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The Battle Of The Opera: A Comparative Essay on Verdi and Wagner's Operatic Styles

March 5, 2013

Guiseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner are both excellent examples of Italian and German opera composers. Together, their operas clear up the uncertainty between the similarities and differences of Italian and German opera. Guiseppe Verdi was an Italian Romantic composer that created twenty-six operas from 1839 to 1893, while Richard Wagner was a German Romantic composer from 1813 to 1883. Verdi has been considered a traditionalist composer, keeping an orderly development upon his music. As Donald Jay Grout suggests in his book, A History Of Western Music 4th Ed., this traditionalism could be possibly linked to Italy’s strong possession with long, unbroken operatic traditions, for opera was loved by a whole people (Grout 136). Grout points out: “At no point did Verdi break with the past or experiment radically with new theories; his evolution was toward refinement of aim and technique, and in the end he brought Italian opera to a point of perfection never since surpassed” (Grout 736). Wager however, was constantly experimenting and creating new frameworks, leading him to create the new “music drama” form, the idea of a total or collective work experience known as his “Gesamtkunstwerk”, and brought German Romantic opera to its consummation (Grout 745). Grout suggests that “the harmonic idiom of his late works carried to the limit the tendencies toward dissolution of Classic tonality, becoming the starting point for developments still continuing to the present day” (Grout 745). A simple comparison of Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde (1859) to Verdi’s La Traviata (1853) shall bring to light the stark differences, but also the similarities between the two composers and their operas.

Verdi’s La Traviata (meaning, the fallen woman) is an Italian opera that is sung in French. Unlike most of Verdi’s operas, which tell stories set in the historical past, La Traviata takes place in Verdi’s time (the 19th century) and contains realistic characters, situations, and emotions; fuelling what some argue to be his most impassioned music (Burkholder 795). La Traviata was based on the play La Dame Aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, and was first performed on March 6, 1853. Wager’s Tristan and Isolde is a German-sung opera that was based on a thirteenth century romance by Gottfried von Strassberg. The story of Tristan and Isolde (also known as Tristan and Iseult) was originally a French medieval play that was inspired by Celtic legends, and is equated with the star-crossed lovers theme, which Wagner emphasises through several musical motives.

Verdi uses a traditional AABA’ with Coda form and puts a large emphasis on the text. In particular, the final scene in act III follows the common five-part duet structure formed by Rossini: the scena (scene), tempo d’attacco (opening section), cantabile (slow and lyrical expression of calm emotion such as sadness and hope), tempo di mezzo (middle section), and the cabaletta (a fast expression of active mention such as joy and anger) (Burkholder 796). This conventional structure is filled with a variety of contrasting styles and textures that intensify the drama and outline the plot. He also creates and an outlining harmonic plan that highlights different moods from the three main sections. This is achieved through three keys that are related by major thirds (E major for the tempo d’attacco, A flat major for the cantabile, and C major for the cabaletta) (Burkholder 796). There are mixed styles of phrasing. The opening scene contains a blank verse with seven to eleven-syllable lines, along with rapidly converse poetic lines between Violetta and Annina. Verdi steps outside of tradition briefly and sets the dialogue into short phrases above the melody lines in the orchestra. A Rossiniesque crescendo appears upon the entrance of Alfredo, which is followed by long melodic phrasing shared by Violetta and Alfredo (m28) (Burkholder 796). During the tempo d’attacco (m35), the poetry turns into rhyming pairs of five-syllable lines that’s balanced by four-measure phrases and is followed by the characters reciting each other’s lines and melodies with new rising and falling actions representing joy.

Wagner on the other hand used an interesting ABCC’A’B’A’’B’’A’’’ form, and put a larger emphasis on the orchestra, rather than the singers. Wagner did this by introducing nine leitmotives (leading motives) in the Prelude that he would continuously circulate throughout the opera. These motives would emphasise certain emotions, events, characters, and moods. With reintroducing these motives, Wagner believed that they would inflict far more meaning upon the audience, for the audience has already been exposed to their pure emotions for a long period of time, causing these emotions to feel familiar and have more meaning towards the audience (Burkholder 752). Motive A (m1-2) represents the love and desire that is constantly between Tristan and Isolde, making it the most reoccurring theme. Motive B (m2-11) is used to represent love and magic, for it appears when Isolde muses over Tristan, and returns when Brangäne reminds Isolde of the magic love potion. The Tristan Chord (F-B-D#-A) represents dissonance, and is used when Isolde drinks the love potion. Motive C (m16-17) uses chromatics and appoggiaturas to end the opening scene. Motive D (m17-21) expresses longing through large leaps and passing tones, and is strongly associated with Isolde’s feelings for Tristan. Motive E (m25) is marked with “zart”, meaning tenderness. Motive E suggests tenderness as well as rhythms from motive D. Motive F (m28-29) is almost an exact reversal of A, and is used along with motive G (29-30) to represent dialogue. It is used when Isolde speaks of the poison. Motive H (m36-40) is both wistful and suspenseful by drawing aspects from other motives, causing the emotion of the music to range from hopeful to fearful, all the while promoting the constant longing of the characters. Motive I is in a major key, and offers a sweeping motion with its chromatic scales and descending arpeggios. Motive I is used when Brangäne mentions the love potion, and suggests that Isolde should give it to King Mark (Burkholder 748-752). Throughout the opera, there are several moments where the opera singers are borrowing main melodies from the orchestra and are in fact accompanying the orchestra. He also used a very large orchestra, which created a challenge and demand for strong, powerful singers in order to not be drowned out. Voices with heavier penetration and robust were needed, which ultimately required more than what was needed for Italian opera.

On a lot of levels, Verdi and Wagner are incomparable, because their work, ideas, and operas can be radically different from one another through form, musical and lyrical emphasis, and even phrasing. However, there are still some similarities. Both were inspired by outside sources, both operas came out around the same time, and both operas pull from traditional opera. However, the real difference lies within their career paths. Verdi spent time perfecting the opera, which to this day is highly untouchable.

On the other hand, Wagner spent time experimenting and creating his “Gesamtkunstwerk”, (meaning total or collective work), and constructed a new face for opera. Wagner sought to provide an expression that combined music, poetry, scenic design, staging, and action to form what he called “Gesamtkunstwerk” (total or collective work). Therefore a mere recording to him couldn’t provide complete satisfaction or the intended experience (Burkholder752). Both composers are just working in separate fields from one another. One is no better than the other, for they both bring different aspects to the opera world.

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