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Verdi for Beginners Playlist

October 10, 2013

Giuseppe Verdi’s operas contradict a lot of the best known “facts” about opera: They’re not generally long (most are about two hours), they usually have a lot of action, and because there are so many male characters, it’s usually not over till the fat guy sings. (Although opera singers in general are a lot slimmer these days than they used to be.)

Verdi wrote 23 operas, of which about 10 are consistently among the most-performed operas every year. So a short playlist like this will hardly do justice to the composer’s achievement. But it will get you started.

  • 1. “Va pensiero,” chorus from Nabucco. Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra.
    This is Italy’s unofficial, second national anthem (seriously). It’s a chorus of ancient Israelites, prisoners of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, longing for their homeland.
  • 2. “Bella figlia dell’ amore” from Rigoletto. Luciano Pavarotti, June Anderson, Leo Nucci; Teatro Communale di Bologna, cond. Riccardo Chailly.
    This quartet is famous for the way Verdi puts four completely different moods together. The Duke is seducing a young lady who answers him with gentle mockery; meanwhile, Gilda, who he’s thrown over is secretly watching, and her melody is filled with sobs and mourning. Meanwhile, her father, Rigoletto, is grim and the music is speech-like.
  • 3. “Sempre libera” from La traviata. Anna Netrebko, soprano.
    Party animal and courtesan Violetta Valery has been impressed by the young Alfredo who ends up serenading her from the street. But that love stuff is crazy, right? “Always free” is her motto.
  • 4. “Dio, che nell’ alma infondere” from Don Carlo. Jussi Bjorling and Robert Merrill.
    Nothing like a good quest to take your mind off a love affair gone wrong — like when your dad marries the woman you love.
  • 5. “Ritorna vincitor!” from Aida. Leontyne Price, soprano.
    A slave, Aida, is in love with Egyptian general Radames, who goes off to conquer her people. Little do they know that she’s actually an Ethiopian princess whose father is king. In this highly dramatic aria, she sings about that conflict and the hopelessness of her position. “Gods, have pity,” she ends up singing.
  • 6. “Libera me, Domine” from the Requiem Mass. Anja Harteros, soprano, orchestra and chorus of the Academy Santa Cecilia, Rome, Antonio Pappano, conductor.
    One of Verdi’s most popular works is actually not an opera, but a religious work. This is the final part: “Liberate me, O Lord.”
  • 7. “Torno all’assalto” from Falstaff
    Verdi’s last opera is so fleet-footed, that it’s lyric moments come and go almost before you’re settled into them. Here the lovers Nannetta and Fenton share a brief moment behind her parents’ backs.
  • 8 and 9. Finale, Act 2, from Falstaff
    The wives have hidden the would-be seducer Falstaff in a laundry basket (where he’s practically suffocating). The men, tipped off by design, are searching for him. Meanwhile Nanetta and Fenton are canoodling behind a screen. The men hear their kiss and think it’s Falstaff. The ladies call the servants and dump the laundry basket and Falstaff into the Thames.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.