Verdi or Wagner?
As Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner both celebrate bicentenaries in 2013, Ivan Hewett asks opera experts from Philip Hensher to Mark Elder who the better composer is.
It’s apt that Wagner and Verdi were born in the same year. They are romantic opera’s two great antipodes, united in stature, but divided in almost everything else. They embody two completely different outlooks on life and art, which are rooted in the cultures of their respective nations. That’s why every German city has a Wagnerstrasse, and every Italian one a Corso Giuseppe Verdi.
Rodney Milnes, former editor of Opera Magazine
I grew up at a time when the canon of acceptable taste was: German music good, Italian music bad, French music worse. So I was a fanatical Wagnerite, and could sing and play (with fistfuls of wrong notes) Acts I and III of Wagner’s Valkyrie almost by heart, and I assiduously attended countless Wagner performances.
My Damascene moment came in the 1960s, when after two Ring cycles at Covent Garden I heard Verdi’s Don Carlos at ENO and thought, well, Verdi says as much as Wagner about the impossibility of power and love, but in a quarter of the time and with real tunes. So I immersed myself with pleasure and instruction in all Verdi, while being disrespectful to Wagner in print. Now I’m more balanced: what Wagner did he did very well, and what Verdi did, ditto. Both were very great 19th-century composers.
Antonio Pappano, music director, Royal Opera
I’m very amused by the need to pit Verdi and Wagner in opposite camps ready to do birthday battle. What they share is much more interesting, a seriousness of purpose allied with a natural temperament for the theatre. They were born out of long traditions, and both pushed the boundaries of those traditions to probe, question and create a theatrical future.
Naturally Wagner is seen as the revolutionary in this regard, but Verdi’s slow-growing, organic development led to truly remarkable breakthroughs also. They shared a love of language, and declamation, in their hands, becomes the true communicator of the deepest human feelings. They both created unparalleled excitement in the theatre, and to that end used the orchestra to transmit gut-wrenching intensity.
Crucially, they both challenge performers in the extreme, a sure-fire guarantee that Richard and Giuseppe will be here for ever. Evviva!
Mark Elder, music director, Halle Orchestra
I couldn’t live without either of these two colossi. For me Verdi’s greatest gift is the humanity he poured into the essentially melodic style of his predecessors like Donizetti.
Every one of his operas has its own special tone and atmosphere, what Verdi called a tinta. It’s amazing to think he worked on Traviata and Il Trovatore at the same time, and yet each lives in its own unique world.
Wagner was born on the other side of the Alps, and that makes a profound difference. For me Wagner is one of the great symphonic composers of the 19th century, and it allows him to capture infinite fine shades of feeling, but on an epic scale. Whereas Verdi catches a feeling in one pithy phrase.
For a conductor they’re utterly different. Verdi is very physical – you get sweaty conducting his music – whereas Wagner needs small movements. Traviata is a three-shirt opera, Parsifal I can do in one.