Dies Irae: Verdi and the Messa da Requiem. For Manzoni or a Response to Boito?

Riveting, haunting, frightening, and thrilling to the core. Such is this music and so it has been used sparingly in films and quite possibly marks the most wrathful music that Verdi ever wrote.  That this music and its bombastic presence was born of the great maestro might solely mark him as a genius, but it is even more fascinating to consider why the Dies Irae was inserted into the Sequence of the Mass and how it absolutely stands out within the Requiem, in his oeuvre, and as a seminal work in the musical canon, as a whole.  Historically, that the Messa da Requiem is a musical setting of the Roman Catholic funeral mass for four soloists, double choir and orchestra. It was composed in memory of Alessandro Manzoni, the Italian poet and novelist much admired by Verdi. The first performance in San Marco in Milan on 22 May 1874 marked the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death and at one time it was called the Manzoni Requiem.  It is typically not performed in the liturgy but in concert form and lasts around 85–90 minutes.

Typical forms of the Mass

  • Introit
  • Kyrie Eleison
  • Gradual
  • Tract
  • Sequence (where Verdi inserts the Dies Irae)
  • Offertory
  • Sanctus
  • Agnus Dei
  • Communion
  • Pie Jesu
  • Libera Me
  • In Paradisum

Well, that’s what’s documented anyway, but there is much more behind the composition of the Requiem and especially the Dies Irae.  What I’ve learned in my historical studies is to take “historical documentation” with a grain of salt.  Usually, things are well-documented, but it seems that in the Italian Opera of the 19th Century there is always some detail left out…sometimes deliberately.  Certainly, politics and Verdi’s music are not subjects that have been ignored by historians, and so it is very easy to say that politics played a part in the Requiem, but I’m here to suggest that this was perhaps not in the way one might think.  Prior to 1874, Wagner had gained a respected place in the operatic echelon, even if this was not universally accepted in Italy by Italian composers nor by the Ricordi enterprise.  As a result, the younger generations of composers began to challenge Verdi who was powerful and popular enough to combat the “German threat” to enhance his musical style in order to combat the gesamtkunstwerk that was causing quite the international stir.  


Alessandro Manzoni, the father of Italian Romanticism

Probably because he was loyal to Ricordi, who controlled much of the Italian operatic enterprise, and because his operas were already considered Italian trademarks, Verdi fought the idea of innovation and remained firmly planted in his Romantic idioms; that is, until his most virilant opposer, Arrigo Boito, composed Mefistofele in 1868.  On its own, Mefistofele is a magnificent opera even if its prima rappresentazione, as documented historically, was one of the greatest fiascos in operatic history, with the entirety of the audience rushing out into the Piazza della Scala after the “Ecco il Mondo” in which the devil stands like a priest in front of his parish of minions and claims control of the world.  Not a very Catholic statement, to say the least, especially in a primarily catholic society.  You can imagine the chaos this caused and it is perhaps more interesting that there were factions in the theatre who were communicating information to underground locations and cafes where “protectors of Verdi’s art” had situated themselves.  Verdi himself was not at the prima, but word got back to him immediately about what happened.  Word also got back to Antonio Ghislanzoni, who had not long before been in a cafe where young artists were making fun of Boito.  Ghislanzoni, who had a profound ability to see beyond the exterior slammed his hand on a table, causing the ruckus in the cafe to stop and proclaimed, “Boito è un genio!!” (Boito is a genius).

What is lesser known is that Boito and his buddies blamed Wagner’s new found supremacy and the supposed stagnant state of Italian opera on Alessandro Manzoni, the man for whom Verdi had the deepest respect.  There are several letters in which Verdi expresses this admiration and perhaps the most important documentation is that of his wife, Giuseppina Strepponi who herself went to meet Manzoni.  She explained how, when Manzoni’s carriage came to pick her up, Verdi turned white and began to perspire, was filled with anxiety and almost fainted, saying he could not meet the man face to face.  He personally felt that Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi was the greatest artistic contribution anyone had ever made, but yet he never tried to set the novel to music.  Why?  Because he felt that he might fail Manzoni. Although these two giants both lived in the same city, Milano, Manzoni would die and Verdi would never meet the man he revered.

I Promessi SposiThe first edition of Manzoni’s novel, I Promessi Sposi

It is generally known how deeply Manzoni affected the presentation of art and music after the Risorgimento (the Italian Unification), and not only because of the popularity of his novel I Promessi Sposi, which next to Dante’s Divina Commedia stands as the most popular piece of Italian literature.  Prior to, Manzoni had written a manifesto, if you will, that delineated the aesthetics that Italian artists, poets, and musicians, should adhere to in order to keep the arts firmly directed at all that was Italian, thus making sure the arts continued to serve as an exponent of unity in a country that had just found its feet.  Because of his gargantuan status, all artists adhered to Manzoni’s rules, and so many libretti that were set during this period were based only on Italian stories or stories of “la patria,” which is probably why the majority of Verdi’s early works are so politically charged and even if they don’t always depict Italians, they depict Italian unity.  For example, the famous “Va Pensiero” in Nabucco could easily have been performed by a chorus of Italians, rather than Hebrews.

Ecco il Mondo

Mefistofele counteracting Catholic and Romantic sentiments

So, what if when Boito wrote Mefistofele, the devil’s horrific music was meant to be grand statement against Manzoni and, for that matter, against Verdi. Boito’s opera contains many bombastic musical moments and music that is equally horrific and terrifying….until Verdi decided to answer the younger composer and basically shut him up by composing a piece of music that was one hundred times more horrifying.  The Dies Irae, in this regard, would firmly obliterate Boito’s devil who stood to combat Italian melody and Manzoni’s aesthetic suggestions.  It is also a reason why Verdi inserted this new form within the Mass parts.  Therefore, the Messa da Requiem not only commemorates the death of Manzoni and remains a historical tattoo, if you will, that forever imprints Verdi’s devotion to Manzoni on the history of Italian operatic culture, it is also the strongest statement he made against Boito.  That Verdi later worked on the revision of Simon Boccanegra, and composed perhaps the two greatest works of his late period, Otello and Falstaff with Boito is not only fascinating but shocking to say the least.


Boito and Verdi

©Mary-Lou Vetere, 2013

This article and its content are protected by Canadian copyright law. Except as otherwise provided for under Canadian copyright law, this website and its content may not be copied, published, distributed, downloaded or otherwise stored in a retrieval system, transmitted or converted, in any form or by any means, electronic or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

VERDI WEEK on The Last Verista: “Viva Verdi: Celebrating 200 magnificent years of this “Grande Maestro”


In a time fraught with financial issues and artistic controversies, the opera world welcomes this historically relevant week in anticipation of the 200th Birthday of the great and individual composer, Giuseppe Verdi.  This week on the Last Verista, posts will be dedicated to his music, his life, his thoughts, letters, and those singers and conductors who have spent years perfecting the art of Verdian cantilena.  As opera companies and orchestras the world over prepare their celebratory concerts, Verdi’s week of celebration could not have come at a better time, considering the almost idiotic suggestions about closing opera houses like La Scala Milano.  Perhaps by wafting in the joy of Verdi’s music, those persons running said companies might recall just how poignant and historical La Scala, and opera houses in general, really are.  

verdi e boito

With his, at first, rival and then most fervent companion and colleague, Arrigo Boito

On Met Opera Radio, the entire week is devoted to Verdi operas, so if you have a subscription to Sirius/XM Radio, tune in and if you don’t, this is as good a time as any to cash in on the free 7 day trial.  How great a life was Verdi’s! For all he gave to us, the fact that his operas continue to remain staples in most operatic seasons, and for the luminous melodies and soaring orchestral idioms that sometimes seem metaphysical (of this world and yet seemingly of next) CELEBRAMO! Personally, I stand in reverence and devotion to this great man who, in my line of work, gives me something beautiful every day of my life.  “Gioir!!” “Gioir!!”  “Viva Verdi!”

A Petite History of the Critical Review and Recent Perspectives about the Met Opera Season

James Jordan

Fabulous and Renown Opera Critic and Aficionado, James Jorden

It’s always interesting to read various reviews about opera performances and even more interesting to see the contrasting opinions of different reviewers.  The Critical Review has been a subject of controversy and yet an aspect of historical record in the music world since the mid 1800s when Hector Berlioz and Robert Schumann began reviewing concerts.  More related to my own area of Italian Opera in Verdi and Puccini’s time, critical reviews became part of the historically legacy of the period, and composers like Amilcare Ponchielli and Arrigo Boito were two who remained fervently devoted to the accurate retelling of a musical event.

Hector Berlioz     Robert Schumann

Where the Metropolitan Opera is concerned, of note the leading opera house in North America, the “Big Three” news sources that are looked  to for critical reviews are:  The New York Times, The New York Post, and The New York Observer.  External to this, I believe that the Washington Post is the next most highly considered.  Why these papers?  It’s not just that these are based in New York and so they are devoted to what exciting events are taking place at their hometown opera house, it’s because of the critics who write the reviews.  The most prominent being:  Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, Vivienne Schweitzer of the New York Times, Zachary Woolfe of the New York Times and New York Observer, James Jorden of the New York Post and New York Observer, Alex Ross of the New Yorker Magazine, and Anne Midgette of the Washington Post.

Amilcare Ponchielli

Amilcare Ponchielli

Arrigo Boito

 Arrigo Boito

What is controversial about the opera review is that it relies heavily on the musical and historical knowledge of the reviewer but also their own personal tastes and so when you’re seeking an understanding of what went on in a performance, it’s probably a good idea to consult more than one review just to balance out the varying opinions.  Reviewers are human beings and like us, they have personal preferences.  Each one has their own manner of reviewing, their own language of discussion, their own syntax, their own flavour–if you will, and the art of opera singing and performance has been linked to these diverse tastes both in the past and today.

My inspiration to talk about reviewing was James Jorden’s recent article in the New York Observer, and while I could have chosen any of the above mentioned critics because they are all wonderful, I chose Mr. Jorden’s review because I personally like his style and the honesty with which he relays his opinions, which I find to be based on a fervent knowledge of singing, historical performance practice, and just plain love of this art.  It is in no offence to any other critic.  Mr. Jorden reviewed the recent events that transpired in the Met’s opening week and I found his assessment refreshing and honest.  Please read his review below by clicking the link.

My own personal opinion on the occurrences of the past week (which has nothing to do with Mr. Jorden’s article or his own opinion) is this:  I think that the problem with opera singing today, and I’m not perfect by any means as a singer (but I sure try to stay close to what is authentic from a historical standpoint), is that we sometimes lose track of what the vocal fachs were when these operas were written and the kinds of voices that were meant to sing them.  It’s very obvious in today’s current climate that voices are not being produced like the voices of the past, especially where intelligibility of the text is concerned, or rather more, attention to the vowel.  When I listen to singers like Mafalda Favero or Tito Schipa, or Caruso even, EVERY word is understood without having the score in front of your face, rather than the fluttering and sustaining of lines via a quick vibrato rather than on the vowel, sul fiato that is more prominent today.  In my opinion, several performances have become unintelligible. Callas used to say, “Speak the text…go around and speak it everywhere.” Ponselle, used to hum everything in the front of her masque in perfectly placed position, and then she would explode that sound into ravishing colour on stage.  What did Callas mean when she said, “speak it?”  She did not mean trill it out and just keep fluttering away on a line that is disengaged from a vowel.  Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think opera has a message and that message is in the story, in the word, enveloped by a beautiful voice that vibrates like a perfectly tuned violin.  To me, it is the expression of that text that is the heart’s blood of opera.  I just wish that this was a greater priority today.

And huge huge respect to Maestro Levine whose return to the podium brought tears to my eyes.  From the first two chords of Cosi Fan Tutte, one heard the Met Orchestra of old.  He is a master and knows how to steer that beast of an orchestra like an expert.  We have missed him and I’m so happy for his return and continued good health.  Bravi tutti, singers, conductors, and critics alike.


“Onegin’s Opening Night: Anna, Norma, and a Giant Nose: Protesters Stole the Opening Night of Onegin…But No One Can Take the Met Away From James Levine” by James Jorden (New York Observer)

Arrigo Boito’s “meant-to-be” Opera: “Il Re Orso” coming to the Opera Comique in 2011

Quite possibly one of the most under-estimated and misconstrued artists of all time, poet, philosopher, and composer Arrigo Boito remains an enigma.  Known most widely for having composed the libretti for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff, opera-goers are not as familiar with Boito’s own attempts at opera, Mefistofele and the troublesome Nerone. Although these last two works are at least known (and actually masterpieces), some of Boito’s other poetic works were clearly written in the form of opera libretti, therefore suggesting that those works might have been set to music.  Boito’s “secretive” manner of communicating and creating artistic works is another story altogether, however one work that belongs to this category is his grotesque and almost offensive poem, Il Re Orso (The King Bear).

Re Orso is an allegorical poem (for a throrough analysis of what it means and how it relates to operatic tradition of the 19th Century, you’ll have to check out my dissertation).  Essentially, Boito uses a specific language to communicate his philosophy and to manifest a type of poetry that was uncommon in the 19th Century.  Upon completing the poem, he sent it to Victor Hugo who responded with a letter of praise and encouragement.  Boito also sent the poem to Verdi (for other more personal reasons that relate to my research).

In the 1980s, Re Orso was set to music for the first time and was recorded.  The following is the recording with music by Margot Galante Garrone.

Although the recording captures what are aspects of “Scapigliatura” style, it is difficult to know what Boito might have done with the opera had he composed it himself.  I call it an opera, controversially, because it is only considered a poem.  During my research, I found evidence that suggests Re Orso is a libretto, meant to be set to music.  Excitingly, a new production of this work will be presented in 2010.

The Festival RE ORSO is set to occur at the Opera Comique in Paris in June 2010.  For any Boito fans, this event is a must. Here is some information on the event:

AVOLA PER MUSICA de Marco Stroppa
Livret de Luca Fontana d’après Arrigo Boito. Création mondiale à l’Opéra Comique le 9 juin 2011
Susanna Mälkki
Richard Brunel
Ensemble InterContemporain

Dans l’œuvre littéraire du compositeur et librettiste Arrigo Boito figure un poème épique âpre et mystérieux, Re Orso, publié en 1865. Ce texte écrit en vers lyriques d’un extrême raffinement musical raconte la légende d’un roi effroyable, Ours, qui régnait sur la Crète avant l’an 1000, dans les temps les plus sombres de notre ère. Mêlant le caractère légendaire de l’ancien roi des animaux au mythe du Minotaure, Boito bâtit une nouvelle figure de maudit plongé dans le crime et la démesure, et attendant son châtiment. Compositeur, chercheur et pédagogue à l’Ircam, Marco Stroppa se saisit de ce texte et élabore sa première œuvre de théâtre musical en forme de danse macabre.

Direction musicale, Susanna Mälkki
Mise en scène, Richard Brunel

Re Orso, Brian Asawa
Le Vers, Monica Bacelli
La Sécrétaire, Le Serpent, Marisol Montalvo
Papiol, Le Trouvère, Alexander Kravets
Réalisation informatique musicale IRCAM, Gilbert Nouno, Arshia Cont

Ensemble InterContemporain

Commande : Opéra Comique, Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Ircam-Centre Pompidou, Ensemble InterContemporain, Françoise et Jean-Philippe Billarant
Production : Opéra Comique
Coproduction : Théâtre de la Monnaie, Ircam, EIC
Avec le soutien du Fonds de Création Lyrique.

Spectacle en italien surtitré
Introduction à l’œuvre 30 min avant chaque représentation

9, 11, 14 ET 15 JUIN 2011 – 20H

Festival Re Orso (Opera Comique) June 2011