Introduction | High Romantic | Opera

On the face of it, the French Revolution failed when the House of Bourbon returned to rule France after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. The face of it, however, was deceptive. The forces of liberalism unleashed by the Revolution had simply made a strategic withdrawal.

In France, liberals, socialists and republicans remained opposed to extreme right-wing royalists, a situation duplicated throughout Europe where the ruling elites and the formerly powerless masses were set for collision.

Conductors, Composers and Politics

Richard Wagner (1813–83) was conductor of opera in Dresden when revolution broke out in the city in May of 1849. He joined in public demonstrations and was present when the street barricades went up. Twice, he opened his house for meetings designed to organize the distribution of arms to the citizens of Dresden, and, it appears, participated in the manufacture of hand-grenades. This was sedition and treason, punishable by death. A warrant was issued for Wagner’s arrest but by then he had managed to escape to Switzerland.

In Italy, Wagner’s close contemporary Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) was less inclined to go to extremes. Nevertheless, there was little doubt about his liberal leanings and the way he identified himself with the man in the street. When King Victor Emmanuel offered him a noble title, Verdi declined. He told the monarch: ‘o son un paesano’ – ‘I am a peasant’. Strictly speaking, this was not true – Verdi’s parents were village innkeepers and shop owners – but he certainly looked for his audiences among ordinary people rather than the intellectual elite.

Political Operatic Productions

Even before the revolutions of 1848, Verdi made what was taken as a political statement in support of the downtrodden masses: the Jews in exile in Babylon in his Nabucco were regarded by the people of Milan as a metaphor for their own servitude under the harsh rule of the Austrians. The following year Verdi was in trouble over the fiery, patriotic choruses in I Lombardi alla prima Crociata (‘The Lombards at the First Crusade’, 1843), which were considered politically dangerous and in 1851, his Rigoletto was initially banned because of its unflattering portrait of a ruler, the licentious Duke of Mantua.

Censorship and Fear

These were not the only occasions when Verdi fell foul of the opera censorship, but they certainly established his progressive credentials. It has been suggested that Verdi’s identity as a symbol of the Risorgimento – the movement to free and unite the states of Italy under the rule of Victor Emmanuel – may have reflected the view of later generations. However, Verdi’s liberal contemporaries seemed to regard the composer as one of their own, so much so that the letters of his surname became a symbol of their struggle. V-e-r-d-i, by unusual coincidence, stood for ‘Vittorio Emmanuele re d’Italia’– ‘Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy’ – and since it was seditious to proclaim the monarch’s name in public, the cry of Viva Verdi! (‘Long live Verdi!’) was substituted....

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