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Verdi by the Numbers

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A small blip in the history of opera occurred this week in Bilbao, Spain. It occurred a few seconds after the curtain came down on the dress rehearsal of Verdi's 1855 French opera, les Vêpres siciliennes. The invited audience was cheering the singers, the orchestra, and the chorus. As I climbed the steps from the podium in the orchestra pit to await my call to walk onstage, I realized that not only was this the first time this grand opera had ever been performed in Spain, it probably was also the first time the opera had been heard anywhere with its complete text observed since 1855.

There are those who just read that and are jumping to correct me -- but here is the point of that statement. Everyone in the cast and in the production accepted as sacrosanct that Verdi knew what he was doing and that every aspect of his score be observed. This means the tempos and the surprisingly controversial use of observing its metronome indications.

All of us musicians are brought up to view the written notes (the actual pitches) and the marking on those notes (loud, soft, accents, separations, etc.) as essential to replicating the intent of the composer. But, when it comes to the pulse of the music -- the various tempo markings found in the musical score -- this fundamental aspect of the text is viewed as a matter of personal taste and artistic judgment. Indeed, the very idea of using a metronome when a composer gives that indication is generally looked on as being academic or rigid. Even Pierre Boulez, who is incorrectly viewed as a literalist, cannot (or does not wish to) follow Debussy's metronome markings in his own edition of Debussy's ballet, Jeux, when he came to record it with the Cleveland Orchestra.

Verdi was particularly cognizant of the way the pulse of an accompaniment changes its meaning. What might seem perfunctory becomes heartbreaking when slowed down. What might be flaccid becomes terrifying when brought up into a fast pulse. In his letters, Verdi, frequently asked about the tempi of performances that he did not attend. He actually built his operas on tempo relationships, using the metronome numbers as his building blocks. Not only are they structural (and you may have read that Elliot Carter invented rhythmic modulation, but he was a hundred years late on that), they represent the emotional state of the characters onstage.

This is without question true, and yet performers and critics seem unwilling to embrace speed and relative speeds in the interpretation of music when the composer gives those indications in the musical text. Significantly, in this year celebrating the 200th birthday of the two greatest opera composers of the 19th century, Verdi and Wagner, it was Wagner who stopped using metronome markings early in his career, while Verdi used them right to his last opera, Falstaff.

Who, then, was more "German," Verdi or Wagner? It was, after all, Wagner who implored German composers to learn how to sing as a result of his conducting the operas of Bellini. And Verdi absolutely knew Wagner's der Fliegende Holländer and Tannhaüser when he composed Vêpres, since they are referenced within the score.

I am particularly grateful to Francesco Izzo and the American Institute for Verdi Studies at NYU for allowing me access to primary source material in preparing the score for Bilbao.

For those who are unaware of how a metronome marking works, it is based on a mechanical devise developed in the 19th century that operates on a pendulum that can be lengthened or shortened to change its speed. The calibration of the "tick tock," is marked on the pendulum and the speed of the clicks tells you how many will be heard in a minute. A marking of 60, means that there will be 60 pulses in a minute, or one a second. A marking of 120, means two pulses a second.

The standard criticism about using a metronome is that it turns a performance into something mechanical. This is a total misunderstanding of how it was used and the intentions of composers like Verdi. The pulse sets the speed of the music and within that speed there is all kinds of expected flexibility, involving singers' breaths, the preparation of high notes, etc. But, since Verdi's operas usually support a vocal line with a repeated rhythmic figure, that pulse sets the center point of all flexibility. And, while Verdi will use words like allegro agitato, allegro moderato, or a simple allegro, he always follows it with just how that phrase is to be objectively achieved -- and thus the metronome marking. All allegros are not the same speed.

Composers in 20th century classical music, especially the 12-tone and serial composers, are generally praised for their complex use of mathematical formulas in creating music, including, it should be noted, tempo indications. This same criterion is turned on its head when it comes to 19th century music, where observing the numbers is seen as anti-musical. The romantic composers were "feeling" composers and the modern ones were "thinking" composers. All of this is nonsense, of course. Composers exist in the worlds of both Dionysius and Apollo and always have.

Ironically, I have just read the galleys of a new book on the great Armenian-American stage and film director, Rouben Mamoulian, by Joseph Horowitz, called On My Way to be published by W.W. Norton & Company. The story of Mamoulian, who used a metronome and a baton to direct straight plays, is astonishing. He felt (rightly so) that each character in a play has his/her own tempo in expressing the words given by the playwright. Verdi, too, knew that the tempo of a character was one of the ways he could express the emotional state of that character, In Aida, for example, the exchange between Amneris and Rhadames, in Act Four, switches between to tempos (144 and 120) as each one sings to -- or, better, at -- each other.

Mamoulian is the forgotten genius who brought his sense of timing to the 1927 world premiere of Dorothy and DuBose Heyward's play, Porgy. Then in 1934, Mamoulian, metronome in hand, directed the world premiere of Gershwin's opera, Porgy & Bess. He subsequently went on to direct Rodgers & Hammerstein's first and second musicals (Oklahoma! [1943] and Carousel [1945]). That these three masterpieces of music theater were shaped by a director with a metronome, should at least encourage a more nuanced look at the use of the device. (It should also be pointed out the Gershwin carefully crafted his metronome requirements for Porgy & Bess . For a further discussion on this, check out the Nashville Symphony's recording [deleted] on Decca.)

And this brings us back to les Vêpres siciliennes . That the opening chorus of Act One begins at a startlingly fast tempo of half note at 100 --usually performed much slower - is supported by the tempo of the last chorus which brings down the curtain at the end of Act Five, in which the pulse is also 100. A duet can begin at a moderate pulse of 84, and as the heat builds, so do the speeds: 126, 132, 184. Never have I seen so many metronome markings in any score, as I have found in this opera by Verdi. This is especially true in the recitatives, which go from what I call "ritual speed," to the speed of spoken French. A study of the recitatives alone is worth a Ph.D. from someone if it has not already been done.

When I was a boy and was devouring everything I could find about opera and musical theater, the received wisdom was that Vêpres, and its Italian version, i Vespri Siciliani ,was Verdi's only misstep - a kind of falling backward, after the amazing trifecta of il Trovatore, Rigoletto, and la Traviata. After Vêpres came the great later works that include un Ballo in Maschera, la Forza del Destino, Don Carlos, Aida, Otello, and Falstaff. But after last night, having conducted it from start to finish, and with an audience present, I think we should reconsider Verdi's 1855 achievement.

Les Vêpres siciliennes is the work of genius. It is a politically active opera that demands freedom and insists on the power -- and responsibility -- of citizens to take charge. Indeed, as the saying goes, "we are the ones we have been waiting for." Les Vêpres siciliennes is also an extraordinary pre-Freudian, pre-Star Wars investigation into the relationship of a young hero to a dreadful tyrant, who, unknowingly, also happens to be his father. That the father, a leader of an invading army, had raped a local woman, now deceased, who raised the child, is an unbelievably courageous thing to put on the stage in 1855. (The librettist, Eugène Scribe, must also be given credit here.) Consider the news we read every day about invading armies and the use of rape as part of the spoils of war and understand why this opera could be set today in any number of locations. (The Bilbao production, under the direction of the Italian Davide Livermore, is brilliantly set in Sicily in the 1990s, when the terrorist actions of the mafia stunned the world. The half-hour "Four Seasons" ballet in Act Three is not danced. Instead contemporary video images of violence and corruption are projected behind the chorus, who, facing the audience in masks, sit motionless in a replica of the Italian Parliament chamber.)

Verdi was living in Paris in 1855 (the same year that les Miserables takes place). The aftermath of France's various revolutions and its attempts to find a stable, representational government is as much at the heart of Vêpres as is Italy's simultaneous movement toward unification. Partially because Verdi "belongs" to Italy where he is a national hero, the composer's larger political achievements are rarely credited or understood. He truly was the Beethoven of the middle and late 19th century.

And yes, Vêpres is monumental in size -- five acts and almost an hour longer than Aida. But it does not seem long, if one respects Verdi as if he were Elliott Carter. If the opera is performed complete, and with two intermissions, each element lasts slightly longer than one hour. (Act 1 (after the overture) = 30:00; Act 2 = 35:00; Act 3: 1:04; Act 4 = 34:00; Act 5 = 30:00 ) It is classically structured, temporally symmetrical (with its requisite Act 3 ballet as the apex of the arch) and wildly passionate within that structure. Actors and stage directors will understand what I mean when I say that the opera and each of its scenes and characters have a spine. That spine can be found in the numbers -- the curiously controversial metronome numbers. The audience last night in Bilbao had no idea why this opera seemed so fresh, beautiful, and dramatically persuasive. The applause and the cheers were really for Maestro Verdi. To understand what he meant, we must simply do what he asks of us.