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Verdi in Victorian London

Massimo Zicari

14. Don Carlos and La forza del destino (1867)

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1Finally, after five fairly uneventful years, 1867 saw two new operas staged in London that bore the name of the only Italian composer who was able to attract the attention of the international public. On 4 June Don Carlos was performed at Covent Garden and conducted by Michael Costa, while on 22 June La forza del destino was produced at Her Majesty’s Theatre, the conducting duties assumed by Luigi Arditi.

  • 1 “Don Carlos, À Mons. Dishley Peters,” The Musical World, March 16, 1867, p. 161.

2News of the Paris premiere, on 11 March, of Verdi’s new grand opera Don Carlos began circulating in the London press on the 16th, when an anonymous French correspondent contributed a review to the columns of The Musical World.1 The review was published under the pseudonym of “Figaro” and addressed to Mons. Dishley Peters, one of the pseudonyms used by Davison. As Joseph Bennett testified, this name was frequently used by the editor in a column called “Muttonian.” The correspondent expressed himself in terms that were not at all encouraging, declaring himself doubtful as to whether Verdi’s most recent opera would establish itself as a long-lasting success. The critic sketched an image of one man who nevertheless embodied two composers of different value: the Verdi who had created such masterpieces as Ernani, Rigoletto, Trovatore and La traviata, and the one whose most recent attempts relied on the public’s forbearance, for they lacked the necessary dramatic power and therefore failed to convince.

  • 2 “As I was saying just now, there are two Verdis; the one who creates near- masterpieces; the other (...)

Comme je le disais tout à l’heure, il y a deux Verdi; l’un, qui fait de quasi chefs-d’œuvre; l’autre, qui illumine une partition tout entière de trois ou quatre morceaux à effet seulement, comptant, pour le reste, sur la longanimité du public. Don Carlos, malheureusement, est dû à la plume de ce dernier. Il y a, parbleu! clairsemées çà et là, des pages énergiques, bien vivantes, empruntées, volées même au vrai Verdi, mais l’ensemble est boiteux; la griffe du maitre apparait quelquefois, mais ce n’est que par éclairs.2

3The composer’s mistake, the critic continued, lay in his repeated attempt to follow a route that did not belong to him; this he did by imitating Meyerbeer and the French dramatic style. Don Carlos’s third act, together with some more isolated pieces, genuinely reflected Verdi’s old style, but the rest was quite contemptible. Finally, the French critic suggested that the opera could be improved by shortening it significantly and adding a ballet.

  • 3 The Musical World, March 30, 1867, p. 188.
  • 4 The Musical World, April 6, 1867, pp. 203–05.

4A couple of weeks later, on 30 March, Gye announced the forthcoming season of the Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden, which would commence on 2 April with the performance of Bellini’s Norma. Two novelties were included in the prospectus: Verdi’s Don Carlos and Charles Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette.3 On 6 April a similar announcement was made by Mapleson, informing the patrons and subscribers of Her Majesty’s Theatre that the Italian opera season there would open on 27 April and include the premiere of Verdi’s La forza del destino, together with the revival of I Lombardi. While the second work was chosen for the opening night, little mention was made of why the production of the first had been delayed for three years. The problem had been finding a tenor equal to the musical requirements of the work; the engagement of Pietro Mongini now removed the difficulty.4

  • 5 Ibid., p. 216.
  • 6 Ibid.
  • 7 The Musical World, April 13, 1867, p. 225.

5When the critic of The Musical World commented on the prospective performance of Verdi’s Don Carlos, he referred to the “at first doubtful but now apparently unquestioned” success of the opera in Paris, a success due to some of the finest music ever written by its composer.5 The readers were informed that as the original Paris version was exceedingly long, some judicious cuts would be made by the conductor Michael Costa. The London public would not endure a performance as lengthy as that presented in Paris, and if Rossini, Auber and Meyerbeer had been subject to a similar treatment, it would be “no indignity for Signor Verdi to be submitted to the same indispensable operation.”6 Raising the public’s expectations even further, The Musical World later published another report from a French correspondent, which included excerpts from the reviews appearing in Le Moniteur and Le Constitutionnel. The opera was pronounced an unquestionable financial success, as demonstrated by the fact that the theatre continued to fill with audiences. However, its popularity was not due to the compositional style on which the composer’s previous successes were based; in fact, a new, completely different style was now recognizable. Don Carlos was said to be based on the theories of modern classical music and the figure of Richard Wagner was evoked to suggest the kind of influence that might have played a role in Verdi’s development. As the critic of Le Moniteur put it, one thing was certain, “namely, that Verdi has completely modified his earlier methods, and adopted principles analogous to those of the German master.”7 Some of the French critics referred to a third style in Verdi but expressed strong doubts as to the extent to which the new phase would please the public and grant the composer a success equal to that obtained by his previous operas. Although the English public had not yet had the opportunity to listen to any of Wagner’s dramas, the antagonistic attitude exhibited by the London critics towards the so-called “music of the future” would predictably cast a shadow on the prospective production of Verdi’s new opera; at the same time, the parallel drawn between Wagner’s controversial theories and Verdi’s new style could not but excite general curiosity.

6In the meantime Un ballo in maschera was performed at Covent Garden on 23 April, while I Lombardi was revived at Her Majesty’s Theatre on the 30th. These revivals prompted the critic of The Musical World to elaborate on the different qualities of the two operas, especially when compared to the still unheard but already much-discussed new style developed in Don Carlos.

  • 8 The Musical World, May 4, 1867, p. 278.

Especially interesting is it to note the distinction in style and method of working between I Lombardi and Don Carlos—the one full of vulgarities and crudities, but also rich in melody and dramatic power; the other elaborated to an extent that wearies sadly the always expecting and constantly disappointed listener.8

  • 9 Ibid., p. 279.

7For Un ballo in maschera the critic again expressed words of strong appreciation, as it contained some of Verdi’s best music. “Don Carlos has yet to make its appearance among us, and meanwhile the third act of Un ballo will rank, in the judgment of English connoisseurs, nearest to the last act of Il trovatore, the second finale of La traviata, and certain scenes in Rigoletto, generally accredited as the Bussetese [sic] master’s capo d’opera.”9 However, the judgment that appeared in the same journal one week later, regarding the qualities and shortcomings of I Lombardi, was tepid. The critic dug up some of the grievances that had accompanied its first appearance in London in 1846.

  • 10 The Musical World, May 11, 1867, p. 294.

Though the music has all the crudeness, all the vapour, and much of the empty noise of his earliest style, with little of that strong dramatic feeling and striking melodic invention which have marked his later works, it is still essentially “Verdi,” and therefore must interest the many warm admirers of Verdi’s genius.10

  • 11 Ibid.
  • 12 The Times, May 6, 1867, p. 12.

8The critic could neither conceal nor deny that Verdi’s music contained certain salient qualities, on account of which the composer had become famous not only in his home country but also abroad. The usual grumbles concerning the choral music being almost everywhere in unison, the orchestra for the most part too noisy and the vocal solos excessively strenuous outweighed the critic’s sporadically appreciative remarks. A few glimpses of fancy, some occasional true melodic inventions and dramatic colouring were definitely present in I Lombardi. Specific reference was made to the vocal qualities exhibited by Tietjens, who had successfully mastered the “extremely fatiguing, nearly always overstrained, often difficult and rarely effective music of Giselda.”11 The opera, whose score had been subject to some “judicious curtailments” by Arditi, was said to be well worth a hearing but still unlikely to be revived again. The very same article appeared in the columns of The Times on 6 May, again suggesting that Davison supervised both periodicals.12

9One week later, a review of the just-commenced opera season at Covent Garden was published in the columns of the Saturday Review, where short mention was made of the repeated performance of Un ballo in maschera. It was a shame to see this opera performed again, when other less frequently revived operas were of much greater value. The critic expressed his regret at being obliged to listen to Verdi’s rendition of Eugène Scribe’s drama, while Daniel Auber’s grand opera on the same subject was so much better.

  • 13 The Musical World, May 18, 1867, p. 313, from The Saturday Review.

How deliciously fresh, melodious, and natural is the music of [Auber’s] Fra Diavolo, from the sparkling overture, with its characteristic drums and trumpets, to the end, compared with that of certain operas we are forced to listen to, and which we would willingly change for some other such comic work from the same prolific pen! For instance, Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera—which we have had twice already, and which brought back, in the character of Amelia, the heroine, that most uninteresting of prime donne assolute, Mdlle. Fricci—might well be laid aside for a season in favour of Auber’s Gustave III, founded upon the same story, laid out in the same manner, and the music of which is worth all that Verdi ever composed.13

10Quite similar critical remarks appeared soon afterwards in the same journal, and for analogous reasons, when the critic held that I Lombardi should be considered one of Verdi’s worst operas.

  • 14 The Musical World, May 25, 1867, p. 335, from The Saturday Review.

When we repeat that I Lombardi contains an air for the tenor (Oronte), “La mia letizia,” one or two spirited though by no means well-written choruses, short, abrupt, noisy, and generally in unison, a somewhat tortured prayer for Giselda, with occasional passages of less importance, we have said all that can justly be said in favour of the music in what is decidedly one of Verdi’s worst operas and one of the worst operas ever composed.14

  • 15 The Musical World, June 8, 1867, p. 376.
  • 16 Harry R. Beard, “‘Don Carlos’ on the London Stage: 1867 to 1869,” in Atti del II Congresso internaz (...)

11On 4 June, the premiere of Don Carlos was conducted by Michael Costa at Covent Garden, while, after a revival of Il trovatore, La forza del destino was in rehearsal at Her Majesty’s Theatre. A laconic review of Don Carlos made its appearance on 8 June in the columns of The Musical World, in which only brief mention was made of the music’s value: “As a work of art, Don Carlos is, perhaps, the most complete and masterly of Verdi’s productions.”15 The critic showed himself to be much more generous when commenting on the excellent quality of the performance and its splendid success among the public. Don Carlos was presented in the Italian translation by Achille de Lauzières, and even though Costa had shortened it by eliminating the first act almost completely and by cutting the ballet, its performance was still exceedingly long.16 It ran for seven performances and was revived the following season, thereafter to be abandoned for 65 years. On 15 June, a more articulate review of the opera was published in the columns of The Musical World (the same article had already been published in The Times on 10 June), emphasising the extent to which Verdi was indebted to Meyerbeer in both musical and dramatic terms. In spite of all that was indifferent, dull and heavy, Verdi’s new opera included some of the finest music he had ever composed. But, the critic suggested, everything that was good in the opera originated from a careful imitation of Meyerbeer’s model, and the finale of Act II in the Italian version represented a case in point.

  • 17 The Musical World, June 15, 1867, p. 3A7.

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