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Verdi's ballet music

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Anna Kisselgoff, in her review of Peter Martins's "Quartet for Strings," points out that "The Verdi music used by Balanchine in 'Ballo della Regina' and by Robbins in 'The Four Seasons' came from operas." While this is true, my impression is that, for the most part, the music, from "Don Carlo" for "Ballo," and "Vespri Siciliani" (partly) for "Seasons," was written specifically as ballet music and is usually omitted from modern opera productions

During his lifetime, whenever Verdi operas were performed in Paris, he wrote music for the obligatory ballet. According to Charles Osborne's "The Complete Operas of Verdi," the composer considered the custom "an artistic monstrosity." Nevertheless, he wrote some wonderful music, which it took Balanchine and Robbins to vindicate. There's lots more where that came from. It's too bad Martins didn't seek out some if it for NYCB's trip to Parma. The ballet scores for "Macbeth" and "Otello," for example, are almost never heard in the opera house. Of the latter, Osborne writes, "the eighty-one-year-old composer sketched a scenario for the Paris ballet involving Turkish slaves, Venetian lads and lasses and 'beautiful young Greek girls.'" Sounds good to me, but Martins might have had his own ideas.

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I think that when Kisselgoff used the phrase "came from operas" she intended simply to indicate that the music from the Balanchine and Robbins pieces wasn't derived from orchestral or instrumental works. It's a good idea to clarify the distinction as you do, however, since the music from "La Sonnambula," for example, is from the operas of Bellini, but the music was adapted by Rieti from various works and not composed by Bellini for the customary ballet-within-the-opera.

I myself was struck more by the way Kisselgoff used the review as an occasion to reaffirm full-throated support of the Martins regime, not to mention a striking note of defensiveness, e.g., "Mr. Martins must be doing something right." (I'm not saying she's right or wrong -- it just seemed unexpected to find the remarks as prelude to a routine review. Maybe it's just me.)

By Verdi's time, the ballet-within-an-opera custom seems to have degenerated from its respectable state in the Gluck era to an opportunity for male operagoers to ogle the ladies in their scanties. Wagner was practically run out of Paris for refusing to put a ballet into "Tannhäuser," I believe it was, but he stuck to his guns, even it meant no production.

It would indeed be interesting to see someone have a crack at the music from "Otello" or "Macbeth." "Il Trovatore" is another possibility, and I think it's the only time Verdi used themes from the body of the opera for the ballet music.

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