Riccardo Muti Conducts features Verdi's rarely heard Overture to Giovanna d'Arco

Verdi, Puccini & Respighi create a delightful night of Italian Masters

Riccardo Muti's all-Italian program features Verdi's rarely heard Overture to Giovanna d'Arco and graceful "Ballet of the Four Seasons" from I vespri siciliani. The program continues with Puccini's gorgeous Preludio sinfonico and Respighi's evocative tone poem Pines of Rome.

Verdi’s opera Joan of Arc is rarely produced, though there has been a steady trickle of performances and recordings. Critics are in disagreement over the merit of the composer’s seventh opera, which presents an unhistorical version of the warrior-maid, based mainly on Schiller’s play, The Maid of Orleans. Today we think of the legendary Joan as having been tried for heresy and burned at the stake; but Schiller and Verdi show her taken up into heaven after her death on the battlefield. This apparent “error” is understandable when considering that in the first part of the 19th century, Joan was not yet the iconic figure we think of today: she had not yet been canonized or become the patron saint of France. Verdi paints with bold, bright, primary colors that impart a martial air to the music that’s impossible to miss. There is no place for gray on its moral plane. Though music from Giovanna d’Arco began to be heard in a variety of guises in the United States around the late 1840s, the overture was performed on one of the most notable of social occasions of the year 1861: the inaugural night of opera at the newly completed Brooklyn Academy of Music as a prelude to another opera, Mercadante’s Il Giuramento.

“Ballet of the Four Seasons” from I vespri siciliani (The Sicilian Vespers) (1855)
The 5-act opera introduced by this overture was actually created under the name Les vêpres siciliennes and was the first that Verdi composed to a French libretto, itself written by Eugène Scribe and Charles Duveyrier. It had been commissioned for the Great Exhibition of 1855 in Paris. The subject matter of the opera deals with the 13th century occupation of the island of Sicily by the French and the uprising against them by the people of Palermo on Easter Sunday, 1282. The Vesper bells are the signal for the start of the revolt. Les vêpres was premiered at the Paris Opéra and later in Palermo in 1855.

In 1861 the libretto was finally translated into Italian, and that is how the opera is performed today. Verdi found the libretto distasteful on two accounts: it offends the French who are massacred at the end of the opera, and it offends Italians because of the treachery of the Sicilians. Although there have been recent revivals, the overture has always been looked on more favorably than the opera itself. Verdi calls it sinfonia in his score (implying it is a full-scale overture, not just a brief curtain raiser).

It is by turns dramatic and lyrical, and effectively presages both the bloody spectacle as well as the music to come—a rousing composition indeed. After many plot twists, a confrontation has occurred between Monforte, the French governor of Sicily, and Arrígo, a young Sicilian who reveals himself to be Monforte’s son and sworn enemy. At this crucial point in the opera, father and son proceed to the great hall, where the lengthy “Ballet of the Four Seasons” is presented for the entertainment of the governor’s guests. It was de rigeur in French opera to include a ballet to satisfy the demands of the gentlemen at the Opéra, who had their favorites among the dancers. And Les vêpres being (originally) French, Verdi obliged with an extensive ballet.

The colorful music shows Verdi’s skills as an orchestrator; moreover, he apparently had more than a passing interest in and knowledge of dance, judging from the detailed notes he provided in the score for the choreography. The “Ballet of the Four Seasons” has been set a number of times more recently, including by such dance luminaries as Jerome Robbins and Kenneth MacMillan.

Preludio sinfonico in A Major (1882)
When we think of Giacomo Puccini, we tend to think of Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, and Turandot; non-opera music does not immediately leap to mind. Yet this 11-minute orchestral jewel is just that, a lovely, lyrical piece dating from early in his career, likely as a student project composed while Puccini was enrolled at the Milan Conservatory. It carries within it the passion and melodic splendor that soon enough would find their way into his stage works; in fact, he drew upon this piece when he composed his first two operas (Le villi and Edgar, now essentially forgotten). After a quiet woodwind introduction taken up by the strings the melody expands and leads to a gorgeous climax, subsides, and ends softly.

Pini di Roma (The Pines of Rome) (1924)
The Pines of Rome is part of a trilogy of tone poems celebrating the Italian capital (the others being The Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals), composed by Ottorino Respighi between 1916 and 1929.

The composer said that his intention wasn’t so much to be directly descriptive in these works, but rather to show a “transfigured truth converted into sound.” Still, he provided comments on each of the four parts that take the listener to pine stands in and around Rome: “Pines of the Villa Borghese,” the splendid estate of an important Renaissance family, depicts children playing a sort of “Ring Around the Rosey” (“in the pine groves of what are now public gardens, [they] play at soldiers, marching and fighting, twittering and shrieking like swallows, they come and go in swarms, and suddenly the scene changes”); “Pines near a Catacomb” (“shadows of the pine trees fringing the entrance to a catacomb. From the depths rises a mournful chant that reechoes solemnly, sonorously, like a hymn, and then dies away mysteriously”); “Pines of the Janiculum” is a nocturne that features the haunting song of a real (recorded) nightingale (“moonlight enfolds the pines on Janiculum Hill with mystery”); and “The Pines of the Appian Way” (“The tragic country is guarded by solitary pines. The muffled, ceaseless rhythm of unending footsteps…visions of past glories; trumpets blaze, and the army of the Consul advances brilliantly in the grandeur of a newly risen sun, a consular army bursts forth towards the Sacred Way, mounting in triumph to the Capitoline Hill.”)

Premiered in the United States by Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic in 1926, this sumptuous score, shows Respighi as a consummate orchestrator whose palette of colors shimmers in the Italian sun and glows darkly in the twilight.

Avery Fisher Hall
Wed, Thurs, Fri, Sat Apr. 22-25, 2009
Price Range: $30.00-$104.00

Tickets available online.

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