looked the part, unlike the first Desdemona, Romilda Pantaleone, who was short and dark where a willowy blonde was required by the plot and the costume designer. On the other hand again, she sang the part brilliantly.)
Roosevelt also gives a lively account of the celebratory banquet which followed, at which she and the Italian writer Matilde Serao were the only women present. The book ends with her farewell to Verdi: she regards Otello as ‘the crowning effort of his life’, but hints at another Shakespearean opera to come.
It is not clear whether Roosevelt returned to Milan in 1893 for the first night of Falstaff (when Sir John was played by Otello’s Iago, the Frenchman Victor Maurel). She died relatively young, after a coach accident in Monte Carlo from which she never recovered, and is buried in Brompton Cemetery under a splendid statue.
Verdi wrote thirty operas, from Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio (1839) to Falstaff. Being more of a Wagner person myself, I can’t claim to know much more than all the famous tunes, and I do find it hard to take the pervasive element of oom-pa-pa, oom-pa-pa. On the other hand, I have had the good fortune to sing in the chorus of the Requiem twice, and have to concede that he knew what he was doing there.
It’s only two years since another anniversary: that of the unification of Italy in 1861. Verdi’s music was the background to the revolutionary struggle, and there must be as many Via Giuseppe Verdis in Italy as there are Via Garibaldis. His very name was a coded acronym: ‘Viva Verdi’ scawled on walls stood for ‘Vittorio Emmanuele, Re d’Italia’, the hoped-for future king of a future country.