September 15, 2013

Falstaff: why Verdi is my hero

My composer-hero
If you could bring back one classical composer from the dead to spend some time with, who would you choose?

The sky's the limit here; you could have lunch with your composer (we're not talking zombie-like "living dead" here - he/she would be restored to the pink of health) or study with him or just have him for a golfing partner or a drinking buddy at the corner tavern.

So who would you go for? Wagner? (*crickets*) Yeah, me neither - what a tool. Bach? Handel? Liszt? Liszt would probably make for some interesting conversations.

Let me cut to the chase. I choose Giuseppe Verdi. I love his operas, but that's no reason to resurrect him.
I admire him personally.

Verdi was a guy who did not get caught up in his own hype. He was fairly allergic to fame and its trappings, avoiding undue publicity like the plague.

With as little fanfare as possible, he used his wealth to help people. His legacy includes a retirement home for elderly musicians in Milan and a hospital in his hometown area of Busetto. Both still stand and function today. When it was suggested that the hospital be named for Verdi, he put his foot down, insisting that the legend over the front door simply say "Ospidale". And so it did.

This brings me to the fact that his final (and greatest) masterpiece Falstaff is a comedy. This alone stands as testament to his strength of character.

"How's that, exactly?", I can hear you asking. Geez, if writing a comedy makes you a person of integrity, then Rossini must be a saint, right? You're going to need Verdi's back story to understand what Falstaff represents.

In 1836 the young Verdi, not yet established as a composer, married his childhood sweetheart Margharita Barezzi, the daughter of his foster father. They'd grown up together and made a sweet couple. Within a short time Margharita presesnted him with two children, a boy and a girl, Idyllic, right?

Within four years all three got sick and died. Catastrophe.Verdi reacted the way you or I would have: he sank into a deep, dark, nearly catatonic state of prolonged depression. He lost interest in everything: music, food, people, life. Something of a recluse, he walled himself up behind closed doors and drawn curtains, thinking toxic thoughts. He turned away from religion. What use was God? He takes away everything you love.

Understand something: in the 1840's there was no such thing as grief counseling. Psychotherapy had not yet been introduced to the world. There was no Prozac; no cute animated TV commercials for Abilify, with depression depicted as an umbrella with a sad face. You were depressed, you were on your own.

In our (supposedly) more enlightened age, we know that when friends or family suffer from the illness of depression (as Your Humble Blogger did years ago), they should never be told "Oh, cheer up. Lots of people have it worse than you. Pull yourself together; buck up."

Yes, that's the absolutely wrong thing to advise, and yet, remarkably...

...that's precisely what Giuseppe Verdi did. Through sheer strength of personality and will, he resumed his operatic career and made a name for himself.

Thus began a string of smash hits and familiar masterpieces. You know the names: Macbeth, Rigoletto, La Traviata, Il Trovatore, and on and on.

The adversity of his personal tragedies informed most of his operas. Verdi's operas are an unrelieved series of dark tragedies, generally atheistic in tone. In Verdi, people reference God; they pray to God; they speak of God. Yet by the final curtain, prayers have been unanswered, and good people are dead.

Psychiatrists often deal with the phenomenon of "survivor's guilt". The one family member surviving a car crash or house fire will be tormented with guilt over the deaths of those he suspects were more deserving of life. It is well-known that Verdi's guilt is depicted in opera after opera in which children's deaths are directly or indirectly at the hands of their fathers.

This is what I find stunning about Falstaff! Consider: Verdi ends his career with a sunny, optimistic, cheerful comedy. Ford doesn't kill his daughter Nannetta; he blesses her marriage to the boyfriend he found so annoying, Fenton. The happy couple isn't doomed; far from being walled up in a tomb or dying of poison or suicide, instead they are innocent children who scamper off at the finale, ready to begin adventures together.

In Falstaff, the consequences of human foolishness, jealousy and error are not doom and death; rather, laughter and love. Do you see what's going on here?

Giuseppe Verdi healed himself through his art. He purged his demons by re-living his tragedies through his tragic characters. He restored equilibrium to his outlook on life. He bid us adieu with life-affirmation.

That's who I want to have lunch with. How about you?


1 comment:

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