“The Providence Singers ... opening entrance in the final movement was breathtaking”
Channing Gray
Providence Journal
6 May 2013
(Mahler Symphony No. 2)


Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)
Covanni Boldini (1860)

Giuseppe Verdi

“Brindisi” (from La Traviata, 1853)
“Triumphal Scene” (from Aida, 1871)
“Anvil Chorus” (from Il Trovatore, 1853)
“La Donna è Mobile” (from Rigoletto, 1851)
“Va Pensiero” (from Nabucco, 1841)

“Verdi ... has bursts of marvellous passion. His passion is brutal, it is true, but it is better to be impassioned in this way than not at all. His music at times exasperates, but it never bores.”

— Georges Bizet (letter, 1859)

Giuseppe Verdi was the towering musical figure in Italy during the second half of the 19th century — internationally famous, wealthy, and honored. Royalty, members of parliament and diplomats from around the world marched in the procession when his coffin was moved from a temporary burial site to the crypt. Singers from La Scala, led by Arturo Toscanini, sang “Va, Pensiero” – the chorus of Hebrew slaves from Nabucco – and tens of thousands of devotees paid their respects along the route.

His life began in the humblest of circumstances on Oct. 10, 1813, in Le Roncole, near Busseto in the Duchy of Parma, born to an illiterate tavern keeper and grocer. A proper education would have been out of the question had it not been for music. Antonio Barezzi, a local merchant with an amateur’s devotion to music, noticed Verdi’s musical abilities and helped with his education and musical training. Young Verdi copied music, played organ occasionally at his church, and began composing short pieces for the philharmonic society in Busseto. He spent three years in Milan, supported by Barezzi and studying with a musician at La Scala, having been rejected by the conservatory at age 18 as being too old.

He returned to Busseto in 1834, found musical employment and, in 1836, married Margherita Barezzi, his patron’s daughter. A daughter, Virginia, was born in March 1837 and a son, Icilio, in July 1838, but Verdi’s life soon collapsed in profound sorrow. Within the space of two years, his two young children died (Virginia at 17 months and Icilio at 15), and in June 1840 his wife died of encephalitis. His second opera, Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day), failed at its first performance, and all further performances were canceled.

Verdi, despairing and inconsolable, resolved never to write another opera, but Nabucco eventually brought him back.

The manager of La Scala, compassionate enough to have released the distraught Verdi from a three-opera contract, later urged him to consider a libretto based on the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II. Verdi agreed, but read it without much interest until he came to “Va, Pensiero.” The text moved him deeply; suddenly he was writing again. The first production of Nabucco in 1842 established him as a leading Italian composer and set him on a prolific career that would continue almost to the turn of the century. Nearly two decades later, in 1859, Verdi married Giuseppina Strepponi, the soprano who sang the role of the king’s daughter Abigaille in the original production of Nabucco.

Many Italian listeners came to adopt “Va, Pensiero” as an expression of Italy’s longing for unification and an end to domination by Austria. Italian patriots used Verdi’s name as an acronym for Victor Emmanuel II, the first leader of a united Italy (Vittorio Emanuele Re DItalia): Viva VERDI!

Synopses and Texts

Verdi bio    Triumphal Scene    Anvil Chorus    La Donna è Mobile    Va, Pensiero

Brindisi (from La Traviata)
First performance: March 6, 1853, at La Fenice opera house in Venice; Libretto: Francesco Maria Piave

A brindisi is a drinking song, a toast (“Let’s drink from the joyous chalices”). This one occurs early in Act I at a party Violette Valéry is hosting to celebrate her recovery from illness. Her lover, Baron Douphol, has declined to offer a toast, and the guests have turned to Alfredo Germont, a dashing young man who has admired Violette from a distance. Alfredo agrees to sing a brindisi. Act I sets the narrative threads of the work in motion. Violette’s health is fragile; she coughs, almost faints, and withdraws from the party. Alfredo’s love is real and at last he has a chance to declare it to Violette. Their love may be star-crossed; Violette isn’t certain he is the one.

Act II finds Alfredo and Violette living together at a country estate outside Paris, but threats loom to their pastoral harmony. Money: Alfredo is dismayed to learn that Violette has been selling her horses, carriages and other possessions to support their lifestyle. Family: Alfredo’s father, Georgio Germont, says the scandal of their extramarital living arrangement threatens his daughter’s impending engagement. (Despite her genuine love for Alfredo, Violette promises Georgio that she will break off the relationship.) Later, at a party in Paris, the plot lines come unraveled. Violette has arrived with her old lover Baron Douphol. Alfredo wins large handfuls of cash at the gaming table. Violette, who truly loves Alfredo, fears that the easily angered Douphol will kill him in a duel, so she asks Alfredo to leave the party. Alfredo misunderstands, makes a horrific public scene, humiliates Violette, and hurls all his cash at her feet. She faints; the guests denounce Alfredo and demand that he leave.

Act III, in Violette’s bedroom, resolves everything except her health. Her doctor announces that she has not long to live. Alfredo’s father, who has known everyone’s true feelings all along, has written her a letter setting everything straight: There was a duel, but the Baron was only wounded. He has explained Violette’s sacrifices to his son (how she ended their relationship to ease threats to the daughter’s engagement, how she asked Alfredo to leave the party because she hoped to protect him from a duel). Alfredo rushes to her side; the lovers are reunited. Violette’s pain and symptoms vanish. They embrace, but she dies in Alfredo’s arms.

Libiamo, libiamo ne’lieti calici
che la bellezza infiora.
E la fuggevol, fuggevol ora
s’inebrii a voluttà
Libiam ne’dolci fremiti
che suscita l’amore,
poiché quell’occhio al core onnipotente va.
Libiamo, amore, amor fra i calici
più caldi baci avrà

Ah! Libiam, amor, fra’ calici
più caldi baci avrà

Tra voi, tra voi saprò dividere
il tempo mio giocondo;
Tutto è follia, follia nel mondo
ciò che non è piacer
Godiam, fugace e rapido
è il gaudio dell’amore,
è un fior che nasce e muore,
ne più si può goder
Godiamo, c’invita, c’invita un fervido
accento lusinghier.

Ah! Godiamo, la tazza, la tazza e il cantico,
la notte abbella e il riso;
in questo, in questo paradiso ne scopra il nuovo dì

La vita è nel tripudio

Quando non s’ami ancora

Nol dite a chi l’ignora,

È il mio destin così...

Ah si, godiamo, la tazza, la tazza e il cantico, la notte abbella e il riso; in questo, in questo paradiso ne scopra il nuovo dì.

Let’s drink, let’s drink from the joyous chalices
that beauty blossoms.
And may the fleeting moment
be elated with voluptuousness.
Let’s drink from the sweet thrills
that love arouses,
because that eye aims straight to the almighty heart.
Let’s drink, my love: the love among chalices
will have warmer kisses.

Ah! Let’s drink, my love: the love among chalices
will have warmer kisses.

With you, with you I’ll be able to share
my cheerful times.
Everything is foolish in the world
which is not pleasure.
Let’s enjoy ourselves, for fleeting and quick
the delight of love is:
it’s a flower that blooms and dies
and can no longer be enjoyed.
Let’s enjoy ourselves, fervent
flattering voice invites us!

Ah! Let’s enjoy the cup, the cup and the chants,
the embellished night and the laughter;
let the new day find us in this paradise.

Life means celebration,

If one hasn’t known love,

Don’t tell someone who doesn’t know,

But this is my fate...

Ah, yes! Let’s enjoy the cup, the cup and the chants,
the embellished night and the laughter;
let the new day find us in this paradise.

Verdi bio    Brindisi    Anvil Chorus    La Donna è Mobile    Va Pensiero

Triumphal Scene (from Aida)
First performance: December 24, 1871, at the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo; Libretto: Antonio Ghislanzoni

Aida remains an international staple, performed every year around the world. The New York Metropolitan Opera alone has performed the work more than 1,100 times since 1886. Its setting — Egypt in the time of the Pharoahs — is exotic, and its scale and tone are well beyond grandiose. Horses, camels and elephants have all found their way to the stage in Aida’s performance history. Yet the core storyline is quintessential Italian opera.

Act I sets up the complicated relationships. Aida is an Ethiopian princess captured by the Egyptians, who are unaware of her royal blood and enslave her. Radamès, the young Egyptian warrior whose return from a victorious campaign will be the occasion for the famous Triumphal March, is secretly in love with her. Pharoah’s daughter Amneris also loves Radamès, though that relationship does not advance. Amneris suspects, but does not know for certain, that Aida is her rival. News arrives that the Ethiopian King Amonasro is leading his army into Egypt to rescue his daughter. Radamès is made supreme commander. Aida is torn between her love of Radamès and her devotion to her father.

News of Radamès’ victory over the Ethiopians arrives in Act II. During a celebration, Amneris lies to Aida, telling her that Radamès is dead. Aida’s reaction tells Amneris all she needs to know about Radamès and Aida, and she plots her revenge. Radamès makes his triumphal return, with Ethiopian prisoners including King Amonasro, who, unrecognized, leads the Egyptians to believe that Ethiopia’s king was slain in battle. A grateful Pharaoh offers to grant Radamès anything he would like. Radamès asks that the Ethiopian captives be freed and they are, although Amanasro and Aida remain as hostages to guarantee the peace. Pharoah also announces that Radamès will be his successor and will marry his daughter Amneris.

Act III has serious reversals. Aida and Radamès will meet on the eve of his wedding to Amneris. As she waits for him, Amonasro appears and asks her to discover the location of the Egyptian army. He ducks behind a rock and listens. Radamès and Aida declare their eternal love and plan to run away. Radamès describes a secret safe route for their escape, thereby revealing his army’s location. Amonasro comes out from behind the rock and reveals his true identity. Two Egyptian officials see Radamès talking with their former enemy and call the guards. Amonasro and Aida leave; Radamès surrenders.

In the final act, Amneris realizes that she will not have Radamès, but love makes her a fierce advocate for him. She argues to save his life but without success. Radamès is sentenced to death by live burial. He is sealed into a dark tomb, but comforted by the knowledge that Amonasro and Aida have escaped to Ethiopia. In the darkness of the tomb, however, he encounters Aida, who chose to hide herself there and die in the arms of Radamès.

Gloria all’Egitto e ad Iside
Che il sacro suol protegge;
Al Re che il Delta regge
Inni festosi alziam!
Vieni, o guerriero vindice,
Vieni a gioir con noi;
Sul passo degli eroi
I lauri e i fior versiam!

S’intrecci il loto al lauro
Sul crin dei vincitori
Nembo gentil di fiori
Stenda sull’armi un vel.
Danziam, fanciulle egizie,
Le mistiche carole,
Come d’intorno al sole
Danzano gli astri in ciel!

Della vittoria gli arbitri
Supremi il guardo ergete;
Grazie agli Dei rendete
Nel fortunato dì.

Glory to Isis and the land
By her firm arm protected!
To Egypt’s King elected,
Raise we our festive songs!
Hither advance, oh glorious band,
Mingle your joy with ours,
Green bays and fragrant flowers
Scatter their path along.

The laurel with the lotus bound
The victors’ brows enwreathing,
Let flowers, sweet perfume breathing,
Veil their grim arms from sight.
Dance, sons of Egypt, circling round,
And sing your mystic praises,
As round the sun in mazes
Dance the bright stars of night.

Unto the powers war’s issue dread
Deciding, our glances raise we
Thank we our gods, and praise we
On this triumphant day.

Verdi bio    Brindisi    Triumphal Scene    La Donna è Mobile    Va Pensiero

Anvil Chorus (from Il Trovatore)
First performance: January 19, 1853, at the Teatro Apollo in Rome; Libretto: Salvadore Cammarano/Leone Emanuele Bardare

The scene: Evening outside the castle of Luna in 15th-century Spain. The Count di Luna, in love with Leonora, lady-in-waiting to the princess, is wandering about in the courtyard beneath Leonora’s window. The Count has a competitor for Leonora’s affections: a mysterious troubadour he does not know. Ferrando, captain on the guards, tells his men the story of the Luna family, thereby introducing the characters and their complications.

The Count’s father had two sons, the younger of whom was very sick. The sickness was blamed on a gypsy woman who, though innocent, was to be burned at the stake. As the time of execution approached, the gypsy woman cried out, asking her daughter Azucena to avenge her mother’s death. Azucena abducted the Count’s younger son. The bones of a child were found were found among the ashes after the gypsy woman’s execution. The Count’s father did not believe his younger son had perished, and at his death commanded his elder son, the current Count di Luna, to find Azucena and learn the truth.

Leonora completes the character introductions while speaking to her confidante. She once fell in love with a young knight who disappeared during a civil war but re-emerged disguised as a troubadour, singing beneath her window. After Leonora and her confidante leave, the Count returns. He hopes to advance his suit but suddenly hears the mysterious voice singing in the distance. The troubadour appears and reveals himself to be the knight Manrico, who is under death sentence because he is loyal to a different prince. The Count challenges Manrico to a duel; Leonora cannot keep them from fighting.

Act II opens in the gypsy camp with the Anvil Chorus. Complications follow rapidly. Azucena confesses to Manrico that she did not throw the elder Count’s young son onto her mother’s pyre. In the confusion, she threw in her own child. Manrico realizes that, although Azucena has raised him and he loves her as a mother, he is not truly her son. He tells Azucena about the duel, in which he had defeated the Count but was restrained by a mysterious force from delivering the coup de grace. News arrives that forces loyal to Manrico’s prince have captured Castle Castellor, and Manrico is ordered to take command and hold the castle. Further, Manrico learns that Leonora believes he is dead and will soon enter a convent.

The stories come together in the final two acts. Manrico reached Leonora before she could take her vows, and they are now inside Castle Castellor. Count di Luna is outside with his army. Azucena the gypsy is found wandering around their camp and is detained. The Count learns that she is the one who sent his younger brother to the flames and orders her to be burned at the stake outside the castle walls. Manrico and his men, outnumbered, try but fail to rescue her. Manrico is taken prisoner and condemned to death. Leonora intervenes and offers herself to the Count if he will spare Manrico. The Count agrees, but Leonora secretly takes a slow-acting poison.

Leonora visits the dungeon and tells Manrico he can leave. Manrico refuses to go if Leonora will not be with him. Dying in his arms, she tells him about the poison and declares that she will love him for eternity. The Count overhears that and realizes that he will never have Leonora. Manrico is executed. Azucena shrieks the truth at the Count: “He was your brother! ... You are avenged, O Mother!”

Zingari e zingare
Vedi! Le fosche notturne spoglie
De’ cieli sveste l’immensa volta;
Sembra una vedova che alfin si toglie
i bruni panni ond’era involta.
All’opra! all’opra!
Dàgli, martella.
Chi del gitano i giorni abbella?
La zingarella!

Versami un tratto; lena e coraggio
Il corpo e l’anima traggon dal bere.

Oh guarda, guarda! del sole un raggio
Brilla più vivido nel mio [tuo] bicchiere!
All’opra, all’opra!
Dàgli, martella.
Chi del gitano i giorni abbella?
La zingarella!

Gypsy Men and Women
Look! See how the darkness of night is lifting
and revealing the great vault of heaven;
Seems like a widow who is finally casting off
the dark clothes in which she was enveloped.
To work! To work!
Ready, hammer!
Who cheers up the gypsy’s days?
The gypsy woman!

Pour me a drink; body and soul draw strength
and courage from drink.

Oh look, look! A sun’s ray shines brighter
in my/your glass!
To work, to work ...
Ready, hammer ...
Who cheers up the gypsy’s days?
The gypsy woman!

Verdi bio    Brindisi    Triumphal Scene    Anvil Chorus    Va Pensiero

La Donna è mobile (from Rigoletto)
First performance: March 11, 1851 at La Fenice in Venice; Libretto: Francesco Maria Piave

Rigoletto was one of Verdi’s more difficult operas from a plot line point of view. Austrian censors, who controlled northern Italy, denounced the original version, titled La Maledizione (The Curse), as “a repugnant [work of] immorality and obscene triviality” and refused to allow the project to move into production. Verdi and his librettist fought with the censors over issues large and small, renaming characters, eliminating a bedroom scene, designating a central character as the Duke of Mantua, a dukedom that no longer existed, to ensure that no active political figure would be impugned.

Verdi finished the vocal score barely a month before the premiere, and singers had limited access to their parts for fear of unauthorized copying. Verdi continued to write and revise orchestral parts as the work was in rehearsal. In its final form, the Duke of Mantua is a powerful, amoral, womanizing swine. Rigoletto is his humpbacked court jester, whose put-downs and caustic commentary on courtly persons have made him universally loathed. Rigoletto has a beautiful daughter, Gilda, who courtiers falsely rumor to be his mistress.

The courtiers plot to punish Rigoletto for his ridicules, but Rigoletto continues. When Count Monterone arrives and confronts the Duke for having seduced his daughter, Rigoletto viciously humiliates him. Monterone puts a curse on Rigoletto. As the story unfolds, however, Rigoletto discovers that he and Monterone are in the same boat: they are fathers of young women who have been seduced by the Duke. Rigoletto swears revenge. He will eventually pay the assassin Sparafucile to murder the Duke. Sparafucile has a beautiful sister.

The scene is set. Rigoletto takes Gilda to Sparafucile’s seedy home, where they remain outside. The Duke arrives, and Gilda watches and listens through the window as the Duke sings “La Donna è Mobile” and turns his seductive powers on Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena. Gilda is distraught at what she sees. Rigoletto tells her to disguise herself as a man and leave the city for Verona. He pays Sparafucile for the impending assassination and departs. Gilda later returns in disguise to hear Maddalena plead with her brother not to murder the Duke, who is spending the night because of an impending thunderstorm. Sparafucile agrees but, since he needs to assassinate somebody to satisfy Rigoletto, he will spare the Duke only if another victim appears. Gilda decides to save the Duke by offering herself. She enters the home in her masculine disguise, and Sparafucile stabs her nearly to death.

Rigoletto arrives at midnight with the money. He pays Sparafucile, receives a wrapped body, and is about to dispose of it in the river when he hears the Duke singing a reprise of “La Donna è Mobile.” Rigoletto unwraps the face and sees Gilda, who revives long enough to say she is glad to die for her beloved Duke, then dies in her father’s arms. Rigoletto recalls Count Monterone’s curse.

La donna è mobile
Qual piuma al vento,
muta d’accento
e di pensiero.

Sempre un amabile,
leggiadro viso,
in pianto o in riso,
è menzognero.

La donna è mobil’.
Qual piuma al vento,
muta d’accento
e di pensier’!

È sempre misero
chi a lei s’affida,
chi le confida
mal cauto il cuore!

Pur mai non sentesi
felice appieno
chi su quel seno
non liba amore!

La donna è mobil’
Qual piuma al vento,
muta d’accento
e di pensier’!

Woman is flighty.
Like a feather in the wind,
she changes in voice
and in thought.

Always a lovely,
pretty face,
in tears or in laughter,
it’s untrue.

Woman is flighty.
Like a feather in the wind,
she changes her words
and her thoughts!

Always miserable
is he who trusts her,
he who confides in her
his unwary heart!

Yet one never feels
fully happy
who from that bosom
does not drink love!

Woman is flighty.
Like a feather in the wind,
she changes her words,
and her thoughts!

Verdi bio    Brindisi    Triumphal Scene    Anvil Chorus    La Donna è Mobile

Va, Pensiero (from Nabucco)
First performance: March 9, 1842 at La Scala in Milan; Libretto: Temistocle Solera

Act I introduces the major characters in the sixth-century B.C. attack on Jerusalem by Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar) and the Babylonians. Zaccaria, Israel’s high priest, holds Nabucco’s daughter Fenena hostage in the temple and charges Ismaele to provide her security. Fenena and Ismaele, however, have been in love since he was a prisoner in Babylon; she helped him escape. Abigaille, Fenena’s older half-sister, enters the temple with Babylonian solders. She also loves Ismaele and demands that he renounce Fenena. He refuses. When Nabucco enters the temple with his army, Zaccaria engages with him and threatens to kill Fenena. Ismaele intervenes and delivers Fenena to her father. Nabucco orders the temple destroyed.

Act II shifts to Babylon, where the Israelites are held captive and Fenena rules as regent while her father is off at war. Abigaille discovers that she is not, in fact, Nabucco’s daughter, but the child of slaves. She and the high priest of Ba’al plan a palace coup, spreading a false rumor that Nabucco has died in battle. When news arrives that Fenena has freed the Israelites, she is denounced as a traitor, and the high priest offers the throne to Abigaille. As Abigaille is about to place the crown on her own head, Nabucco appears, retrieves his crown, and informs the crowd that he is not only their king, but their god. A thunderbolt strikes him down for that blasphemy, he loses his mind, and Abigaille regains the crown.

In Act III, Abigaille is the acknowledged ruler. The high priest of Ba’al urges her to sentence the Israelites to death. Nabucco wanders in, still reeling from the thunderbolt, and Abigaille tricks him into signing the death warrant. When he asks what will become of Fenena, Abigaille says Fenena will die as well. When Nabucco searches for the document that will prove Abigaille is not his daughter, Abigaille produces it and rips it to shreds. The scene shifts to the banks of the Euphrates, where the Hebrew slaves sing “Va, Pensiero,” longing for their distant land, with its toppled towers, so beautiful, so lost.

There is a happy ending. In Act IV, Nabucco has been locked up in his apartment. He looks out the window and sees the Israelites, including Fenena, about to be executed. He prays to the God of Israel and promises to convert himself and his people. His mind is restored. He breaks out, summons his soldiers, and stops the executions. Abigaille poisons herself and dies praying to the God of Israel for forgiveness. Nabucco announces his conversion, frees the Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple, and the Israelites and Babylonians praise God together.

Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate;
va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli,
ove olezzano tepide e molli
l’aure dolci del suolo natal!

Del Giordano le rive saluta,
di Sionne le torri atterrate ...
O, mia patria, sì bella e perduta!
O, membranza, sì cara e fatal!

Arpa d’or dei fatidici vati,
perché muta dal salice pendi?
Le memorie nel petto raccendi,
ci favella del tempo che fu!

O simile di Sòlima ai fati
traggi un suono di crudo lamento,
o t’ispiri il Signore un concento
che ne infonda al patire virtù.

Go, thought, on wings of gold;
go settle upon the slopes and the hills,
where, soft and mild, the sweet airs
of our native land smell fragrant!

Greet the banks of the Jordan
and Zion’s toppled towers ...
Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost!
Oh, remembrance, so dear and so fatal!

Golden harp of the prophetic seers,
why dost thou hang mute upon the willow?
Rekindle our bosom’s memories,
and speak to us of times gone by!

Either, akin to the fate of Jerusalem,
give forth a sound of crude lamentation,
or let the Lord inspire you a harmony of voices
which may instill virtue to suffering.