Fruits of Hard Labor: Verdi's 'I Masnadieri'

WOO-1223-Masnadieri-300By the time Giuseppe Verdi was 40 years old, in 1853, he’d already written a whole career’s worth of hit operas. Actually, for most composers, those successes would have been enough for several careers. Even so, Verdi looked back on that time as a bit of a grind.

Verdi was a hard worker right from the start. During the nine years from 1844 to 1853 he completed 15 operas. Many are still famous, such as Ernani and Macbeth. And he ended that string with a trio of undisputed masterpieces: Il Trovatore, Rigoletto and La Traviata.

Yet, as the years passed, many of his early operas fell out of favor -- works such as Alzira and The Battle of Legnano. And Verdi, who was known to exaggerate when reflecting on his past, seems to have wondered why he bothered -- once referring to the early portion of his career as his "years in the galley."

It would be easy to ask how a composer like Verdi, who wrote so many great operas, could also have come up with scores that are hardly worth bothering with -- and the question might be answered any number of ways. But the best answer might be: "He didn't." That's because many of Verdi's lesser-known, early operas are actually works of true genius -- compelling dramas set to music of striking originality -- including his 1847 tragedy I Masnadieri.

That opera premiered in London, at Her Majesty's Theatre, Haymarket. When Verdi received the commission for the new work, he was enthusiastic, thinking it might lead to a box office hit and a healthy paycheck. Only part of that came true. Audiences found the opera overly violent and it had a short run, despite the appearance of the now legendary soprano Jenny Lind as the female lead. Still, it did earn Verdi more money than any of his previous works.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents I Masnadieri from the Montpellier Festival in France. The stars are soprano Olga Mykytenko and tenor Alfred Kim as a pair of lovers whose dysfunctional family life makes their romance more than a little bit hazardous, in a production led by conductor Antonino Fogliani.