The Operas of Verdi: Volume 3 Julian Budden (Cassell pp. 546, £21) Nobody sane could bear to read a detailed synopsis of Aida,' wrote Noel Coward, and as with all his 'Opera Notes' it is the rhyme rather than the sentiment that counts. Julian Budden proves him wrong in just one paragraph on page 166 of the third and last volume of his massive and boundlessly stimulating study of Verdi's operas. Vollendet das ewige Werk' indeed, which, like so many quotations in the book itself, shall remain untranslated: Mr Budden assumes a smattering of European languages and a basic knowledge of operatic lore on the part of his readers.
The final volume covers just four operas — Don Carlos, Aida, Otello and Falstaff— and the form is as established previously. At the centre of each chapter are detailed musical analyses based on over 350 clear musical examples, analyses that we have long taken for granted as necessary for Wagner but are just as much deserved, indeed vital for Verdi. The section on the second-act duet for Elisabeth and Carlos is especially illuminating: after absorbing it no sensitive management could dream of hacking it about in the fashion that nevertheless persists to this day. Just as important, from the detail emerges the tinta, or musical germ, of each opera — in the case of Carlos the rising figure in the prelude (cut before the first night) and the recurring acciaccature whose significance, unarguable it seems to me, has been argued over in The New York Review of Books's attack on The New Grove.
Surrounding the musical analyses — and here be complexities that would test the sanity of greater men than Coward in the hands of a man less sober than Budden — are accounts of the genesis of each opera and brief, astute summings-up of its importance in the canon. The genesis of Falstaff and Otello — based on lengthy correspondence with Boito and enlivened, once the irrascible gentleman farmer of Sant' Agata had been lured out of semiretirement, by his undimmable dramatic sense — is comparatively straight-forward.
The genesis of Don Carlos though, with its five distinct versions and innumerable sub versions and editions, and of Aida — inter rupted by the Franco-Prussian War (communication by balloon) and bedevilled by any amount of chicanery — could hardly be less straightforward, and Mr Budden's cool head is never more necessary. The summings-up are sound. Aida is a classical, concentrated, uncuttable opera (like this book, which is damned difficult to skip).
What remains after the final curtain of Otello is, despite the near-melodramatic action, an unquenchable faith in the essential nobility of the human spirit — the same is true of Jatigek's operas. And of Falstaff: 'We can at least laugh with each other and at ourselves. It is a message of hope.'
As in previous volumes, the composer is not examined in isolation. A chapter on the political, economic and artistic climate of Europe in the 1870s sets the scene for the revisions of Carlos and for Otello. It was a decade of recession in which many Italian opera houses closed; when they re-opened, it was with the works of Massenet, Meyerbeer, Gounod and, belatedly, Wagner. The French influence — and just how much the experience of writing for the Paris Opera shaped Verdi's own development is not shirked — remained strong; Bizet not only inspired the verismo school but, musically at least, had a demonstrable influence on Falstaff The chapter ends with an examination (with musical examples) of three contemporary composers, the Brazilian exile Gornes, Ponchielli, and Catalani. The breadth of Mr Budden's knowledge, however lightly worn, remains formidable.
Who is this book for? It is for producers, in that it reprints long extracts from the original prompt books, and producers may as well know what the composer intended before they saucily strike out on their own. It is certainly for cribbers, in that it gathers together the fruits of Verdi scholarship in one convenient place; if you want to know about the play other than Schiller's on which Carlos was based (always assuming you knew there was another play — I didn't) then you can find out without consulting Marc Clemeur in Melos: Neue Zeitschrift fiir Musik, vol. 6. Equally certainly it is for anyone who goes to the operas; even if they cannot read a note of music, there is enlightenment enough. And, be it noted, the book costs less than a stall seat for one of Verdi's operas at Covent Garden.
For obvious reasons the longest chapter is on Don Carlos, or rather the five Don Carloses. While Mr Budden writes that 'it is now considered by many as Verdi's master piece,' he is strangely defensive about parts of it. Of the Carlos/Posa 'friendship' mot to he writes that it contains 'the kind of im provised harmony to be heard in any Welsh public house shortly before closing time,' but he doesn't point out that in its original French setting the opening phrase is half as banal musically as it is in Italian (the phrase break comes a quaver earlier). Similarly there is an air of Anglo-Saxon sensibility in the analysis of the Auto da fe scene: all right, it is not great music, but my goodness it cannot fail in the theatre. These are matters of taste, but there is one episode that Mr Budden does not quite probe deeply enough — the duet between King Philip and Posa, that punto nero over which Verdi spat so much blood for 20 years. To Mr Budden the three versions of it are interesting 'as the attempts of a man of genius to come to grips with a task with which his art was hardly equipped to deal.' Maybe Verdi, unlike Wagner, was not equipped to deal with philosophical ideas in music, but there are personal issues at stake here that Verdi does get right in terms of the SaulDavid-Jonathan metaphor that Mr Budden himself has set up: the sense of a father suborning his son's only trusted friend, of a lonely man momentarily shedding kingship to seek — almost beg for — the same degree of trust from the same man, and being rejected. Hence Philip's anger, and yet he persists.
The motivation is fraught with crosscurrents, not least Posa's, but Mr Budden sees him as the least interesting character in the opera, as merely an operatically noble baritone. Yet he is a noble baritone who very nearly murders a defenceless woman. Is he more than a first cousin to Radames? In Mr Budden's memorable words Radames is 'the eternal school captain, and school captains are usually too well adjusted to be interesting as people'. As a former school captain it would obviously be unwise to comment.