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Verdi in Victorian London

Massimo Zicari

17. Aida (1876)

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  • 1 The Times, March 4, 1876, p. 9.
  • 2 The Times, April 17, 1876, p. 7.
  • 3 The Times, May 2, 1876, p. 8.
  • 4 The Times, May 9, 1876, p. 4.

1On 4 March 1876, Gye announced that the opera season at Covent Garden would begin on 28 March with Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. As usual, the manager was eager to inform the public that he had secured a true parade of star artists for his establishment; this year, the cast included Adelina Patti, Ernest Nicolini and Francesco Tamagno among others. In addition to a selection of works from the traditional repertoire, a couple of novelties were promised that would not fail to attract the public’s interest. Verdi’s grand opera Aida, featuring Adelina Patti in the title role, and Wagner’s Tannhäuser, with Emma Albani, were announced together with Lohengrin and Verdi’s most celebrated works: La traviata, Il trovatore, Rigoletto, Un ballo in maschera, Don Carlos, Ernani and Luisa Miller.1 Augusto Vianesi and Enrico Bevignani would share conducting duties. After Guillaume Tell, which opened the season, Un ballo in maschera and Don Giovanni were scheduled for early in April, followed by Les Huguenots, La favorite, Don Pasquale and Martha. A short review of Un ballo in maschera appeared in the columns of The Times, making a few critical points and referring only to the interpreters. The same thing happened with La traviata a couple of weeks later, when The Times reviewed the performance and paid particular attention to “Mlle. Rosavella,” alias Blanche Roosevelt, the first American female performer to sing Italian operas in London and the author of Verdi: Milan and ‘Othello’ (1887). She was judged a still young soprano from whom perfection could not be expected.2 On 29 April, Wagner’s Lohengrin was revived in preparation for the repeatedly announced and long-expected Tannhäuser. The critic of The Times took this opportunity to utter a few words of appreciation regarding the highly poetical subject of Lohengrin and the manner in which the composer had, in many passages, fully realised it in the music.3 Predictably, on 6 May Tannhäuser brought an immense crowd to Covent Garden. The overture was repeated and in general the performance was extremely successful, at least in popular terms. Over the same week, Rigoletto, La fille du régiment (as La figlia del reggimento) and L’elisir d’amore were also given, while La sonnambula, Lucrezia Borgia, Faust and Semiramide were produced at Her Majesty’s Opera, Drury Lane.4

Fig. 12. Adelina Patti, the first Aida in London in 1876, as seen by the American satirical magazine Puck in 1881.

Fig. 12. Adelina Patti, the first Aida in London in 1876, as seen by the American satirical magazine Puck in 1881.
  • 5 The Illustrated London News, October 9, 1875, p. 362.
  • 6 The Athenaeum, April 29, 1876, p. 608.

2On 16 May, The Times announced that Aida was in preparation at Covent Garden and likely to be performed early the following month. Aida was given in London for the first time on 22 June 1876, and its premiere was preceded by the performance of an orchestral arrangement prepared by Arditi and presented during the promenade concerts at Covent Garden in October 1875. As reported by the Illustrated London News, the selection comprised vocal pieces, the instrumental prelude to the opera, ballet and procession music; the orchestra was supplemented by the Coldstream Guards.5 The sense of anticipation that preceded the performance of Verdi’s new opera can be perceived also in a contribution that appeared in the columns of The Athenaeum on 29 April 1876, where a review of the Paris premiere of Aida on the 22nd of that month was published. The critic described the reception of Aida in the French capital as rapturous, and expressed a first opinion on the merits of Verdi’s new accomplishment. Although he lamented that the composer continued to revel in the deaths of his principal female personages, the critic had to admit that the strong situations presented in the libretto suited the composer’s temperament, and the score included moments that were truly magnificent. The critic found fault with the quality of the melodic ideas, which were judged commonplace, and the manner in which Verdi indulged in their elaboration rather than aiming at concision and brevity. But, the critic continued, notwithstanding these defects, the score offered moments of dramatic inspiration “indicating his individuality and his power, as well as his command of melodious imagery and pathos.”6 Although some duets and romanzas could exemplify the quality referred to by the critic, Verdi’s forte lay in the finales, where the breadth and grandeur of the ensembles were said to be impressive. As to the extent to which the German school might have exerted its influence over the Italian composer, the critic argued that signs were visible in the treatment of the orchestra; however, he suggested that the model offered by Meyerbeer’s music carried more weight than that of Wagner’s musico-dramatic works and doctrines. Despite Verdi’s tendency to be too loud, the critic acknowledged and appreciated his skills in creating imposing orchestral effects and interesting instrumental solutions.

  • 7 The Athenaeum, July 1, 1876, p. 25.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 26.
  • 9 Ibid.
  • 10 Upon Chorley’s retirement Charles Gruneisen took his position as music critic at The Athenaeum (see (...)

3Another mildly appreciative attitude can be observed in the review that appeared in The Athenaeum on 1 July, when Aida premiered in London. The critic drew the reader’s attention to the line of continuity that connected Aida with La forza del destino and Don Carlos in terms of both form and conception. While the composer’s tendency “to note human passions in their violence was in no degree modified,”7 his style appeared to have developed with regard to the treatment of the orchestra. As already argued in April, it was not Wagner who should be credited for this change, but rather Meyerbeer. Verdi presented an over-intensification of Meyerbeer’s model, or, to use the critic’s own expression, he had “out-Meyerbeered” Meyerbeer. The Italian composer excelled in those strong human conflicts that had always characterised his dramatic choices, and whenever the expression of extreme emotions was involved, he did not fail to show his dramatic power. The “most telling points and most imposing effects” were to be found in the finale of the second act, but even though the critic argued that none of the duets were either consistent or coherent, he admitted that they contained isolated passages of true beauty. The two duets in the last act (the first between Amneris and Radamès, the second between Aida and Radamès) were pronounced excellent. Adelina Patti’s portrayal of Aida was the true attraction of the night, her beautiful voice towering above the fortissimo of her colleagues, the orchestra and the chorus. The traditional complaint regarding the manner in which Verdi abused the singers’ voices by placing them against the loudest possible orchestral background is no longer to be found among the critic’s points. However, while Ernesta Gindele was considered equal to the task allotted to her, the critic held that “the representatives of the male characters were all more or less unfit to meet the calls on their vocal capabilities.”8 Finally, instead of predicting an ephemeral success, the critic argued that there was no reason why Aida should not take a long-lasting place in the repertoire together with Verdi’s earlier successes. Notwithstanding the faults and shortcomings evidenced by the critic, the score offered “redeeming features” sufficient to prove that Verdi “still maintains that peculiar ascendency over the sympathies of audiences which asserts itself in striking situations so vividly.” “In short,” he continued, “Signor Verdi has the faculty, amidst trivialities, of never writing an opera in which there is not some display of emotional and sensational power.”9 Although Charles Gruneisen shared with his authoritative predecessor a conservative attitude, the way in which he conceptualised Verdi’s recent compositional achievements was not characterised by the same inflexible, intransigent tone, not to mention the witty language and mocking expressions, typical of Chorley.10 Verdi, whose operas were included in the regular repertoire and had been appreciated by an international audience for thirty years now, did not need to strive for public recognition or critical consensus. His figure now commanded respect.

  • 11 The Times, June 23, 1876, p. 9.

4A similar impression can be gleaned from the reviews that appeared in the columns of The Times. On 23 June, in reporting briefly on the popular success of Aida’s first performance, the critic addressed Verdi as the “dramatic composer, who for some 30 years has been one of the chief entertainers of our opera-going public, and whose melodies, through every available source, have long been made universally familiar among us.”11 Even though describing Verdi as “one of the chief entertainers” of opera does not constitute a particularly flattering compliment, such an expression should be understood as a genuine tribute to a composer whose international prominence in 1876 could be neither denied nor ignored. The question arises as to whether or not the reference to his entertaining quality stems from the antagonistic comparison now made with Wagner and his lofty theories on music-drama. In our eyes, the tone adopted by the critic of The Times and The Musical World, although not apologetic, seems to reveal a new sympathy for the Italian composer. For instance, one of the most common complaints expressed in the mid- 1840s concerned the supposed lack of style manifested in his operas, especially when compared to Rossini’s masterpieces; this complaint was now replaced by the tribute to “a style of his own.” The promises made by the young composer had not remained unfulfilled.

  • 12 The Times, June 26, 1876, p. 10, and The Musical World, July 1, 1876, p. 447.

Although the opinions of connoisseurs differed about the merits of this work, none could dispute the fact that the young musician (Verdi was then in his 30th year) showed real dramatic fire, and—important fact—had a style of his own. How since then he has steadily progressed, furnishing opera after opera, in which more and more original and striking features were recognized, all the world knows; and we believe that the examples of his genius, from period to period introduced among us, offer a fair test by which to adjudge his absolute merits.12

  • 13 Ibid.

5Having narrated the long and intricate plot of Aida, the reviewer made some critical remarks and pronounced the story gloomy from first to last. A comparison was drawn between the poverty of Aida’s libretto, which was lacking in many respects, and the manner in which Wagner’s works were characterised by a more stringent sense of dramatic necessity, thus suggesting that the German composer had now established himself as a benchmark for narrative consistency in operatic matters. However, with regard to the music, the critic could not agree with those commentators who argued that Wagner’s influence was audible in Verdi’s music. Although it was not possible to deny that Verdi’s style had developed over time, the claim that he was imitating his German colleague was unfounded. Verdi had become a cherished figure, one whose music did not represent a threat but instead a tuneful musical cradle in which to rejoice and take delight. He was most admirable owing to his distinct musical identity and, the critic seemed to suggest, he was all the more admirable since he had not embraced the threatening theories of his German antagonist: “Verdi knows better than to dive into unfathomable waters. He is, happily, still the Verdi of our long remembrance, our own Verdi in short; and may he continue to remain so.”13

  • 14 The Illustrated London News, July 1, 1876, p. 22.
  • 15 Ibid.

6Much less critical acumen was displayed by the critic of The Illustrated London News, whose review of Aida made its appearance on 1 July. The complex questions of a significant change in the composer’s style and the alleged influence of Wagner or the so-called German school were addressed in oversimplified terms; the critic suggested that after Un ballo in maschera, Verdi seemed to have renounced proper melody for the sake of prolonged declamation, “probably in emulation of Wagner’s music.”14 The critic held that the first symptoms of the change in question had become clearer in his recent works, although in Aida they had reached an unprecedented level. However, the critic failed to describe in detail what those symptoms consisted of; instead, he insisted on a problematic feature in Verdi’s music, declamation, which had been subject to ample scrutiny and severe critical discussion long before either Wagner’s music or theories could represent a reference model. Of this gap the critic did not seem to be aware. Having narrated the plot, he then returned to the topic and suggested that the influence of the Wagnerian model was evident in the use of “certain peculiar orchestral devices,” both in the prelude and the four acts that follow: what those devices consisted of he was not able to elucidate. As surprising as it may sound, the critic held that even though the music comprised moments that were quite effective, it was “of a sombre tone and rather subordinated to the dramatic action than calculated to interest the hearer apart therefrom.”15 For a moment the critic seems to have forgotten that expressing the dramatic content of the libretto is exactly what music is about in an opera, and that Verdi was particularly keen on emphasising this ability of the music. The performance was good and the public did not spare themselves when the moment arrived to bestow upon the soloists clear signs of unconditional appreciation.

  • 16 The Musical Times, July 1, 1876, pp. 524–25.

7The position expressed by the critic of The Musical Times was far more controversial. To start with, he argued that it was possible to acknowledge a certain change in Verdi’s style only upon the assumption that he ever had a style—perhaps he had gained in prominence simply by imitating the styles of others. With regard to the various foreign influences, he claimed that no sooner had Verdi abandoned the Italian models, than he had begun to base his work upon Meyerbeer and Wagner. The imitation of the first had resulted in “that pretentious work Don Carlos,” while the influence of the great prophet of the future was evident “in the Ethiopian Opera Aida.”16 Having argued that the production of Aida had caused little excitement in both Italy and Paris, he expressed his firm belief that in England it would not obtain a permanent position in the repertoire. Although the critic expressed strong reservations about the manner in which Verdi had captured the true Egyptian local colour, he had a few kind things to say about the concerted pieces and the expression of strong dramatic effects.

  • 17 Ibid.

In the impassioned scenes he is certainly most successful, yet in some of his more quiet music—as for instance in the Romance for the tenor, “Celeste Aida” there is much to admire; and in several of the concerted pieces in which the dramatic action is carried on, occasional writing, both for voices and orchestra, occurs which convinces us how legitimately he can command the resources of his art.17

  • 18 Ibid.
  • 19 The Musical Times, August 1, 1876, p. 551.
  • 20 Ibid.
  • 21 Ibid.

8However, when the critic turned his attention again to the Wagnerian question, he argued that analysis of the score showed the proposition that Aida resembled Tannhäuser or Lohengrin to be sheer nonsense. “Wagner illustrates his music by a spectacle; Verdi illustrates a spectacle by his music.”18 The music was very loud more often than not, but the interpreters were up to the task assigned to them. The audience itself responded loudly and frantically. One month later Henry Lunn commented on the London musical season of that year from the columns of The Musical Times and, to some extent, confirmed the views already expressed. The two most prominent events of the season were Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Verdi’s Aida. Of the German composer he claimed that, although a tyrant, he had at least a merit: he taught the singers “their real place in the artistic kingdom,”19 a quality on account of which he should be forgiven for “a little excess of zeal in carrying out so salutary a reform.”20 On the other hand, the critic addressed Verdi in scornful terms and described Aida as “a gaudy spectacle which, as it belongs to no recognised school, we may presume to be Egyptian.”21 Unlike his colleague from The Times, Lunn insisted on the impossibility of referring to a precise style when talking of Verdi.

  • 22 The Times, July 24, 1876, p. 8.

9On 24 July, upon the conclusion of the Royal Italian Opera season at Covent Garden, the critic of The Times commented on its richness and variety, and provided the reader with a list of composers most in demand, judging by the number of performances of their respective works. Verdi scored highest on the list, with eighteen performances, followed by Donizetti (thirteen), Wagner (eleven), Mozart and Meyerbeer (nine), and Rossini coming in last with seven performances.22 This confirmed the opinion expressed by the same critic, who pronounced Verdi’s Aida the most successful event of the year, at least in popular terms. In conclusion, although it was impossible to deny that Aida represented a significant change in Verdi’s compositional style, not everybody agreed on the circumstances leading to that change.

10The reviews that made their appearance in the 1870s invite a couple of reflections on the manner in which the changes in Verdi’s style had occasioned different reactions among the London critics. However reluctantly, none of the commentators taken into consideration could deny that Verdi’s compositional style had developed over the years; signs of this development were evident not only in Aida, but also in Don Carlos and in other earlier works. Despite the changes, Verdi continued to be Verdi—in some case the cherished Verdi—and it was possible to recognise those features that had come to be associated with him and understood as most typical of his personality; that is to say a preference for strong dramatic situations, an aversion to proper melody—to which declamation was preferred—and a marked talent for the treatment of the finali. On the other hand, the composer had toned down some of the undesirable characteristics distinctive of his early operas and, in general, his music had evolved towards greater maturity. The question was what had caused the changes that were now observable, and whether Richard Wagner or the German-born, French-oriented Giacomo Meyerbeer was more responsible for them. A number of contrasting attitudes among the London critics contributes to making this picture all the more intricate. While Verdi had come to represent a familiar figure in the operatic scenario, the recent appearance of Wagner’s works in London had caused fear and distress. Compared to Wagner, Verdi the popular composer was a reassuring figure who embodied the Italian tradition, whatever the intrinsic value of his music. Those who feared that Wagner would gain prominence in London took refuge in Verdi and in his unchallenging music. In this light, those critics who recognised in Meyerbeer the model for Verdi’s more mature style had caught an essential factor in his recent evolution. In fact, the increasing interest Verdi took in the Paris scene is well documented and echoes of motifs from Meyerbeer’s L’etoile du nord or Le prophète are noticeable in Les vêpres siciliennes. While the Paris factor was instrumental in at least some of Verdi’s musical choices, the composer always refused to acknowledge any influence whatsoever from Wagner.

  • 23 The Times, August 19, 1876, p. 10. The same article were reproduced in the columns of The Musical W (...)

11On 10 June, The Times published a report from its Munich correspondent in which the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth was confirmed and the dates of the performances communicated. During the subsequent months much attention was paid to what was to become the most important musical event of the year. Der Ring des Nibelungen was in preparation at Bayreuth. In August ample reports detailed the progress of Wagner’s colossal undertaking. A first general comment appearing on 19 August in the columns of The Times reassured anxious musicians that the art of music stood in no danger and that “the operatic composers worthy the name, to say nothing of the piping operatic singing birds, who give voice to their melody, can rest in quietude with arms enfolded.”23 The reason was simple. Wagner’s work defied the traditional notion of opera; it should be rather considered a play, in which the speeches are declaimed, rather than sung, to an orchestral accompaniment. But it was not even appropriate to define what the orchestra had to play as accompaniment. Therefore, those who continued to busy themselves with the composition of veritable operas had nothing to be worried about.

Fig. 13. Giuseppe Verdi, illustration by Théobald Chartran, Vanity Fair, 15 February 1879.

Fig. 13. Giuseppe Verdi, illustration by Théobald Chartran, Vanity Fair, 15 February 1879.


1 The Times, March 4, 1876, p. 9.

2 The Times, April 17, 1876, p. 7.

3 The Times, May 2, 1876, p. 8.

4 The Times, May 9, 1876, p. 4.

5 The Illustrated London News, October 9, 1875, p. 362.

6 The Athenaeum, April 29, 1876, p. 608.

7 The Athenaeum, July 1, 1876, p. 25.

8 Ibid., p. 26.

9 Ibid.

10 Upon Chorley’s retirement Charles Gruneisen took his position as music critic at The Athenaeum (see chapter 18).

11 The Times, June 23, 1876, p. 9.

12 The Times, June 26, 1876, p. 10, and The Musical World, July 1, 1876, p. 447.

13 Ibid.

14 The Illustrated London News, July 1, 1876, p. 22.

15 Ibid.

16 The Musical Times, July 1, 1876, pp. 524–25.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 The Musical Times, August 1, 1876, p. 551.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 The Times, July 24, 1876, p. 8.

23 The Times, August 19, 1876, p. 10. The same article were reproduced in the columns of The Musical World.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 12. Adelina Patti, the first Aida in London in 1876, as seen by the American satirical magazine Puck in 1881.
Fichier image/jpeg, 116k
Titre Fig. 13. Giuseppe Verdi, illustration by Théobald Chartran, Vanity Fair, 15 February 1879.
Fichier image/jpeg, 69k