Verdi vs Wagner

Updated: Mar 26


Ah, the great debate. The eternal question. The heated conversation that takes place at every dinner table (that seats opera fans): Verdi or Wagner?


The two composers are completely different, similar only in that they both wrote primarily opera. Even Verdi's late works, which are often thought to be similar to Wagner's, are so inherently different in style and form, that they are practically impossible to compare. Still, it is always good to have spirited conversations about such topics! Below you will read the case for each composer, from the point-of-view of a die-hard fan of that composer.


I shall not declare a winner, for fear of being kidnapped by fans of the opposite side, but I will go into detail about what each composer has to offer.


*I believe that both composers are giants and geniuses, and while I do have personal opinions on this debate, my writing below is intended only to make the case for each composer as if I believed that that composer is superior. My personal views are completely irrelevant to this article*


Verdi


While we can all agree that Wagner is the ultimate giant of German opera, Giuseppe Verdi is one of many Italian men who composed primarily operas - Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, to name a few - What makes Verdi special?


The case for Verdi, although Verdi is far more performed than Wagner, is more difficult to make than that for Wagner; While Wagner has the Gesamtkunstwerk and the drama and the leitmotifs, what makes Verdi special is the simple beauty of his music, which is much like that of his Italian predecessors only on a far grander scale.


Verdi went through many phases in his career, starting with the very popular Nabucco. Following the early phase that also included Ernani and Macbeth (the latter of which he considered his greatest work to date), he composed, in less than three years: Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata, three of the most commonly performed operas across the world. His final phase was the strangest. Bizet even complained that "Verdi is no longer Italian. He is following Wagner." after a performance of Don Carlos. Following Don Carlos and Aida, Verdi secretly worked on Otello - a project unlike anything ever produced from Italy - which was, like most of his other works, a success. Later, at 80 years of age, he composed his final opera, Falstaff. How strange it is that Verdi's career, which spanned over 50 years, started with the delicate Nabucco and ended with the tumultuous Otello! Despite this great evolution, his works never lost the attention and admiration of his audiences. He, in only 50 years, had a musical evolution so massive that the genre of opera changed as a whole. He led the way, breaking the bel canto tradition and bringing Italian opera to a completely different level.


Verdi brings so many emotions to his listeners. He has the powerful 'la maledizione!', 'amami alfredo!', and 'Esultate!' moments; as well as the tender 'va pensiero' and 'parigi, o cara' ones. He has everything. And it does not take hours or have leitmotifs and powerful mythological tales. His genius is not in the grandiosity of his work, but in the basic gorgeousness of his music. To many, that in and of itself is more impressive than any other great compositional feat.

A prime example of Verdi at his best is in the overture to La Forza del Destino (best rendered with Riccardo Muti conducting).


To better understand the evolution of Verdi as a composer, listen first to one of the great Soprano-Baritone duets of the early Verdi operas (Luisa Miller, Traviata, etc.) such as 'Ah, dite a la giovine' (La Traviata); or a soprano aria like 'Addio del pasato' from the same opera.

After you have done so, listen to either Otello or Falstaff. Try listening to the first 5-6 minutes of Otello (the recording with Del Monaco and Karajan is best). Notice the difference between the two periods!


The case for Verdi is not that he was a 'nice guy' whereas Wagner was an ass - a case that many make. It is in the fact that he can somehow bring, in a matter of a couple hours, emotion to our hearts that Wagner needed up to five hours to produce.


Viva Verdi!


Fun Fact!: There is a superstition about La Forza del Destino that it is cursed! This is because, in 1960, at the Metropolitan Opera, baritone Leonard Warren died during a performance! This was enough to convince the great Pavarotti to never take up the role!


Fun Fact!: Verdi, like many other composers, was often forced to include ballet music in his operas to please the Parisian opera audience. Examples are Act 2 of Traviata and Act 2 of Aida. After Aida, Verdi was much freer in his work, enduring no pressure from opera-goers and patrons. His later operas include no ballet at all.


Wagner


There is a reason why Appreciate Opera's guide for how to learn to appreciate opera has an entire section dedicated to Wagner alone. It takes time to fully appreciate his genius - but it's worth it.


Wagner, like Verdi, was born in 1813. He, over the course of his lifetime, wrote only 13 operas, 10 of which are performed regularly. He was a master of Gesamtkunstwerk - 'the complete work of art'. He believed that the only man to come close to perfecting this artistic synthesis was the Ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus.


Wagner wanted full control over his projects. He wrote his own libretti, unlike Verdi, and even built a theater for his operas in the town Bayreuth. The Bayreuth Festival still takes place every year, and stages works only by Wagner. Wagner's operas are known to bring immense, powerful emotion to the listener.


Take the most famous of them all: the Ring Cycle tetralogy (Der Ring des Nibelungen). Like all of his operas, it contains numerous leitmotifs: short themes which represent people, places, or objects in the plot. At the end of Die Walküre, when Wotan places Brünnhilde on a rock and surrounds her by magic flames as punishment for her disobedience, he declares that 'anyone who fears Wotan's spear shall not pass'. As he sings these words, the orchestra plays the leitmotif of Siegfried, the very man who will one day surpass the flames and wake Brünnhilde from her slumber. No character knows about Siegfried - he is not even born - and yet, Wagner tells about him in the music. Furthermore, in the first act of Die Walküre, neither Siegmund nor Sieglinde ever find out that Wotan is their father, and yet any references to this unknown father are accompanied by the Wotan theme in the orchestra. He essentially, through music, tells us, the audience, who their father is, without either character knowing. These are prime examples of Wagner's method of using leitmotifs to introduce and develop characters.


Towards the end of Walküre, we hear some of the most famous and most powerful music of all time in Wotan's farewell to Brünnhilde. Throughout the Ring Cycle, Wotan's spear has a theme - a theme that also represents his power. This theme is transformed, from a representation of Wotan's power, to a representation of Wotan's love, in the most subtle of ways, building up to one of the most beautiful moments in all of opera in all of music. The theme is played in major, and reconstructed to demonstrate that 'Wotan's love lies in the breaking of his power' (Phillip Hensher).


Aside from the Ring Cycle, a great example of the transformative power of Wagner's work is Tristan und Isolde. In fact, some consider the work to be too powerful. It is speculated that Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, a tenor who sang four performances Tristan before suddenly dying, was killed by the role! Additionally, two conductors collapsed while conducting the second act of Tristan, one in 1911, and another in 1968. You can read Appreciate Opera's article about the famous 'Tristan chord' here! The chord takes us through the opera, representing Tristan's pain and unfulfilled desire, building and growing as the action continues. This haunting9 discord resolves only at the very end of the opera, after Tristan and Isolde die. It all ends not with a bang, but with a whimper, unlike Verdi's operas, which end with loud stomps.


Wagner's works are different that other composers' because we discuss and analyze them not only musically, but textually. We think of not only the music, but the story he himself wrote. We ponder Brunnhilde's actions, we wonder about Tannhauser's story, we cerebrate the Dutchman's eternal curse.Wagner's brilliance is not just in the music, but in the Gesamtkunstwerk. The complete work of art.


As for the argument that Verdi is performed more often, there is no reason to believe that that indictates his superiority. Wagner's operas are long and difficult to stage, and Wagner is generally even more difficult to sing and perform than Verdi.


To learn to fully appreciate Wagner, I urge you to go to the guide on this website and scroll down to the Wagner section. Listen to the overture to Tannhäuser with Karajan, listen to the great Solti recording of the Ring Cycle, listen to the Tristan recording with Kleiber and Margaret Price, and listen to as many more pieces as you can!


Hojotoho Richard!


Fun Fact: Wagner said that his first three operas - Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi - would never be performed at Bayreuth because he believed them to be apprentice works! Will this rule survive, or will fans' curiosity as to how they will sound at Bayreuth get the best of them?


Fun Fact!: Wagner intended for his last opera, Parsifal to be performed only at Bayreuth, and for there to be no applause following the first act of the opera. Should the no-applause rule be enforced at opera houses today?



So who is superior? ... ... ...


Let me know in the comments section.


Here is a wonderful humorous video about this topic!:

Thank you for visiting Appreciate Opera,

Alkis Karmpaliotis

3,605 views4 comments

Recent Posts

See All