Giuseppe Verdi, whose two-hundredth birth anniversary we celebrate this Thursday, is famous as a composer of immortal operas. Also for the bitter battles he waged with censors to get his operas performed.
When most of Verdi’s operas were written, Italy was not yet a nation. Much of northern Italy was occupied by the Austrian Empire. Central Italy, then known as the Papal States, was governed personally by the pope. To the south was the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, ruled by the reactionary Bourbons. The bright spot was the Kingdom of Sardinia, which had a constitution and a parliament and was fairly progressive. Many patriotic Italians, Verdi among them, hoped that Italy would be united under King Victor Emmanuel of Sardinia. Because of that aspiration, Verdi’s very name was politicized. To Italian partisans, it was an acrostic that stood for “Vittorio Emanuele, Re d’Italia” (Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy), and they delighted in tweaking the authorities by shouting “Viva Verdi” on every possible occasion and chalking up the saying on walls.
Small wonder that Verdi had trouble with the censors.
His early opera, Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc), was banned in Rome. Joan had not yet been canonized as a saint, and would not be for another 70 years. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church was touchy about its role in burning the Maid of Orleans as a witch. So Verdi was forced to shift the setting of his opera to the island of Lesbos in Greece, and make the story about a Greek girl named Orietta who leads her people in a struggle for freedom against the Turks. The work premiered in Rome as Orietta di Lesbo, the Catholic Church apparently oblivious to the irony of sanctioning an opera about a heroic Lesbian.
Verdi’s later operatic efforts were similarly meddled with to make them politically correct. In 1850, he gave the world Rigoletto. The opera was based on a novel by Victor Hugo called Le roi s’amuse (The King Amuses Himself). Hugo’s novel recounted the romantic escapades of the randy 16th Century French monarch, Francis I. Verdi’s portrait of Francis was largely accurate and that, according to the censors, was just the problem. In their eyes, it would never do to have a crowned head depicted on stage as a lecher and a cad. So Verdi was forced to move the locale of his opera to the city-state of Mantua in Italy and demote Francis to a duke, although he was able to preserve the essential features of the plot more or less intact.
This was mild interference compared with what the censors demanded a few years later when Verdi composed Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball). Ballo, too, was drawn from history. It was inspired by an actual event, the assassination of King Gustave III of Sweden at a masked ball in 1792. But if the authorities of the day would not permit a crowned head to be depicted as a cad, you can imagine how they reacted to the idea of showing the assassination of a real king on stage. Tsk, tsk! Might give people dangerous revolutionary ideas. So Verdi was forced to assent to the preposterous notion of setting the opera in colonial Massachusetts with Gustave III transformed into the British governor. It’s a wonder that Verdi didn’t seek cultural asylum abroad.
Curiously, the censors completely overlooked what turned out to Verdi’s most potent cry for freedom. In the third act his 1841 opera Nabucco (about King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon), Verdi introduces a moving chorus sung by the Hebrew captives longing for their homeland: Và pensiero – “Fly, thoughts, on golden wings … Oh, my country, so lovely and lost! Oh, remembrance so dear and so fraught with despair.”
For the mass of Italians, oppressed by foreign occupiers or domestic despots, the message was unmistakable. Va pensiero became an unofficial national anthem for all who dreamed of a united Italy.
As often happens when an artist squares off against the censors, the artist has the last word. Rigoletto is still set in Mantua when it is performed today, although occasionally a production returns it to the court of Francis I, and no petty bureaucrat forbids the performance. Giovanna d’Arco and Ballo are almost always performed as Verdi conceived them.
Verdi had an even sweeter revenge against those who tried to shut him up. When he died in 1901, at the ripe age of 88, he specified that there was to be no music at his funeral. Nevertheless, as his coffin was carried through the streets of Milan, the black-clad crowds on the sidewalks burst spontaneously into Và pensiero. Italy had been united; the censors removed; and Verdi’s music swelled free in full-throated glory.