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The Sweet & Sour Smell of Success

ART TIMES December 2007

Verdi was fond of reconstructing his own biography to turn it into a legend. One of his most quoted stories, more or less disproved in recent years, is that he was so depressed by the failure of his second opera that he decided to compose no others. When offered a new libretto about Nebucodonosor, King of Babylon, he turned it down; but the head of the opera house shoved it into his pocket.

     Once home, Verdi threw it onto a table and it fell open to the chorus of the Hebrew slaves, “Va, pensiero, sull’ ali dorate.” He claims the words kept him from sleeping and he had to get up in the middle of the night to set it to music. It is a fact that the chorus became so popular among the Italians smarting under Austrian rule that it became the unofficial national anthem for a yet to be nationalized Italia.

     Of course, having scored such a success with a selection that appealed to Italians, Verdi found himself—volens-nolens—having to supply equally rousing elements in his next operas. The problem was that this proved difficult to do. Bettering yourself can be quite frustrating.

     In “Attila,” for example, a Roman envoy, Enzo, suggests that he and Attila divide Italy between them. When Attila asks why he has to share anything (shades of “The Untouchables”!), the original Enzo set the audience to cheering by singing, “Avrai tu l’universo, resti l’Italia a me” (You can have the whole world if Italy remains mine).

     The only scene in Verdi’s “Macbetto” that does not take place in Scotland has a chorus of Scottish exiles bemoaning their fate. As do most second attempts at a hit, this chorus never quite “caught on” in the way that the “Nabucco” one did.

     In one of Verdi’s least performed operas, “La Battaglia di Legnano,” a soldier is about to be killed by an outraged husband, who then realizes that keeping the soldier locked up during a battle would be a fate worse than death. Feeling the same way, the soldier leaps from his prison with a loud cry of “Viva Italia” that was calculated to—and did—bring the audience to a state of frenzied cheering. (Shades of George M. Cohan!) However, the Slaves Chorus was never quite bettered.

     A different problem had to be faced by Oscar Hammerstein II when he was writing the lyrics for “Away We Go!” (The title was changed after its previews to “Oklahoma!”) He confessed that he was running out of ways to write “I love you” in the love ballads that were an ironclad requirement for musicals. At the start of the work, Curly and Laurie are not yet ready to admit they are in love, so Hammerstein was able to write with perfect appropriateness, “Don’t throw bouquets at me, don’t laugh at my jokes too much…People will say we’re in love.” And that is as close as the primary love interests get to an “I love you” duet. Following up was not so simple.

     Having succeeded with that, when “Carousel” came along, he has Billy tell his Julie what things would be like “IF I loved you, words WOULDn’t come in an easy way.” Using the conditional mode was still inventive back in 1945. Of course, Gilbert had gotten there many decades earlier in “The Mikado,” where Nanki-Poo sings, “WERE you not to Ko-Ko plighted, I WOULD say in tender tone” et cetera.

     See for yourself, how many non-standard love songs there are among the post-“Carousel” Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. “Allegro” has “The gentleman is a dope” and the closest the King and Anna can get to expressing mutual affection is “Shall we dance?”

     A version of this problem is the One-Success composer.  Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” was his first opera, written for a competition which he had very little hope of winning. It did win and it still plays to packed houses, especially with its “twin,” Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci.” Good for Pietro. But how many of his operas can one name that followed his initial triumph? “L’Amico Fritz”? And that one only because of the Cherry Duet that is often sung out of context. He did write 14 others, none of which see many or any productions and more than a few recordings on obscure labels.

     Ditto for the other works of Leoncavallo. His “La Boheme” has been totally eclipsed by Puccini’s version; and were it not for an old 45-rpm I used to own with Robert Merrill singing a song from “Zaza,” I could not name even that work as being a Leoncavallo opera.

     For those who insist on a moral, try this. If at first you don’t succeed, be grateful.

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