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Die Macht der Masse - Deutsche Oper Berlin

What moves me

The power of the masses

In a lot of operas the chorus plays a key role, representing the voice of the people. Verdi realised that this voice could take on a menacing tone.

His hopes are high early on. In NABUCCO, his first international triumph, the 29-year-old Giuseppe Verdi paints a rosy future for his countrymen: a shriven ruler prevails upon the Israelites and Babylonians – sworn enemies – to sign a peace treaty. They underscore their determination to live in harmony by striking up an anthem in which the nations, which had hitherto sung separately, come together as one voice.

The members of the audience at the premiere at the Scala, Milan, in March 1843 are unlikely to have been the only people who were aware that with his Old Testament storyline Verdi was making a point about the conflict between Italians and Austrians, who had occupied the north of Italy. The young composer had dedicated his work to an archduchess of the House of Habsburg. The fact that the premiere closed with a repetition of the peace anthem »Immenso Jehova« of all songs – and not the hymn of the Chorus of Slaves, for instance – is clear evidence that this appeal for peace was heartfelt and directed at the audience.

Giving the chorus such an active role in proceedings was unheard-of in the Italian opera of the time. Romantic operas were essentially tragedies involving lonely, woebegone heroes and heroines whose fates were passively observed by choruses of soldiers and courtiers. Yet here was a composer who was giving the people a voice – and in Verdi’s follow-up operas it was tellingly the big chorus pieces that went down a storm. Be it the war choruses in I LOMBARDI and ATTILA or the lament over the devastated Scottish homeland in MACBETH, Verdi was able to express the feelings of the masses and enable them to grasp and articulate their destiny onstage, by proxy.

His aim was naturally the unification of Italy. All the more surprising, then, that Verdi did a volte-face once this collective desire had finally become a reality. More or less from the moment the Kingdom of Italy began to find its feet Verdi’s operas were depicting the people as nothing more than a malleable mass. This was true of the Spaniards in DON CARLO, whose timid rebellion instantly wilted in the face of threats from crown and church. It was also true of the Egyptians in AIDA, who are only there to magnify the aura of the authoritarian state. This switch in attitude appears to mirror Verdi’s disappointment at the repercussions of unification. The openly anticlerical Verdi was frustrated that the new Italy and the reactionary papacy were underwriting each other’s hegemony.

Nowhere is this disillusionment more starkly and so meticulously staged than in LA FORZA DEL DESTINO, where the most sprawling scene in the opera is devoted entirely to portraying the brutalising effect on people of war and misery - as if Verdi was intent on depicting onstage the horrors of war with the same intensity that the American Civil War was being described in the newspapers of the time. The people in LA FORZA DEL DESTINO are indeed more visible than they ever have been on an opera stage and more present than Verdi was ever to depict them subsequently. But his biggest achievement, perhaps, was to do something that only his colleague Giacomo Meyerbeer had done before him in LES HUGUENOTS and LE PROPHETE: rather than presenting a snapshot of folksy society, he shows us the process by which crowds of people can degenerate under the influence of circumstances – or politics.

Verdi’s innovative use of the chorus is yet more evidence of his talent as a political chronicler holding up a looking glass to his own, interesting times.

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