A Beginner’s Guide to Verdi

9 November 2023

Verdi is often considered to be the ultimate opera composer. He’s a particular favourite of ours at Welsh National Opera, having performed 17 of his 28 operas over the years, the first being La traviata in 1948. But if you’re starting from scratch with your Verdi knowledge, what’s most important to know? Let's take a look...

A Prolific Composer

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) was Italy’s leading opera composer in the 19th century. His enormous musical output made sure that he dominated the opera scene for more than three decades, the bulk of which came from his early career during the 1840s and 1850s. By the end of his life, Verdi was an international celebrity and his operas performed all over the world.

Verdi’s operas are often what spring to mind when thinking about what a ‘traditional’ opera might look and sound like: virtuosic soloists, dramatic confessions of love, fearsome villains, elaborate costumes, suspenseful plots and spiteful revenge.

Bold Characters and Controversial Stories

In the 19th century, Italian opera had traditionally focused on historical subjects, myth or well-known tales – but Verdi loved contemporary literature and spoken theatre and was eager to write operas about engaging stories that reflected the modern world that he lived in.

Sometimes his artistic choices could prove controversial with the opera-going public, but this ‘middle period’ of his career resulted in his best-known and most performed operas. These included La traviata from Alexandre Dumas fils’s La dame aux camélias, Rigoletto after Les Misérables author Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse, and Il trovatore based on Antonio García Gutiérrez’s play El trovador.

Choruses and Patriotism

As well as his incredibly virtuosic arias for principal roles, Verdi wrote some great numbers for opera chorus over the years. Some of the most famous are the Brindisi (Drinking Song) Libiamo, ne’ lieti calici from La traviata and the Witches’ Chorus from Macbeth

Some choruses went on to become hugely popular and symbolic. From Verdi’s breakthrough opera, Nabucco (1841), the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves Va, Pensiero  (Fly, thought, on wings of gold) was an instant hit with Italians in a divided land. At this time, ‘Italy’ didn’t exist as its own country, and soon the chorus became identified with the Risorgimento (Resurgence) movement to unify the Italian peninsula under one nation state. Although Verdi wasn’t a leading advocate of the movement, he and his music were seen as representative for the cause of Italian unification which was later achieved in 1871.

Want to experience the magic of Verdi’s operas for yourself? Don’t miss your last chance to catch Verdi’s La traviata, performing in Birmingham, Milton Keynes and Southampton in November 2023.