Lesson #364: Verdi’s Russian Opera

I’ve mentioned before that one of my friends is dating an opera singer. The professional company (not an actual opera company) she sings with had their spring concert tonight, and it just happened that the theme of the evening was opera. Lucky me! What I most enjoyed about it (apart from the fact that they did some stuff from Die Fledermaus, which, if you’ve been reading long enough, you’ll remember I saw in Budapest and absolutely loved) was that they had a musicologist on hand, who told stories about the music we were hearing. Which was good. Because…

They played the overture to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, which I’d never heard before. And I was very confused. I have a pretty well-rounded classical music education, especially as regards the Russians, whom I adore. But generally speaking, I can usually tell by listening to a piece where it comes from because certain regions have certain specific traits. But this piece is truly baffling.

I must have been wearing that confusion on my face because my friend leaned over to me and asked, “are you okay? You look concerned.” “This is the most Russian sounding Italian music I’ve ever heard. I’m so confused!” Well, between the overture and the sung piece (Rataplan, which was by far my least favourite piece of the evening), the musicologist got to discussing the origins of the opera. It turns out there’s a reason why it sounds so Russian; it was commissioned by the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1861 and was first performed at the same in November of 1862.

Learning this made me feel a lot less like I was completely losing my mind, musically speaking.

If you listened to the link I posted and you have even a basic understanding of the Russians as composers, you’ll see why I was so confused by it. It’s Russian from the first note. Except that it was written by Verdi and set in Spain and Italy. So there are also parts of it that are more Italian than not, particularly in some of the string sections. But once the woodwinds and, especially, the horns get involved, it’s very definitely Russian. Honestly, it’s a bit all over the map.* But I didn’t hate it. It’s actually quite an interesting piece of music.**

*Pun intended.

**The consensus in what I’ve read in the books on opera I have in my own library and what the interwebs tell me is that this is considered Verdi’s best overture. I have no real opinion on that…I’m not huge on Verdi in the first place. Some of his stuff I like a lot (La Traviata, Nabucco, Dies Irae from his Requiem), some I’m meh on (Aida, Rigoletto).

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